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Poland’s own Greenwich Meridian finally marked

Kraków, the former seat of Polish kings and current cultural capital of Poland has gained a new monument. It may seem inconspicuous given there are very few creative ways by which to mark an imaginary line running north-south.

The line marking the Kraków meridian (19° 57′ 21.43″ E) was unveiled on May 1, near the Old Kraków Observatory at the Śniadecki College. The date was not chosen haphazardly. This year marks 231 years since the observatory was officially opened in 1790, and it had been established thanks to the efforts of Jan Śniadecki, a Polish astronomer, mathematician, and meteorologist, who eventually lent his name to the college belonging to the Jagiellonian University.

The line marking the Kraków Meridian, or “Copernicus Meridian”. Photo: Honorowy Południk Krakowski Facebook page.

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The official ceremony unveiling the marker will take place on May 12.

The meridian runs through Jagiellonian University’s botanical garden, located next to Mikołaja Kopernika Street. Mikołaj Kopernik may be better known on the international stage as Nicolas Copernicus. 2023 is celebrated in Poland as the Year of Nicolas Copernicus, to mark the 550th anniversary of the birth of the famous Polish polymath.

The Kraków Meridian is also known as the “Copernicus Meridian”. But this is not because Copernicus had identified it.

Before it was internationally agreed upon that the meridian running through the grounds of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, London, will be the Prime Meridian, cartographers in various countries had a bit of a leeway with their choice of 0° longitude. The Kraków Meridian has been first mentioned at least as early as 1379.

In his “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”, a book presenting evidence proving that the Sun is the center of the Solar system, Copernicus mentioned the Kraków Meridian four times. In one place directly stated that all his longitudinal calculations were based on that meridian.

The astronomer did not conduct his observations in Kraków but in Frombork in northern Poland. However, he stated in his work that the town is located on the same longitude as the then capital of Poland.

Nowadays we know that it lies some 17 minutes west of Kraków. Considering the instruments Copernicus had access to, it may be a miscalculation. But Copernicus also drew extremely detailed maps of Warmia and Prussia (seriously, was there anything this guy didn’t do?) using Frombork as the reference point.

So Copernicus was a serious Frombork fanboy who wanted to elevate the town, or, more likely, he chose to mention the seat of Polish kings as a place any astronomer would then know of its whereabouts. The likelihood of anyone who was anyone, so Copernicus’ intended audience for his book, would know where Kraków was, was much greater than them knowing a place called Frombork had even existed.

Here’s to the story behind the Kraków Prime Meridian. But Kraków is not just known for its historical monuments, but also for its vibrant nightlife. A couple of pints in the Old Town may make for a great excuse to visit the Kraków Meridian and walk the line that was mentioned in a work by a Polish astronomer who changed our understanding of the universe. Indeed making for a more interesting pub crawl story than your average.

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