The history of our institute goes back to early '50s, when the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAS) decided to organize a strong astronomical center accessible to astronomers from all over the country. In April 1953 a Working Group composed of the best Polish astronomers of those days (Wilhelmina Iwanowska, Stefan Piotrowski and Włodzimierz Zonn) was appointed to elaborate a project for the Central Astronomical Observatory (CAO). Site tests ended in 1955, and on Oct. 16th, 1956 PAS called the new institute officially into being under the name "Institute of Astronomy of the Polish Academy of Sciences". It was assumed that CAO would become operational in 1973 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Copernicus birth. Far reaching projects were developed, according to which CAO would quickly grow to eventually employ about 100 people. However, because of reasons that still remain obscure, the communist administration decided to withdraw from the project, and the funds for CAO never materialized.
At the beginning of 1970, a group of astronomers frustrated by abundant problems of the CAO case put forward an entirely new initiative. On March 2nd, at an assembly of the Astronomical Committee of the PAS, Drs. Bohdan Paczyński and Józef Smak presented a project for a theoretical astrophysics institute equipped with a fast computer instead of a telescope. It was proposed that the institute would maintain its own hotel for visitors, and that it would manage funds to support graduate students as well as to provide research fellowships for senior scientists. In short, the idea of the present Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomical Center was born.
It is very likely that the Center would have shared the fate of the CAO if it had not been for an initiative simultaneously and independently undertaken in U.S. In 1970 the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) set up a special committee for the celebration of Copernicus Quinquecentennial. In May 1971 the committee sent to Poland its envoy, Dr. Charles R. O'Dell from Yerkes Observatory. During his talks with the President of PAS and representatives of the Polish astronomical community a more precise idea of the Center emerged. The idea was very well received by the NAS, and soon it was found that U.S. could easily provide a substantial financial support for the construction of the Center. At that time Poland held approximately $350 mil. worth of Polish zlotys in U.S. owned funds. These were known as "wheat money" because they accumulated as the result of U.S. agricultural sales to Poland after World War II, or as "funny money" because zlotys could not be converted in any "hard" Western currency, and thus they could not be counted in the domestic federal budget. In short, if the Center were erected for "wheat money" a part of the Polish "wheat debt" would be cancelled at no costs in dollars to U.S. government.
In May 1972 Professors Philip Handler, President of the National Academy of Sciences and Jan Kaczmarek, Scientific Secretary of the Polish Academy of Sciences, signed in Warsaw a Protocol in which NAS declared its intent to seek funds in the U.S. for the construction of the Center, and PAS accepted this offer. On October 2nd 1972 Professor Kaczmarek on behalf of the Polish Academy of Sciences submitted a proposal to the National Science Foundation for the construction of the Copernicus Astronomical Center in Warsaw. The grant was awarded on Feb. 6th, 1973, for the total amount of 30.7 mil. of Polish zlotys, equivalent to $1.6 mil. The cornerstone laying ceremony took place on Sep. 19th of the same year, shortly after the Special Assembly of the IAU commemorating the Copernicus Quinquecentennial.
Unfortunately, "wheat money" could not buy a computer, for which a real hard currency was needed. To raise the funds, a Copernicus Quinquecentennial Dinner was organized at Waldorf Astoria Hotel under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, following the initiative of Dr. O'Dell and Mr. Albert M. Baer. The dinner was highly successful, bringing a total of over a hundred thirty thousands of real dollars. Negotiations with computer manufacturers began, and out of several possibilities a PDP 11/45 machine was eventually selected, configured with 48 k of 16-bit words RAM, two disk drives 2.4 Mb each, and magnetic tape drive (9 tracks, 800 bpi). Two card punchers, card reader, and mosaic printer served as input and output devices. Small and primitive from today's perspective, in mid-'70s it was a really powerful machine.
On Feb. 11th, 1976 the Institute of Astronomy was officially renamed Nicolaus Copernicus Astronomical Center (NCAC). The new building of the Center was commisioned on May 24th, 1978. Next year, in recogintion of its scientific potential, NCAC was licensed to award Ph.D. degrees (before, one of the Polish universities had to be involved). Unfortunately, Polish economy was already collapsing to break down entirely in 1980. The country became not only poor but also insecure. Many bright Polish astronomers took temporary positions abroad simply to earn subsistence for their families. When at the end of 1981 martial law was declared in Poland to quench the Solidarity movement, some of them chose permanent emigration, including four first-rank NCAC employees. On the one hand, this was a severe blow for the Center. On the other hand, their presence abroad soon turned out to be a blessing: they were providing journals for the library, spare parts for the aging PDP computer, and money for postdocs and short-term visitors from Poland. Times were really hard. Some NCAC scientists were jailed, and the right to travel abroad was severely restricted for the rest as a punishment for their pro-Solidarity activities. The general feeling of terror and helplessnes was so strong that research (or any other systematic and creative mental activity) was hardly possible. Only in 1989 did Poland become a democratic country, and all bans and restrictions were ultimately lifted. Polish astronomy and NCAC with it were given an opportunity to expand like never before.
1950 - powstaje idea utworzenia w Polsce silnego ośrodka astronomicznego.
1956 - utworzono Zakład Astronomii PAN (ZA PAN).
1962 - w Obserwatorium Astronomicznym Uniwersytetu Mikołaja Kopernika w Piwnicach pod Toruniem oddano do użytku kamerę Schmidta.
1970 - powstaje projekt utworzenia instytutu, który prowadziłby badania teoretyczne w zakresie astrofizyki.
1972 - podpisanie umowy zobowiązującej PAN do budowy instytutu ze środków National Academy of Sciences.
1973 - wmurowanie kamienia węgielnego pod budowę Centrum Astronomicznego im. M. Kopernika PAN w Warszawie.
1975 - do Warszawy dociera komputer PDP 11/45, mający stanowić wyposażenie Centrum.
1979 - Centrum otrzymuje prawo nadawania tytułu doktora.
1996 - Instytut kończy "czterdziestkę".
Józef Witkowski, prof. dr hab.
(1892-1976), dyrektor w latach 1956-1965
Stefan Piotrowski, prof. dr
(1910-1985), dyrektor w latach 1965-1973
Bohdan Paczyński, doc. dr hab.
(1940-2007), dyrektor w latach 1974-1975
Józef I. Smak, prof. dr hab.
(1936-), dyrektor w latach 1975-1981
Jerzy Stodółkiewicz, doc. dr hab.
(1933-1988), dyrektor w latach 1981-1987
Wojciech Dziembowski, prof. dr hab.
(1940-), dyrektor w latach 1987-1992
Marek Demiański, prof. dr hab.
(1939-), dyrektor w latach 1992-1995
Józef I. Smak, prof. dr hab.
(1936-), dyrektor w latach 1995-1998
Marek Sarna, prof. dr hab.
(1955-), dyrektor w latach 1998-2014
Piotr Życki, prof. dr hab.
(1965-), dyrektor od 2014r.