JOHN TEBBUTT (1834-1916) : Part 1

John Tebbutt : Pre-eminent Amateur Astronomer

By Andrew James

Recent Update : 17th August 2008


John Tebbutt

John Tebbutt was a famous Australian amateur astronomer who was born on the 25th May 1834 at Windsor, New South Wales — some fifty-five kilometres northwest of Sydney. He began as the placid and humble gentleman farmer with his father, also named John Tebbutt, living on the rich flood plains of the Upper Hawkesbury River. His family had arrived with his grandfather as new Australian settlers from England in 1801. His father upon moving to Windsor immediately started working in his storekeeper business, that he continued to do until about 1843. He soon sold this business and moved onto a property two kilometres east of the township to try his hand at farming on the rich fertile soils of the flood-plain. When the young son John Tebbutt was twenty-three years old, he married a local girl named Jane Pendergast at St. Matthews Church on 8th September 1857. Between them they had seven children; included one son and six daughters.

John Tebbutt continues to remain very familiar to southern amateurs and was genuinely revered by the locals and the broader Australian public during his lifetime. In recent times, Tebbutt was again brought to the attention of the general public with his appearance of his elderly and statesman like face with the background of his observatory being placed on the first minted Australian whitish-coloured $100 note issued between 26th March 1984 and January 1996.

Early Life

Teaching much of his primary school education at the local church school, Mr Edward Quaife, who was reportedly interested in science and astronomy, guided the young Tebbutt to also pursue such endeavours. He was always a devout Christian and studied throughout his life theology, being guided no doubt by the strong Evangelical by Rev. Henry Tarlton Stills (1808-1867) during his schooling between 1845 and 1849. He finished his schooling at the age of fifteen, and then joined his father in farming at the property several kilometres east of Windsor the father had purchased earlier in 1844. The next year his father constructed the original main residential building known as Peninsula House. John inherited this house in 1870 after his fathers death, but did astronomical observations from the property from 1853.

Tebbutt was always fascinated by mechanical things, including steam engines and clocks. He says in his Astronomical Memoirs that his interest in astronomy was the transition between his mechanical inclinations at the young age of eighteen or nineteen :—

It dawned on me that the universe was really a mechanism of the highest order, and being, as I have already said, mechanically inclined, I began to turn my attention to celestial mechanism.

John Tebbutt : Aged 60

From his mid-twenties, Tebbutt began to slowly rise in importance within the general academic astronomical community, whose personal stature was to soon to be considered by many as their equal, and certainly equally as capable as nearly all his fellow Australian and international astronomers of the day. Yet, not everyone was impressed with his quick prominence, and he was targeted by many anonymous and personally by his fellow New South Welshmen, including the overbearing and demanding Henry Chamberlain Russell (1836-1907) in the last two decades of the 19th Century. Much of this was merely professional jealousy, which John Tebbutt handled with his usual stoic politeness. Sometimes he did find it necessary to lashed-out to defend his own position.[1] In most cases, these infrequent outbursts occurred only early in life of Tebbutt, and probably reflect more his inexperience than any malicious intent.

After generally unremarkable scholastic endeavours, Tebbutt was to become amazingly practical, capable and talented with much of his knowledge was mostly self-taught. This included techniques in farming techniques, to learning new languages like German and French, helping him correspond with his European counterparts, while Greek and Latin in his theological studies. This self-teaching also applied especially to astronomy, whose early observational skills were able to extract the most benefit from his meagre equipment. Sometimes his devotion was so passionate, that he even taught himself much of the highly technical subjects in astronomy and its required mathematics and complex calculus.

In 1853, Tebbutt purchased a marine sextant, yet in time as the farming became more profitable, he was able to acquire much larger apertures and better equipment, and used these to their maximum advantage. His dedication to accurate observation was very notable, and this applied across several diverse subject disciplines.

John Tebbutts Telescopic Equipment

So impressed was the N.S.W. Government Astronomer, the Reverend William Scott offered John Tebbutt in 1860 a paid astronomical position at Sydney Observatory, even offering him to become his immediate successor. Scott again tried tempting Tebbutt in 1861, after his Great Comet discovery, but this time with the substantial salary £300. His final vocational offer came in 1862, where Scotts main ‘carrot was the new superior instruments at Sydney Observatory — compared to Tebbutt original instrument of a sextant and small 4.1 cm. marine telescope. Tebbutt, almost acting defiantly, turned this great opportunity down.

John Tebbutt 20cm.

Despite this, his popularity continued to rise between 1854 and about 1862, but jumped significant after the discovery of the Great Comet. Before this, he wrote much about general celestial phenomena, like comets or solar or lunar eclipses, and often published his own observations in the Sydney Morning Herald.

His discovery of the Great Comet of 1861 also enticed him to purchase better equipment to do the observational work, and took advantage of every moment of clear weather to observe. In November 1863, he constructed himself a small wooden observatory, which he described as being the carpenter, bricklayer and slater By early 1864, this housed the first significant upgraded for his 8.2 cm. (3¼−inch) refractor, including six eyepieces of various magnifications. This he used to observe the position of Enckes Comet and Swifts Comet (1862 III) in 1862. Next, he installed the small 5.3 cm. (2−inch) Transit telescope and box chronometer, built especially for him by the Sydney scientific instrument and clock maker, Anglo Tornaghi (1831-1906). This combination became very useful for local timekeeping, and especially in the accurate timings of the lunar occultations of stars. Again, in 1872 he purchased the larger Cooke and Sons 11.4cm. (4½−inch) refractor for £100, and began using it immediately. He added a small filar micrometer in 1879, which enabled him to begin doing measures of celestial objects, including bright double stars like Alpha Centauri and Acrux.

