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VEGA, Jurij

* 23. 3. 1754, Zagorica near Ljubljana, Slovenia
† between 17. and 26.09.1802, Nussdorf near Vienna, Austria

mathematician, pioneer in ballistic science

V. spent his early years working on a farm. Fortunately he had the chance to be educated at a nearby priest's house and continue his schooling at the Jesuit school in Ljubljana, where he was a distinquished student. Upon the abolishment of the Jesuit order in 1773, he attended the lyceum and graduated in 1775. For the next five years he worked as a navigational engineer, in all probability working on the regulation of Carniolan rivers for navigation, and possibly on the construction of the Gruber relief canal near the Ljubljanica River.
In 1780 he left the profession and signed on as an artilleryman in Vienna. By 1781 he was promoted to lieutenant, in 1784 to first lieutenant, in 1787 to captain, 1793 to major and 1802 to lieutenant colonel. In peacetime he was in charge of training artillerymen; at first he was a mathematics teacher at the artillery school (1781-86) and later, professor of mathematics at the elite Bombardier College (1786-1802).
In wartime he was in command of mortar batteries; between 1789-92 he served as a captain in a campaign against the Turks in Belgrade and the Prussians in Moravia. Between 1793-97 he fought as a major in a European coalition against the French Revolutionaries on the Rhine. He was distinguished by courage and as an artillery officer – in particular as a specialist in mortars – by an excellent knowledge of ballistics and technology.
In order to facilitate and improve the training of artillerymen he wrote a textbook Vorlesun¬gen ueber die Mathematik in four volumes. Although the textbook – which included extensive chapters on geodesy and cartography, ballistics, meteorology, theory on cogwheel transmission systems etc. – was aimed at the artillery, it was used at other schools and the individual books were continually reprinted until the mid-19th century.
In making calculations, his students lacked accurate logarithm tables. Between 1783-97 V. published a series of books of logarithm tables adapted for use in schools, everyday life, as well as for scientific purposes and in various fields of technology and natural sciences. His logarithms were used until the mass introduction of pocket calculators in the mid-20th century. The last recorded issue of his most complete logarithmic tables with 10 decimal places - Thesaurus logarithmorum completus - was a reprinting in 1962.
V's scientific work encompasses several treaties that supported the application of his logarithms, as well as papers on ballistics and contributions to topical scientific discussions. The firing range of mortars he constructed in 1795 was nearly twice as long as that of the standard artillery ranges. He applied his theory of gear systems to the improvement of pendulum clocks and achieved an accuracy to rival the best chronometers of the time. By using his cogwheel transmission system he allegedly invented the idea of calculating machines.
In the last years of his life, he used all his authority to advocate the introduction of the decimal metric system, which was only finally adopted in Austria in 1876.
Due to his achievements in mathematics, V. became a member of scientific associations in Göttingen, Mainz, Erfurt, Prague, Berlin, collaborated with the academies in St. Petersburg, Budapest and Paris, and was appointed a member of the Carniolan Estates in 1801. His military merits and accomplishments won him the Knight’s Order of Maria Theresa in 1796 and the title of Baron in 1800. Contrary to his professional success, V’s personal life was tragic (the early death of his wife and daughter and neither sons surviving their father by many years) and he also had a number of opponents within his social circles which were allegedly also involved in his death. V. mysteriously disappeared on 17th September 1802, and his body showing signs of violence, was only found on 26th September in the river Danube.

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