Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Melbourne Observatory Celebrates 150th Anniversary

The Melbourne Observatory celebrates its 150th anniversary this month with a weekend of activities on 23 and 24 November.

Stargazers and history lovers are in for a treat this November when the Melbourne Observatory celebrates its 150th anniversary with a weekend of activities on 23 and 24 November.

A special, colourful historic re-enactment of the opening of the Melbourne Observatory in
1863 will open the weekend’s festivities.

Dressed in period costume, the re-enactment will include the original speeches from the
opening with appearances by the Governor of the day Sir Henry Barkly, Director of the
Gardens Ferdinand von Mueller, and the Government Astronomer Robert Ellery.

Professor Tim Entwisle, Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne, said: “The
celebration will be a fitting tribute to a scientific institution that played a crucial role in
Victoria’s development”.

“With roving performers, kids’ activities, guided tours, and lots of telescopes to try out, it’ll be
a great day out for the whole family”.

Today the Melbourne Observatory is best known for its distinctive shaped buildings and the
popular stargazing tours. What is less well known was its importance to the rapidly growing
city of Melbourne in the nineteenth century.

Telling the time accurately was a major challenge for Melburnians 150 years ago. The
Melbourne Observatory was able to provide the time for a clock in Bourke Street as well as
the clocks at Flinders and Spencer Street railway stations.

Weather forecasting, surveying, positional astronomy, star mapping, weights and measures
standards, astrophysics and geophysics were all tasks performed by the Melbourne
Observatory.

From 1891 a number of southern hemisphere observatories, including Melbourne, undertook
the massive task of photographing and mapping the world’s southern skies for the first time.

The anniversary celebrations start from 4pm on Saturday 23 November and include:

  • Free guided tours of the Melbourne Observatory with the Astronomical Society of
    Victoria (ASV)
  • Viewing of the Sun and Alpha Centauri from a range of available telescopes, both new and historical
  • Children’s activities
  • Roving entertainers
  • Music performances

On Sunday 24 November the ASV will host a ticketed seminar on Australian Colonial
Astronomy focusing on science, astronomy, the role of women in science, and the
significance of the Melbourne Observatory. Visit asv.org.au to register.

All activities are free except for the seminar on Australian Colonial Astronomy.

Program details are available at rbg.vic.gov.au or call the Visitor Centre on (03) 9252 2429 for
more information. Bookings are required for all tours.

Melbourne Observatory... a brief history

“The stars are the landmarks of our universe”
Robert Ellery, Melbourne’s first Government Astronomer, 1870

Construction of the Melbourne Observatory commenced in 1861 as a replacement for the Williamstown Observatory. In 1863, under the guiding hand of the Government Astronomer Robert Ellery (1827 – 1908), the Observatory performed a wide range of functions for the rapidly growing city of Melbourne.

Far from mere star gazing, the Observatory staff provided critical scientific data which was essential for the smooth running of industries ranging from shipping to farming, from city business to politics.

Before the development of accurate timepieces, the now simple task of telling the time was an endless challenge for early Melburnians. By the 1870s Ellery and his staff had relieved this problem. The intricate timing instruments of the Observatory, kept accurate by daily calibration with the stars, were connected by telegraphic wire with the clock displayed in Bourke Street. Within a few years similar systems controlled railway station clocks at Spencer and Flinders Street and the Post Office.

The Observatory provided meteorological data, essential for predicting weather patterns in rural Victoria. Even Melbourne’s location was not finally determined until measures taken at the Observatory – together with those of Observatories in other major Australian cities – produced accurate longitudinal data for the continent.

The Observatory was also involved in activities including surveying, positional astronomy and star mapping, astrophysics, and geophysics. From 1891, Melbourne joined other observatories including Sydney and Perth to undertake the massive task of photographing and mapping the world’s Southern skies for the first time.

In 1869, the largest fully-steerable telescope in the world was installed at the Observatory. Known as the Great Melbourne Telescope, the device boasted a reflector of 48 inches and, it was hoped, would provide a wide new window into worlds beyond the skies.

In an ironic twist replayed over a century later by the Hubble Telescope, the Telescope’s mirror proved too difficult and costly to provide the accuracy of image required, and by 1890 the Great Melbourne Telescope had fallen into disuse and was ultimately removed from the site. The building specially constructed to house the massive device still stands, and will form part of the final stage of the Observatory redevelopment.

Since losing their main function, the Italianate buildings have housed a variety of Government departments and instrumentalities, including Weights and Measures which closed in 1995 following the official handing over in 1992 of the Observatory buildings and lands by the State Government of Victoria to the Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne.

The Observatory was the home for weather forecasting, time setting, setting weights and measures standards and for the surveying of Victoria. The distinctive shapes of the buildings, built and added to between 1861 and 1902, topped by sliding domes and opening roof structures evoke immediate recognition of their functions as devices for tracking and charting stars, watching the weather and keeping time.

The Astronomical Buildings

The Observatory

This main building was built in 1861–63. It initially comprised 12 rooms, with a further 10 rooms added between 1863 and 1902. These include the Astronomer’s Office and Library, and Transit Rooms where telescopes were positioned underneath long thin apertures in the ceiling that opened to the sky for their use in tracking and tracing movements of stars and planets.

The South Equatorial and Photoheliograph Houses

These two buildings were built in 1873 to observe the Transit of Venus in 1874. This significant astronomical event occurs twice a century, and generally six years apart. Scientists from around the globe worked collaboratively to record the hours that Venus moved across the Sun. The measurements were then used to determine the distance between the Earth and Sun and therefore the size of the galaxy.

Magnet House

This building, positioned alongside the Serpentine Pathway, was built in 1877 and housed the instruments for measuring hourly changes in the Earth’s magnetism. The building had to be constructed entirely without metal – no nails and no roofing iron – to ensure the records were accurate, and to avoid affecting the sensitive instruments. In 1910, when the new electric trams on St Kilda Road caused interference to magnetic readings, Magnet House closed, and the operation moved to Toolangi.

The Astrograph House

This lone telescope house was built as part of an international project in 1889 to photograph and map the stars – an enormous task. Over seven years, the astronomers observed the position of 50,000 stars of a particular magnitude. The astrograph project was the biggest scientific project of the 18th century and originally involved 18 observatories around the world. Each had a section of the sky to look after, which included photographing the stars and then mapping and cataloguing them.

Observatory House

The Astronomer’s residence was completed in 1889. Robert Ellery lived in the house until his death in 1908. It was then leased to Joseph Baldwin, the chief assistant astronomer and later third Government Astronomer. It is now used to house the Royal Botanic Gardens education and finance departments.

Collimating Marker

Astronomer Robert Ellery had this collimating mark erected on the south boundary in 1886 to keep track of some slight movements in the East Transit telescope. A long focus lens was placed in the south collimator inside the East Transit Room to view the collimating mark and detect any movement in the supports of the transit telescope itself. If the telescope was out of alignment, Victorian Standard Time would have changed, and the published results of star positions would have been wrong.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne