Sydney Observatory Papers No.31

Part 2



The two decades at the middle of the nineteenth century were important ones in Australian history. By this time there was here a majority of people, who spent a major portion, often all, of their lives in Australia, who looked on Australia as home and were anxious to see their country grow an independence with their own sons given opportunity for education, leadership and culture. The abolition of convictism in the years following the order in council by the Imperial Government in 1840, and the various movements toward self-government, from the Act for the [pg. 5] Government of N.S.W. and van Diemens Land in 1842 to the establishment of responsible government by the Act of 1855, were all results of this urge to establish an Australian community which could stand on its own feet. In these years, too, founded institutions for the encouragement of learning and, in particular, science. The Bill to incorporate and endow the University of Sydney was passed in 1850, and the University received its first students in 1852. The Philosophical Society of N.S.W., to become the Royal Society of N.S.W. in 1866, was established in 1855. In Victoria, in the same period, were founded the University of Melbourne (1853) and Williamstown Observatory (1853). In this environment there took place the discussion which led to the founding of Sydney Observatory.

The need for sufficient astronomical facilities to establish at least a time service was recognised even while the affairs of Parramatta Observatory were being wound up. On 1848, April 14, Grey wrote to Fitzroy, authorising him to make over the transit instrument to the Government provided they (were) willing to make arrangements for the construction and maintenance of a time ball establishment and so the new Observatory was to spring from the ashes of the old.

There was much discussion on the establishment of a time ball and several sites were suggested for it. The important criterion for the choice was that the time ball should be visible from ships in the Harbour and the present site appears to have been first intentioned in a letter from the Port Master to the Colonial Secretary on 1849, June 29. The view that the establishment should be something more than the minimum required for a time service was strongly urged by King, who wrote on 1850, September 13, enclosing a resolution passed at the Astronomical Society, to which I invite your attention on the hope that the Colonial Government will at no distant time, propose the establishment of an Observatory at the cost of the Colony. His opinion was given much respected when he was consulted during further discussion he wrote to the Colonial Secretary on 1851, September 26, in attention to your request to be furnished with a plan of a building for the Time Ball I have the honour enclose one of an economical character but quite sufficient for the purpose. The plan was merely of a room for a transit instrument and a computing room but he said should the re-establishment of the Observatory, be contemplated the Government at any future time a small addition at each end of the proposed building would be necessary, one or both of which should have a revolving dome or roof for the purpose of mounting a telescope.....or extra meridianal observations..... I know of no place so suitable for the position of the building as the ground about Fort Phillip because it is visible from all parts of the harbour and city.

Kings letter and plan were sent (1852, May 22) by Colonial Secretary, E. Deas Thomson, to the Colonial Architect, Edmund T. Blackett who was the designer of several of Sydneys best known buildings, asking him toprepare estimates of the expense of erecting a building according to that plan, with the additional rooms, or dwelling for the Meteorological Observer who will probably be placed in charge of the time ball.... bearing in mind the suggestion.... respecting the ultimate re-establishment of an Observatory..... The site proposedfor the time ball is Fort Phillip but is not intended that it should interfere with the present appropriation of that place as a post of defence.

Later, 1852, October 28, the Colonial Architect was told that funds had been voted for the purpose. He estimated that the cost would be about £150 for a time balland the Colonial Agent General in London was asked to procure under advice of the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich the machinery for a time ball and to forward same to the Colony. On September 14 the Colonial Secretary wrote again to the [pg.6] Colonial Architect to furnish..... a plan and estimate for the Time Ball building be established at Fort Phillip. Blackett consulted King, writing, to him on December 14 enclosing a rough sketch for a Time Ball building. The observing and computing rooms were based on Kings plan. King replied promptly on December 17 discussing the plan and suggesting the addition of a small room.... with a revolving dome for an equatorial. and again on December 28 enclosing plans of an Observatory with a dome, transit room, computing space and living quarters This sketch was a basis of the plan according to which the Observatory was eventually built although its architectural detail is quite different. On 1854, February 24, the Colonial Architect was informed that £3,400 would be allotted for a time ball tower and observers dwelling proposed to be erected on vacant land near Port Phillip.

Sir William Denison, who succeeded Fitzroy as Governor General in January, 1853, took a keen interest in the establishment of the new institution and it was he who saw the decision through the Executive Council in a form which meant that activities would extend beyond work connected the time ball. In his carefully prepared recommendation (1855, March 31) he said, There are many circumstances which would, in my opinion make it advisable to re-establish the Observatory.... In the first place provision has already been made for the erection of a building to contain the machinery of a time ball and for the purchase of the machinery but the time ball will, in point of fact, be worse than useless unless there are means for determining the time correctly — that is, unless there are proper clocks and proper instruments for determining the time; and these instruments are in the hands of an observer responsible to the Government for their proper application....

In the second place, I am anxious for the establishment of an Observatory in the immediate vicinity of Sydney, as affording to all persons, and especially those educated at the University, a practical example of the application of science to the determination of matters altogether beyond the scope of our ordinary uneducated reason. The student sees in the results decided from observation the application of those truths or principles which have been put before him at school in an abstract form....

In the third place, I am desirous to establish an Observatory for the purpose of connecting it with the trigonometrical survey of the country and thus, by means of the Perfect and absolute determination of the position on the earths surface of one point, to be enabled to lay down with perfect accuracy, the whole of the remainder of the country, not merely with relation to that spot, but with relation to the remainder of the earths surface.

In the fourth place., I am anxious for the establishment of an Observatory as a means of connecting, this colony with the scientific societies of Europe and America....

The recommendation was approved on the 4th April and Denison himself drew up outline specifications for the Observatory which were sent to the Colonial Architect for estimates to be prepared. The Architect was also asked to have the books belonging to the Observatory moved from Ordinance Stores to Government House, to obtain estimates of the cost of a dozen sets of meteorological instruments and of repairing the instruments already the possession of the Government and was recommended to approach for advice Captain King R.N., who has on many occasions been kind enough to afford the Government useful information on such matters The Architect, William Weaver, found King had already had the instruments examined and repaired and he was able to submit plans for the building [pg. Four Pages of Images] [pg.8] on August 17. These plans were approved to be referred later to the new Colonial Architect, Alexander Dawson. The machinery for the time ball arrived in Sydney and the whole matter of the building was left in abeyance pending the arrival of the astronomer. A provision of £.7,000, to be raised by loan, was made for the work.


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