This month in Sydney is a good time to look to the stars – not only are we all in Covid inspired isolation, with associated clearer and darker skies, but the planets Jupiter and Saturn are in prime viewing positions. Looking at the stars might seem like a thing few people do anymore, but In Sydney it has had a long, long history.
Aboriginal people have looked to the heavens for millennia, developing a deep understanding of the night sky, its seasonal changes and the limitless possibility for myth and storytelling it provides.
When the First Fleet arrived in 1788, they too looked to the night sky.
William Dawes, an officer in the Marines had been appointed as the representative of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich to undertake observations of the southern skies in the ongoing study of longitude and navigation.
He came with instruments and established a small observatory on land at the far end of the western arm of Sydney Cove.
Known as Tara by the Gadigal people, Dawes renamed it Point Maskelyne after the Astronomer Royal, but like so many other spots in colonial Sydney, it took on the name of its best known resident and became known as Dawes Point. In 1791 Dawes was sent back to England and his observatory was dismantled.
Our second observatory was established at Parramatta in 1821.
This was, initially, the private observatory of Governor Sir Thomas Brisbane. The work here was undertaken by a German mathematician Carl Rümker. Brisbane’s observatory and its instruments were purchased by the colonial government in 1825 after Brisbane had returned to England and Rümker appointed the first Government Astronomer in 1827. By 1847 however this observatory was in a poor state and closed down.
In the late 1840s, Sydney was beginning to undergo a scientific awakening. The convict system had just ended and a growing interest in the colonial future included better education and scientific endeavour. A new observatory was proposed almost as soon as the old one closed, but this time it was to once again be located in the city centre.
The site for this new observatory was chosen for its position. Previously known as Windmill or Flagstaff Hill, at 40m above sea level it was the highest point in the city, giving it a commanding view of the sky, and allowed others to see it.
This was important because the purpose of the observatory was not only to see the stars. but to take the time.
A tower with time ball on top was erected by 1858, with an accompanying transit telescope that watched the sun in the day and stars at night.
By doing this, an accurate time could be measured and with this reading, the time ball could be dropped at an exact moment. This in turn allowed ships’ captains around the harbour to set their chronometers on-board ship, vital for accurate navigation. This also became essential information later for train timetables.
In a small oversight, when the tower was built, it was higher than agreed, thus blocking the view to the eastern horizon where the stars would rise. A second dome was built in the 1870s, two decades later, to house a new telescope to overcome this.
Henry Chamberlain Russell, the Government Astronomer from 1870 until 1905, was particularly interested in meteorology as well as the stars, and he recruited and trained people across New South Wales and beyond to take accurate weather recordings. In 1877 he was able, for the first time in Australia, to publish a weather map in the Sydney Morning Herald.
The Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences Sydney Observatory site here has their August 2020 Southern Sky Guide so you can do a litte stargazing of your own. And the Australian Indigenous Astronomy site here has lots to explore too.
Dr Mark Dunn is the author of ‘The Convict Valley: the bloody struggle on Australia’s early frontier’ (2020), the former Chair of the NSW Professional Historians Association and former Deputy Chair of the Heritage Council of NSW. He is currently a Visiting Scholar at the State Library of NSW. You can read more of his work on the Dictionary of Sydney here and follow him on Twitter @markdhistory here. Mark appears on 2SER on behalf of the Dictionary of Sydney in a voluntary capacity. Thanks Mark!