Fourteen years later in 1886, this telescope was replacing with his largest instrument installed at the observatory — the Grubb 20cm. (8−inch) f/14.3 equatorial refractor. This was purchased for the princely sum of £400 from the estate of the Victorian amateur, Dr. William Bone.

Recognition and Accolades

In his life, Tebbutt received many accolades and honours. He was held in high regard throughout England and Europe, and this help to put in place the rise of academic excellence against those with Colonial powers in the distant motherland who, in some ways, often considered Australia as the uncultured backwater because of it penal history and pioneer background. Tebbutt by displaying his passion in advancing astronomy in the international forum, made his local community, and even those to be to be born in New South Wales, fill with pride and much needed self-esteem. The rewards given to him just reinforced this view. For example, at only 28 years old he became a member of the Royal Philosophical Society of N.S.W. in 1862 and gained Fellowship by invitation in the London based Royal Astronomical Society (R.A.S.) in 10th January 1873.

John Tebbutt Note

This general acceptance by academia was extraordinary in those days, bearing in mind that John Tebbutt had no University or similar educational qualifications. Joining the illustrious ranks of the astronomical community, he began publishing prodigiously for the next few decades. His authoritative writing style was both unpretentious and only minimally presented the facts without embellishment. This made his peers sit up and take notice, not because of writing skills but it contained useful data to advance the science. More so, the seemingly humbleness of his own achievements flew in the face of others who were seemingly wanted personal fame or kudos — later only gaining for themselves notoriety and disdain. This is perhaps why the Government astronomer H.C. Russell, as previously mentioned, started with mutual respect. When the rewards started to given too Tebbutt later in his career, the relationship soured and they did not get on very well. This elevation only exacerbated Russell demeanour, often into in open displays of annoyance, probably because Russell had to contend with the demands of producing useful results from the observing programmes and science conducted at Sydney Observatory. Such requirements came from the New South Wales. Government who funded the staff and equipment, and the broader masters of the English astronomical community. John Tebbutt had no such pressures, and as an amateur could do what he wished.

He received the Silver Medal from the Paris World Exhibition (LExposition Universelle) held in Paris between 1st April and 3rd November 1867. This event, although not attended by Tebbutt (who never left Australia during his life), celebrated the applied sciences and scientific progress that had improved the standard of living and modernisation of many nations as achieved by the industrial revolution. Tebbutt was one of about 9,500 other non-French recipients of similar awards, but only Tebbutt and one other lived in Australia. The medal presented to him was for his paper On the Progress and Present State of Astronomical Science in New South Wales, which was written in French and later printed in English in Sydney in 1871. Near the end of his observing career, the Royal Astronomical Society presented Tebbutt in 1905 with the Hannah Jackson (nee Gwilt) Gift, comprising of £200 pounds with a bronze medal. This was specifically presented in acknowledgement of amateur astronomer contributions by astronomical observation.

Probably his most important accolade happened in 1914 with the British Association for the Advancement of Science, who were visiting Australia for a Conference in Sydney. The astronomers in the contingent of this important scientific group especially went to visit John Tebbutt at Windsor by motor car, no doubt to thank him for his many astronomical contributions. Such adoration towards an amateur astronomer is unheard of, even today. More importantly though, it finally gave the credit and respect deserving of one who contributed so much, made even more remarkable by being so isolated from all his international peers. But perhaps his final mark of recognition occurred at the Sydney General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (I.A.U.) in 1973, where it was bestowed the honour of having the lunar crater ‘Tebbutt named after him.

NOTE : Fortunately for us, John Tebbutt published from in Sydney his Astronomical Memoirs in 1908, where his own views on his legacy remain. This work was published at his own expense, and a recent edition was published a decade or so ago. It is good recommended reading, that is, if you can find a copy.

The Passing of John Tebbutt

He died at the age of eighty-two of a short duration cerebral paralysis at Windsor N.S.W. on 29th November 1916 having lived an amazingly fruitful and successful life. Sadly he died during the First World War, and sufficient reflective obituaries did not appear until after 1918. An example, is that presented in Royal Astronomical Society Journal.

It is probably for this reason that his contributions to the science were generally overlooked by biographers and writers in the years that followed. A revival in interest was renewed in Australia during the early 1980s, and investigations into his amazing life and lifetime dedication towards prodigious and often precise astronomical observations. John Tebbutt was buried a self-designed burial vault within the main historic St. Matthews Church of England Cemetery.

His ancestors continue to live at the observatory site in Windsor N.S.W., now turned into a restaurant and interesting historical site. In 1879, he built the brick library building and observatory. This astronomical library was one of the best in the southern hemisphere, where Tebbutt acquired both books and journals from international colleagues and institutions. It also held much of his correspondence and observational records. Added in 1894 was another room to the observatory.


John Tebbutt also strongly encouraged the local amateur astronomical community, especially in the observations of comets. He helped form the British Astronomical Association (N.S.W. Branch) in 1895 and elected as its first President. The branch still existed until September 2004 and became the Sydney City Skywatchers. This group continues to meet at Sydney Observatory each month.

John Tebbutt remains among the greatest observational astronomers in our short Australian history. In his life, he produced more than 370 scientific papers, being 148 in the Astronomische Nachrichten (AN.) and 120 papers in the Monthly Notices of the RAS (MNRAS.). (See References) Many of these were on comets, local eclipses and southern variable and double stars, especially η Carinae, the double star Acrux, and the binary star, Alpha Centauri AB. (cont.)

[1.] See the excellent article on such controversies; Orchiston, W. (1998)


Last Update : 13th November 2012

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