Sydney Observatory is a museum and education centre set in gardens overlooking Sydney Harbour. The historic site commands some of the best views in Sydney.
A short history of Sydney Observatory
Built in 1858, Sydney Observatory is one of the most significant sites in the nation’s scientific history. It is recognised as an item of ‘state significance’ by the New South Wales Government and is heritage listed.
Beginning as the centre of scientific research for the colony of New South Wales, the Observatory has a seminal role in the history of timekeeping, meteorology and astronomy in Australia. Now known as Observatory Hill, the site was previously known as Windmill Hill, Citadel Hill, Fort Phillip and Flagstaff Hill. Each name indicates the site’s function over time all of which relied on it being the highest point over Sydney Cove.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Observatory was essential to shipping, navigation, meteorology and timekeeping as well as to the study of the stars seen from the Southern Hemisphere. Government Astronomers worked and lived in the building until 1982 when Sydney Observatory became part of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences.
Some of the greatest scientific contributions of the Observatory include its participation in the ambitious Astrographic Catalogue project and its contribution to Australian meteorology. The Astrographic Catalogue project was one of the largest international scientific collaborations of the 19th century with the goal to photograph the entire celestial sphere. Sydney Observatory committed to the project in 1887. For almost a century generations of astronomers and female computers photographed and measured the position of over 430,000 stars within Sydney’s sky zone (-52 to -64 degrees).
Meteorological work was amongst the most important work undertaken at the Observatory. The first Government Astronomer William Scott presented monthly ‘progress reports’ on meteorology that were published in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Government Astronomer Henry Chamberlain Russell later published the first Australian weather maps in 1877. Meterological duties were transferred to the Bureau of Meteorology in the early 1900’s, with the Bureau’s first offices within the Observatory building until its relocation in 1927.
The Observatory’s primary role was to keep time for NSW and provide a time-service for shipping to ensure safe and reliable navigation. It was involved in the trigonometrical survey of NSW in the 1800s, the measurement of tides in Sydney Harbour and the local magnetic field, and made seismometer readings. Henry Russell studied the geography and climate of NSW and ocean currents. Other astronomical work included measurements of binary stars, asteroid positions and lunar occultations of stars.
Today the Observatory is a museum and public observatory with an important role in astronomy education and public telescope viewing. It contains an 1874 29cm lens telescope, a 40cm computer-controlled mirror telescope and a hydrogen-alpha solar telescope, all available to be viewed through by visitors during booked sessions among many other activities.
NSW Government Astronomers
These men and their families lived and worked at Sydney Observatory. They were:
- William Scott 1858–1862
- George Robarts Smalley 1864–1870
- Henry Chamberlain Russell 1870–1905
- Henry Alfred Lenehan 1907–1908
- W E Raymond (Officer-in-charge) 1908–1912
- William Ernest Cooke 1912–1926
- James Nangle 1926–1941
- Harley Weston Wood 1943–1974
- William Humphrey Robertson 1975–1982
Heritage buildings and gardens
The Observatory buildings, built from local sandstone with distinctive copper telescope domes, were constructed between 1857 and 1859 in the Italianate style. They combined the practical needs of an observatory with those of an astronomer’s residence. The Observatory grounds recreate the layout and vegetation of formal gardens cultivated in the 1880s.