From the sublime to the meticulous – John Tebbutt and Henry Chamberlain Russell

Great strides were made in Australian astronomy as the vast, clean, southern skies were opened to northern eyes. 

In 1822 southern astronomy was given a major boost. Sir Thomas Brisbane, himself a keen astronomer, commissioned the construction of a new great observatory to be built in Parramatta, away from the bright lights of the burgeoning metropolis of Sydney to complement and extend on the pioneering observations by Lacaille in South Africa.  

Sir Thomas Brisbane’s foresight and perceptiveness in establishing the observatory, the engagement of excellent staff, the installment of state-of-the-art instruments, the dedication of the new observatory to a broad spectrum of observations and the co-ordination of observations with northern hemisphere astronomy with observations that could only be made in southern skies, ensured that the observatory played a substantive part in international astronomy.

Within a few years the observatory had made major contributions to astronomy. These included a complete catalogue of southern skies identifying more than 8000 stars, double stars, clusters and nebulae and verification of the period of Comet Encke and thus the identification of the first short period, near orbit comet which allowed Encke to calculate its period to three and a half years. Observations of the length of the seconds pendulum, were described by Sir John Herschel as “one of the most interesting and important series which has ever been made and must ever be regarded as marking a decided era in the history of southern astronomy.”

John Tebbutt – The Mind at the End of the Telescope

Within a few decades the colonies had become well established and among an influx of English, Irish and Scottish rebels from an over-crowded, famine-stricken Britain, breaking free from the shackles of the antiquated class system, were a smattering of well-educated settlers who were able to embrace the new world with a new world of freedom of thought. At the same time as the industrial and scientific revolution was opening up ideas and knowledge to an insatiably curious Europe, America and Britain, settlers to Australia brought their egalitarianism, innovativeness, Oxbridge-trained education and class system irreverence with them. By the second and third generations, the colony had produced a worthy set of locally born, basically, or even well, educated, scholars, with an entire continent and open skies for open minds to explore.

Among them was another amateur, John Tebbutt, born in Windsor, New South Wales, in 1834. Educated at his local Presbyterian church, he built his own observatory at his farm at Windsor, the “Peninsula Observatory”, and became one of the foremost astronomers of the time.

Tebbutt’s main interest was pure astronomy and he soon gained international stature for his discoveries. Although equipped with lesser instruments than the government observatory in Sydney, it was at the Peninsula Observatory that the focal observations were made that placed Australian astronomy at the forefront of pure research in the field.

“It is not a larger telescope that is wanted so much as a good observer at this end of it”, Tebbutt said, in an interview with the Sydney Telegraph in 1895, an observation which is perhaps borne out by the immense contribution to astronomical science by himself and the contribution to routine meteorological observations by the Sydney Observatory with superior instruments.

Tebbutt’s work included the observation of occultations, planetary transits, solar and lunar eclipses and solstices. He resolved double and binary stars and measured the periods of variable stars. However, among Tebbutt’s most important work at the observatory was his observation and discovery of comets, in the field of which he was to make important contributions to international astronomy and in 1871 he was made a fellow of the Royal Society.

Henry Chamberain Russell

At this time Henry Chamberlain Russell was the official government astronomer of New South Wales and director of the Sydney Observatory, a position he held for a sturdy thirty-five years from 1870 to 1905…     

…As Tebbutt made significant discoveries and his reputation as an astronomer grew among the international scientific community, a public rivalry ensued between Tebbutt and Russell. This essentially became reduced to a conflict between whether observatories should concentrate on glamorous scientific research or on plodding through the more mundane duties of keeping time and recording the weather.

Criticism of each was defined by the belief as to which was the more important, with Russell’s judgement being criticised for opting to focus on the latter and Tebbutt deciding that he had more exciting things to talk about than the weather.

Not one to hide behind his instrument, after Tebbutt discovered “the Great Comet” of 1861 and Russell offered Tebbutt a substantive position at the Sydney Observatory, Tebbutt declined, stating that he would rather do astronomy than work at the Sydney Observatory.

Thirty-four years later, Tebbutt made his point, no less sharp for his age.

