Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Under the Southern Skies - A Rich History of Astronomy in the Colony of New South Wales

Under our clear southern skies, there is a rich history of observing the stars in the Colony of New South Wales: 

Dawes Point Observatory - 1788

At the time of the arrival of the First Fleet in Sydney Cove in 1788, astronomical observations were vital to navigation and meteorology. 

No time was lost in giving Lieutenant William Dawes the task of setting up the Colony's first observatory. He did this In April 1788, on the site of what is today Dawes Point, under the southern pylon of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The point was named Point Maskelyne after the Astronomer Royal who had supplied Dawes with books and instruments to carry out his work.

Site of William Dawes' Observatory at Dawes Point, Sydney
[photo taken September 2012]
Extract from signage at Dawes Point
showing Dawes' correspondence during the
establishment of the Observatory.
[photo taken September 2012]
Dawes lived on site at the observatory, and it was here that he befriended the Cadigal woman, Patyegarang, and recorded the local aboriginal language.

 After Dawes left Australia in 1791 the Observatory fell into disuse.

Parramatta Observatory - 1822

It was not until the appointment of Thomas Makdougall Brisbane as Governor New South Wales in November 1821, that Sydney was to get its next observatory.

Brisbane was a keen astronomer and privately built an observatory in Parramatta Park, next to Government House.*  It was completed in March 1822. He employed two astronomers, Carl Rumker and James Dunlop who did some very active work.

Obelisk in Parramatta Park marking the founding
  of Governor Brisbane's Observatory on 2 May 1822.
[photo taken February 2013]

Wording on obelisk
[photo taken February 2013]

Signage giving information on the Observatory
[photo taken February 2013]

Signage showing plan and elevation of the Observatory c 1822
[photo taken February 2013]

When Governor Brisbane left the Colony in December 1825, he sold his instruments and books to the Government which then took over the control of the Observatory.

Carl Rumker was appointed as New South Wales' first Government Astronomer (1827-1830). James Dunlop succeeded him in 1831, holding the position until 1846. By this time activity had declined and the Observatory was in a state of disrepair.

The building was demolished in 1847 except for two stones which still stand in Parramatta Park. The instruments were put into storage for use in a future facility.

Remains of the original transit circle telescope stones used inside the observatory domes.
.Parramatta Park - February 2013
[ Conservation in progress]
Sydney Observatory 1858

Plans were then made for a time ball observatory in Sydney. However, Governor General Sir William Denison who arrived in New South Wales in January 1855, saw an observatory as an important addition to the Colony. He commissioned  the Colonial Architect, Alexander Dawson to draw up plans for a completely new observatory at 'Observatory Hill' at Millers Point.

Completed in 1858, the Sydney Observatory is an impressive sandstone building in Italianate style. At that time, it comprised a four-storey tower for the time ball, a dome to house an equatorial telescope, a room with long narrow windows for a transit telescope, an office and a residence for the astronomer. A western wing was added in 1877 with office and library space and a second dome for another telescope**.

Facade of Sydney Observatory
[Photo taken June 2011]

View of Observatory looking south, showing time ball tower.
[Photo taken June 2011]
Telescopic dome, Sydney Observatory
[Photo taken June 2011]

Initially the main function of the  Sydney Observatory was time-keeping with the installation of the time ball. This is still raised today to the top of its post and dropped exactly at 1.00pm.

With the appointment of Henry Chamberlain Russell as Government Astronomer (1870-1905), the Sydney Observatory gained international recognition. Russell was a competent administrator and scientist. Initially he made use of some of the instruments from Parramatta but was successful in gaining funding for further instrumentation including a new Schroeder telescope to be housed in an enlarged Muntz metal dome. He introduced weather maps in daily newspapers in 1877.

His most significant project was the commitment of the Observatory to theAstrographic Catalogue, a project of the 1887 Congress of International Astronomers  to photomap the night skies of the Southern Hemisphere. 

With the brief to map the stars of the Sydney sky, this project would take up the  resources of the Observatory for some eighty years till the 1960's and subsequent publication in 1971.

Pennant Hills Observatory - 1898

Site of Observatory Park, Pennant Hills
[Photo taken February 2013]
One requirement for the Astrographic Catalogue was a clear sky away from the interference city lights. Henry Russell was successful in moving the astrographic telescope for the project to a site, known as Red Hill on the corner of Pennant Hills and Beecroft Roads at Pennant Hills. 

Construction of an Observatory on the site was completed in 1898. It was operated for 32 years by James Short, an astronomical photographer.

Photo showing Pennant hills Observatory circa 1890
[Source: TROVE - Powehouse Museum Collection]
In 1931, the impending retirement of James Short and lack of funding during the Depression years saw the closing of the facility and relocation of the telescope back to the Sydney Observatory.

Much good work had been accomplished at Red Hill.  A memorial has been erected indicating where the telescope stood.

Memorial at Observatory Park, Pennant Hills
[Photo taken February 2013]

Wording on memorial plaque
[Photo taken February 2013]

The Sydney Observatory isheritage listed on the NSW State Heritage Register.

It remained in continuous use as an Observatory until 1982, when it was was passed to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, now the Powerhouse  Museum. 

Today the Observatory is maintained as a museum and public observatory with an important role in astronomy education and public telescope viewing.

Some of the more interesting exhibits include the Parramatta Observatory's original collection of instruments which is largely intact.

*History Services NSW in its Convict Database as a record of one, Daniel Jackson ( per 
Somersetshire, arriving at Port Jackson on 16 October 1814) as having been employed in 1824 as a "Stonemason at the Observatory at Government House and when that work was completed he had the Governor's permission to be exempt from Government duty and to work for himself."

If you would like further information on Daniel Jackson, or if you are researching a convict ancestor go to our website at :

**Historyy Services NSW in its Government Contract and Contractors Database has seventeen records of government contracts being awarded for work on the Sydney Observatory during the period 1862 to 1900 including:

  • 1868 to David Jones & Company - for carpets and blinds for Sydney Observatory;
  • 1874 to T.R.Robinson - for supply and erection of Muntz Metal Dome for Equatorial  Tower, Sydney Observatory;
  • 1877 to Goddard & Pitman - for additions to Sydney Observatory;
  • 1880 to Stewart & Smith - for additions to residence at Sydney Observatory;
  • 1896 to Shuker & Males - for building fireplaces, repairs,  Messenger Quarters, Sydney Observatory;
If you would like further information, go to our website at:

Blog prepared by Mary McGuinness - January 2014

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