Sydney Observatory 1858 -1926
In 1847 the Colonial Government closed the old Parramatta Observatory and put its instruments into storage. The colony seemed to have sufficient scientific supporters for a new observatory in Sydney but initially the idea floundered. One of the reasons was the scepticism of Colonial authorities and George Biddell Airy, President of the Royal Astronomical Society in England, who were less than enthusiastic. This was all the more surprising given the demonstrable need for accurate timekeeping, tidal monitoring and weather prediction in a city so reliant on the sea.
It was not until the arrival of Sir William Denison as New South Wales's Governor in 1855 that a new observatory became a real possibility. Denison had served as an observer at the Royal Greenwich Observatory and gave the go ahead for establishing an observatory at Sydney. The first astronomer appointed to Sydney's new observatory was Reverend William Scott who arrived in 1856. He supervised the construction of the new building which began in May 1857 and was completed in early 1859 at a cost of £8100.00.
Scott found most of the old Parramatta instruments inadequate, with the exception of the Jones transit circle (the whereabouts of this instrument is no longer known), the Banks equatorial, and an astronomical clock made by Hardy. By 1860 Scott had ordered some new instruments, the biggest of which was a 7 1/4-inch Merz refracting telescope.
In 1864, Scott was replaced by George Roberts Smalley who had been an assistant Astronomer at the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope. Smalley was also a capable mathematician having lectured at Kings College in London. In addition to astronomical work his duties included surveying, time-keeping, meteorology, magnetic observations and tidal studies. Smalley focussed on survey work but unfortunately his health suffered over this period and he died in 1870 aged 48.
Henry Chamberlain Russell was Smalley's replacement and was the first Australian-born Government Astronomer. Under Russell the observatory began to focus on astronomical work and its profile nationally and internationally expanded over the next thirty years.
One of Russell's first projects was to organise the New South Wales contingent of observers for the 1874 Transit of Venus. One of the important considerations for this viewing was the setting up of photographic equipment and this was organised by Russell, although the resulting glass negatives were not as good as were hoped for.
The second major international project Russell was involved in was the project to map the entire heavens using photography. This massive project was estimated to take over 428,000 glass plates to achieve, and involved observatories around the world as well as close involvement with local observatories like the one in Melbourne. To assist in this project a special kind of photographic telescope called an 'astrograph' was ordered for taking pictures of the stars.
By 1892 Russell had a complete 'astrograph' with a set of optics purchased from Howard Grubb of Dublin; the rest of the instrument was made locally in Sydney. Russell designed the mechanical parts and an electrical control to govern the movement of the telescope during exposure of the plates. Two Sydney manufacturers, Morts Dock Engineering Company and Atlas Engineering Company, worked on the mounting. Making telescope lenses was a long and laborious process and while Russell was waiting on the arrival of the Grubb lens he took some photographs using a six inch portrait lens made by J.H. Dallmeyer. These photographs were probably the first star photographs taken in Australia.
In 1905 Russell died and the observatory entered into a more tumultuous period as the funding of the observatory was called into question. Russell's successor was Henry Alfred Lenehan who had been acting as Director since 1903. Lenehan died in 1908 after a series of strokes and he was replaced by William Edward Raymond.
William Ernest Cooke became Government Astronomer in 1912 and worked hard to move the observatory to a new site in Wahroonga and to purchase new instruments. Unfortunately all these plans were thwarted with the outbreak of the First World War and were never subsequently revived. Cooke was forced to retire in 1926.
Sydney Observatory continued to make stellar observations even though the large numbers of electric lights which illuminated the area around the observatory made observations more difficult. It also continued to be involved in both the 'Mapping the Stars' project right through to the 1960s while also providing time services to New South Wales.
Geoff Barker, Assistant Curator, December 2007
Haynes, Raymond, Haynes, Roslynn, Malin, David, McGee, Richard, Explorers of the Southern Sky, Cambridge University Press, 1996
Bhathal, R., Australian Astronomer; John Tebbutt, Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst, NSW, 1993
Scott, W., Astronomical Observations made at the The Sydney Observatory in the Year 1860, Thomas Richard, Government Printer, Sydney, 1861, p.vi
Forwarded to H. M. Secretary of State by Despatch, No. 141, 1847, Federation and Meteorology, http://www.austehc.unimelb.edu.au/fam/1541.html
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