Meteorology is not my particular study, or hobby, If you like to term it so. I devote myself to astronomy, and there is as much comparison between the two as between rough carpentering and watch making. 1 have taken meteorological observations here for the last 33 years, and recorded them, but I have never entered upon the discussion of the results derivable from such records. The whole of my attention has been directed to the subject of astronomy – and it is one which I am sorry to say is very much neglected in the colony of New South Wales. It is not a larger telescope that is wanted so much as a good observer at this end of it. So far as Mr Russell is concerned, his time, 1 believe, is almost entirely taken up with meteorological observations, to the necessarily consequent neglect of astronomical work.– Windsor and Richmond Gazette, Saturday 21 September 1895, p10

Whatever Tebbutt may have thought of routine weather reports, any systematic recording of precise data, in a society increasingly appreciative of its significance, played an important role at this time of transition from superstition, mythology and guesswork to accurate analysis and objective explanation for all that was not understood and allowed control. Whatever disdain Tebbutt may have had for it, his routine weather reports to the local papers and journals for thirty-five years provide observations as valuable to us today as his astronomical discoveries.

Who, in the 1890’s watching the clouds roll by and chopping down every tree in sight to make way for pasture, would have known that by the end of the next century the weather would become the pivotal topic of global and national significance?

…The meteorological records from both the Sydney Observatory and the Peninsula provide a valuable record of the climate and that which has changed in Australia and that which has not from the time of European settlement…

…During the 1890s an interchange was played out in series of letters to the Windsor and Richmond Gazette debating the value or otherwise of “prayer for rain” and it was in this context that Mr Tebbutt did, on a very rare occasion, discuss the weather. In so doing he captured the argument at the pivotal time in scientific history when prayers for rain gave way to the science of meteorology.

I have no desire to follow Mr Barnett in his general remarks on the efficacy of prayer. The subject in hand is, as he knows, prayer for rain. He tells us that predictions of eclipses of the moon belong to the natural world, but that prayer for rain belongs to the spiritual realm, and that the latter lies quite beyond my limited knowledge or astronomical control. Whatever region prayer for rain may belong to, it is quite certain that rain itself is just as natural and material as the moon and as much under the control of natural law. Rain phenomena are therefore as much within the sphere of legitimate inquiry as are the motions of our satellite, and so also are the causes, whatever they may be, which modify them. If, then, prayer really influences rain phenomena, and I am sure I have nowhere dogmatically declared that it does not, the scientist has a right to demand the proofs without fear of being regarded as presumptuous, or of being pelted with epithets. Mr Barnett’s illustration of Mr Tebbutt and the beggar is not at all to the point. When I bestow a gift on a beggar he has both ocular and auricular demonstration of the fact of my giving. The request, the grantor, the grantee and the thing granted are too obviously connected to leave room for doubt. Can the same be said of a shower of rain which comes after a prayer? When Newton suggested universal attraction as the invisible force which held the planets and satellites in their orbits he did not content himself with the bare assertion, but he furnished proofs of the most varied and satisfactory nature. As therefore the phenomena of rainfall are within the province of the scientist, I simply ask for the proofs that they are influenced by prayer. If the proofs be given I shall be only too glad to take note of such a modifying cause. Mr Barnett, however, tells us with some show of authority that no signs shall be given to satisfy my curiosity. Seeing that he is not the Director of the universe, or even his Privy Councillor, I rather marvel at his dogmatism. At all events I must hug my scepticism till the sign be given. Mr Barnett has, however, demonstrated the hopelessness of his position by stating that the method of verification suggested by me is utterly impossible. I was under the impression that be believed all things were possible to the prayer of faith, from the blasting of a physical fig-tree to the moving of a physical mountain. Perhaps it is his faith that is defective. I have no objection to the phrase “the sun stood still” as a bit of ancient poetry, but I certainly place it in the same category with “the struggling moonbeam’s misty light” of the poet who gives us a description of the burial of Sir John Moore. Any competent astronomer will tell you that in the “dead of night” on January 16-17th, 1809, the moon was below the horizon, and therefore did not shine on the burial scene of the great hero. Such is our knowledge of celestial mechanics that if we only knew the year, day, hour, and minute when the great Hebrew general is represented to have given the order to the sun and moon to stand still we could assign the places of these heavenly bodies within errors which could not be detected by ordinary spectators, and what is more we could show that obedience to the order would have resulted in the instant destruction not only of Joshua’s enemies, but of Joshua himself, his army and indeed of the whole human race. Poets and painters are really astronomers, and they have no great scruple about throwing the solar system into disorder for the sake of a little embellishment. I freely admit that there exists no parallel between the days of Elijah and the age in which we live, but I do not admit that there is no need of a sign. In the time of the great prophet the world was held in the swaddling bands of superstition and the signs were many and doubtless satisfactory, but now it has emerged from the cradle of ignorance and its knowledge of natural phenomena is wonderfully extended. As a consequence it has abandoned many of its infantile notions and now demands satisfactory evidence that natural phenomena are produced by supernatural power at the request of man. When the world was a child it spoke as a child, it understood as a child, and it thought as a child, but now that it has become a man it has put away many childish things. Comets were at one time prayed against by good Christians, but now that science has disarmed them of their terrors and shown that they move in accordance with law such prayers have pretty well ceased. This good result is in no way due to ecclesiasticism but to the noble efforts of a succession of persecuted scientists. The glorious “Principa” [sic] of Newton, which is now read in every University was once a heretical book. When our knowledge regarding the phenomena of rain is much more extended than it is we may reasonably expect that prayers for rain will generally cease and that we shall have recourse to the more philosophical method of providing in times of plenteous rain for the times which are correspondingly deficient in the precious element. In conclusion my suggestion was not made to ‘test the genuineness of God’s generosity’ but to test the unsupported dictum of those who assert that rain is sent in answer to prayer. JOHN TEBBUTT. The Observatory. Windsor, October 21st, 1895. –  Windsor and Richmond Gazette, Saturday 26 October 1895, p6

