Euler’s Journey to Saint Petersburg

It all began with an invitation to Leonhard Euler to accept a chair of mathematics at the new Imperial Academy of Science in the city founded by Peter the Great. Euler’s journey from Basel to Saint Petersburg was a highly influential factor for the development of the mathematical sciences. The journey is described in detail in a full-length biography of Euler by Ronald Calinger (2016). The account below is heavily dependent on Calinger’s book.

Drawing based on a map of Europe from about 1740 (from Calinger, 2016, pg. 39). Euler’s route from Basel to Saint Petersburg is marked by the heavy dashed line.

The Journey from Basel to St Petersburg

A flight from Basel in Switzerland to Saint Petersburg takes about two hours, and normally involves no discomfort. When Leonhard Euler undertook the journey from Basel to the new Russian capitol, almost 300 years ago, travelling conditions were dramatically different. Euler left his native city on 5 April 1727, boarding a boat to voyage down the Rhine. His twentieth birthday was still ten days away and, in his long life, he would never return to Switzerland. However, he was to maintain lifelong contacts with his city of origin via correspondence, and he employed staff from Basel to help run his household in Saint Petersburg.

Euler’s journey to Saint Petersburg took some seven weeks. The boat took him down the Rhine to Mainz, from where he took a stage coach via Kassel to Frankfurt. On 11 April, he continued from Frankfurt to Friedburg, Butzbach and Marburg. There he met with the eminent German philosopher Christian Wolff. Wolff had helped Peter the Great to establish the Imperial Academy of Sciences in Saint Petersburg, and was responsible for recruiting the majority of the original academy members.

Having met Wolff, Euler continued his journey, through Hannover, to Hamburg, where an agent of the new academy provided him with one hundred roubles to cover his travel expenses. From there he travelled, across the narrow isthmus of Schleswig-Holstein, to the Hanseatic port city of Lübeck.

Euler then boarded a ship bound for Rostock, encountering very rough sea conditions in which all the passengers suffered seasickness. He continued by sea to Reval, now the Estonian capitol Tallinn.  Thence, he sailed to Kotlin Island, in the Gulf of Finland, where stood the fortified city of Kronstadt, captured in 1710 from the Swedes by Peter I. A ferry then took him to the mainland and he walked the final stretch to Saint Petersburg, arriving on 24 May, some fifty days after his departure from Basel.

Euler, born in 1707, spent 14 years, from 1727 to 1741, in Saint Petersburg. As conditions there deteriorated, he moved to Berlin, where he remained for 25 years before returning to Russia. He lived in Saint Petersburg for the remaining 17 years until his death, aged 76, in 1783.

What did Euler carry with him?

Euler was the most brilliant pupil of Johann Bernoulli. In 1725, Johann’s son Daniel, who was just seven year older than Euler, took up a chair of mathematics in Saint Petersburg. His father Johann had declined the position because of his age but had persuaded Christian Wolff to offer it to his son Daniel. When Euler was unsuccessful in obtaining a suitable job in Basel, Johann arranged for him to go to Saint Petersburg to work with Daniel. They collaborated very well for six years. However, despite the great opportunity of working with Euler, Daniel was not happy in Saint Petersburg, and he returned to Basel in 1733.

Calinger (2016) lists the formidable cargo transported on his 2500 km journey by Euler. In addition to various personal items, Euler carried an eclectic range of items that Daniel Bernoulli had requested:

  • Fifteen pounds of coffee.
  • One pound of the best green tea.
  • A half dozen bottles of good Danzig brandy.
  • Twelve dozen fine tobacco pipes.
  • Several dozen packs of playing cards.

The number of pipes suggests that Bernoulli was a heavy smoker. This was a habit that Euler himself was later to develop. It is not clear whether Euler had any companions on his voyage, but Calinger suggests that he may have been accompanied by the Basel mechanist and geographer, Isaac Bruckner.

Great circle route from Basel to Saint Petersburg.

The great circle distance from Basel to Saint Petersburg is just over 2000 km. If you scout around, you can find a budget flight for about €160. According to the inflation calculator at the Bank of England, this equates to 70¢ two centuries ago. Of course, the price of a budget flight in 1727, when Euler was undertaking his voyage, has no meaning.

Sources

Calinger, Ronald S., 2016: Leonhard Euler: Mathematical Genius in the Enlightenment. Princeton Univ. Press, 690pp. ISBN: 978-0-6911-1927-4.


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