November General Meeting
Speaker Dr Barry Clark on the subject:
Heritage appreciation of the Melbourne Observatory
It is amazing how an old, dry subject like heritage can come alive in the hands of a gifted story teller. On hand of a seemingly endless supply of overhead projector transparencies Dr Barry Clark led us through the history of the Melbourne Observatory (MO): an idea born out of the necessity of isolation, its battle with officialdom for establishment, its people and their innovative approach to some of the scientific problems of the time, its struggle for recognition and the eventual acknowledgement of the MO as the centre of Meteorology, timing and measurement in the Southern Hemisphere. Almost like a forensic archeologist Barry reconstructed the identity of the MO in its heydays, from the personalities associated with it, from the buildings dedicated to specific functions, the novel timing and transmission devices making use of cutting edge technology, to the acquisition of the largest steerable reflective telescope at the time and its gradual, sad decline into impending oblivion.
As Barry rambled through the historic anecdotes of people and events that together constitute the heritage of the site, I became absorbed in the stories and could not keep up with notes, so, much of what follows are extracts taken from Barry’s report on the subject available on the Internet, titled MELBOURNE OBSERVATORY: NEW INVENTORIES OF ASSOCIATED ITEMS, STATUS OF THE SITE, AND PROPOSALS FOR HERITAGE CONSERVATION AND DEVELOPMENT Version 3.3, 10 February 2006 by BARRY A. J. CLARK, PhD.
The Melbourne Observatory was for decades the most southerly observatory in the world. The land it stands on, originally part of Government House Reserve, was permanently reserved for observatory purposes until 1933, and then temporarily reserved until professional astronomy ceased at the site in 1944. Acquisition of the world’s largest equatorial telescope in 1869 marked the observatory’s extraordinary rise to world prominence during the 19th century. The Great Melbourne Telescope (GMT) was the world’s largest fully-steerable telescope from 1869 to 1890 and also the largest and most
expensive item of scientific equipment in Australia. Although the instrument in its original form is generally regarded as a failure in terms of discoveries made with it, it was mechanically a masterpiece of its time. It set the pattern for many larger instruments to follow and was still in use for public viewing right up to the start of WW2..
The heritage richness and importance of the Melbourne Observatory and its forerunner, the Astronomical Observatory at Williamstown, has often been underestimated. For example, Australia’s first telegraph line connected the Melbourne post office with the observatory building at Williamstown in 1854, and was immediately used to drop the time ball at the Melbourne post office synchronously with the Williamstown time ball. The 150th anniversary of the event was celebrated in Williamstown in March 2004. By 1863, when the observatory was shifted from Williamstown to the present Domain site, the telegraph network was already routinely distributing astronomically precise time throughout the colony, which in time lead to the adoption of standard time zones across Australia. Key parts of the observatory equipment used to enable this are still in existence and capable of operation. The 4.5-inch (115-mm) Troughton and Simms equatorial refracting telescope that was delivered to the Astronomical Observatory at Williamstown in 1862, was installed in the domed turret of the MO Main Building in 1863, and became known as the North Equatorial Telescope. Well before it took over all weights and measures work in Victoria after Federation, the observatory was at the forefront in providing electrical and magnetic measurements and standards. Its chronometer service contributed greatly to the safety and reliability of maritime commerce; as did the associated network of hundreds of voluntary weather observers.
Georg Balthasar von Neumayer set up the Flagstaff Observatory in 1858 and was appointed Government Astronomer in 1859. He first arrived in Melbourne in 1852 and the Domain had been Neumayer’s original choice of site before he was allocated the use of Flagstaff Hill, a site from which the time ball at Williamstown could be observed by telescope. Convinced of the importance of meteorology he completed a detailed magnetic survey of Victoria between 1858-1864. Von Neumeyer played a leading role in the early scientific life of Melbourne before returning again to Europe in 1863.
At age 27, Robert Lewis John Ellery was appointed as Victoria’s ‘Superintendent of Astronomy’ in November 1854. Within a few years the position was renamed ‘Government Astronomer’, a position that Ellery held until his retirement in June 1895. He then served as Chairman of the Board of Visitors for several years and remained a member for the rest of his life. During his tenure of office he raised the institution from very humble beginnings to the rank of a ‘First Order’ Observatory.
Stringent financial and staffing constraints caused the long run-down of the Melbourne Observatory and finally led to its closure in 1944-5 and the wholesale dispersal of most of its movable assets. The bulk of the equipment was moved to the Commonwealth Observatory, Canberra. This included the GMT, which was sold as scrap. Various remnant items were transferred to the Museum Victoria or to other local and overseas bodies, in at least one case (the East Transit Circle) becoming a cumbersome unwanted gift. Some items were sold by public tender. The state government ordered that with the sole exception of the South Equatorial Telescope and its accessories, the residual undispersed astronomical equipment had to be smashed beyond usefulness and the photographs, books and papers burnt to ensure disposal as waste. Fortunately, if that is the right word in the context of this cultural and scientific debacle, most of the more important items were elsewhere before the final dumping. Decommissioning of the MO during the war did not abate public interest in visual astronomy, and free public telescope viewings with residual onsite facilities were resumed within a few years by the Museum in cooperation with the Astronomical Society of Victoria. This continued until 1996, when much of the site was closed for refurbishment under the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria.
The MO has had a valuable formative and facilitative influence on the structural, technical and commercial development of Victoria and the nation. There now appears to be a stronger case than ever for the development of the whole site principally or solely as a working astronomical, geodetic, geomagnetic, meteorological, seismological, telegraphic and trade measurement museum, in short, an on-site Melbourne Observatory museum, to conserve and demonstrate the outstanding heritage value of the observatory and its surviving equipment. Setting up the Melbourne Observatory as an on-site working museum, realising the MO’s potential as a cultural and tourist attraction, could justifiably be interpreted in terms of giving something unique, valuable and attractive back to the people of Victoria. In that sense it would help perpetuate the stated ethic of successive Government Astronomers: to give high priority to service for the people of Victoria.
My vote of thanks goes to Barry for a very comprehensive and fascinating appreciation of heritage, and to Jim Pollock for his informative guidance through Spectroscopy.