…Ironically, for all his eloquence, the honours go not to Tebbutt, but to Mr Russell in being one of those leading contemplations about the weather from superstition to science. It was Russell who introduced the daily synoptic chart into the Sydney papers and the very activities Tebbutts criticised led to the first nationally co-ordinated meteorological observations being made and the founding of the Bureau of Meteorology by Wragge, Russell and Todd in 1906… 

…The feud between Tebbutt and Chamberlain for the most part followed the Marquis of Queensbury rules and both contributed greatly to the scientific life of the colony. Both were active members of the Royal Society and the Australasian Society for the Advancement of Science of which Henry Russell was the first President.

When Tebbutt retired the Peninsula Observatory in 1898, the Freeman’s Journal wrote

Mr Russell will have no regrets. Were a new comet to swim into human sight, Mr Tebbutt had an awkward way of finding it first, just as, when a new storm comes down from the Indian or up from the Antarctic Ocean, Mr Wragge gets in ahead with the news. Between these watchers in the high towers of astronomy and meteorology Mr Russell was midway between the devil and the deep sea. One of his terrible rivals is gone. Alone, Mr Wragge will not be so bad.

The Carte du Ciel

Meanwhile, the Sydney Observatory continued in its routine duties culminating in the Carte du Ciel, or “Map of the Sky” project, one of the greatest sky-mapping exercises of all time and the greatest white elephant in astronomical history.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Louis Daguerre was pioneering the artscience of photography and the industrial age was giving birth to bigger and better telescopes. It was only a matter of time before there would take place a happy marriage between the two. In 1838 in one of the first photographs ever taken, Daguerre and the director of the Paris Observatory, Francois Arago, took a photograph of the Moon. The following year Arago formally presented the invention of the daguerrotype to a meeting of the French Academy of Science. Fifty years later, scientists from around the world met in Paris and resolved to undertake one of the biggest astronomical exercises of all time and bring forth the most ambitious child of astrophotography yet – a complete photographic record of the sky. In 1887, following an idea of Admiral Ernest Barthelemy Mouchez of the Paris Observatory, Mouchez, Sir David Gill, a Scot at the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope and Otto Struve of the Poulkovo Observatory, arranged the “Congrès International de la Carte du Ciel”, at which the finer points of the task were thrashed out.

Henry Chamberlain Russell championed the project and along with Robert Ellery from the Melbourne Observatory he attended the Paris Conference. Both the Sydney and Melbourne Observatories were committed to the project and later in 1900 Perth Observatory joined as well.

In one of the first truly internationally co-ordinated scientific efforts, eighteen observatories around the world were each assigned a part of the sky to photograph. Heralding the advent of big science it required co-ordination and standardisation of equipment and methods on an unprecedented scale.

Moves toward federation of the Australian colonies and global perspectives on the weather had already facilitated co-operation between the observatories for time-keeping and meteorological duties, priming them for the level of integration the Carte du Ciel required.

It became a mammoth project which continued for nearly one hundred years as the photographs were taken and the plates painstakingly examined and measured, being officially designated as completed only in 1970. Having tied up observatory resources for decades and superseded in that time by the technology of a century which produced dozens of catalogues it came to be known simultaneously as the project that held back astrophysics by a century and one of the most complete and valuable records of the sky. As a complete record of the sky from the 1880’s it remains valuable as a source of comparison between the skies of today with those of the century in which the project was conceived. From its data the proper motion of 2.5 million stars has been calculated and re-reduction of the data and incorporation of it into current catalogues has resulted in the most complete and accurate catalogue of the brightest stars in the sky.

However, the project was to have another major effect on astronomy and science in general. The painstaking job of measuring and analysing the data on the photographic plates was considered to be too menial a task for learned men to do and took up much valuable observatory time. Therefore, a large army of people, mostly amateurs, mostly women and mostly volunteers, were engaged to perform the function of reducing the data on the plates. Called “calculators” or “computers”, these staff painstakingly measured and examined the photographic plates and while unpaid and unrecognised it became an avenue of entry for many into the field, some of whom were to go on to make major contributions to astronomy such as the American astronomer in Paris, Dorothea Klumpe. Henry Russell was himself such a computer, whose entry to the Sydney Observatory in 1859 was in this role.   

The Sydney Observatory under Russell’s directorship was not an entirely astronomical waste of space. The Proceedings of the Royal Society of NSW, of which Russell was at differing times President, Vice-President and Treasurer, contain numerous papers reporting much work by himself and others at the Observatory, including work of variable stars, aurorae…

…Among the contributors were papers by one Lawrence Hargrave, at one time, assistant observer at the Sydney Observatory. Hargrave was to become a figure of significance in Australian and international science, not so much for observing the stars, but in reaching them. 

It is also not to downplay the importance of the daily time-keeping duties of the observatory. In a world of atomic clocks, smart phones, fitbits, notebooks and ipads, when it is almost impossible to be out of synch with the world, it is necessary to imagine a time when most people did not even have a watch to recognise the importance of time-keeping.

Except by the rising and setting of the Sun, how could anyone know when to run for the bus or when to arrive fashionably late at the Governor’s Ball? How could the shops know when to open their doors so as not to violate the trading laws?

All the clocks in the colony were synchronised by the astronomer, who kept a time-ball at the observatory. Every day, from Monday to Saturday, at one p.m. Sydney mean time, 2 hours 55 minutes and 2 seconds GMT, the time-ball would drop, telling the railway master, the ships in port and anyone who wanted to set their pocket watch that it was one o’clock precisely.

That was all very well for those in ear-shot of the “noon day” gun or who could keep their eye on the ball in the grand metropolis but how could someone the back of beyond keep up with the times? 

Every day when the something o’clock train from the city steamed past it blew its whistle so that everyone within hearing distance knew exactly what time it was, thus giving rise to “railway time” an expression still in use today and invoking a distant memory of a time when the trains being on time was a matter of national importance.

The one p. m. time-ball still drops every day, but instead of firing the cannon or blowing the whistle, the task of sounding the time was taken over by the phone company, with ABC presenter Richard Peach faithfully calling the time for more than fifty years without a break.