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World Meteorological Day – early meteorology in Australia

 Lightning strikes on the Sydney Harbour, 7 December, 1892
Lightning strikes on the Sydney Harbour, 7 December, 1892. The photograph was exposed over four minutes giving an impression of five separate strikes. Government Astronomer H C Russell calculated the height of the Darling Harbour flash from the cloud to the water to be approximately 1540 feet.

Lieutenant William Dawes, who came out to Australia with the First Fleet, made the first recorded meteorological observations in Australia but the next set were probably made from Parramatta Observatory between October 1822 and March 1824. 

In 1821 Governor Brisbane had arrived in New South Wales and set up the colony’s first observatory in the grounds of Government House at Parramatta. Although it is uncertain which meteorological instruments Brisbane may have brought with him in 1821 we do know that by 1847 Parramatta observatory had: two mountain barometers, one of which was made by Troughton, an ordinary barometer by Banks, an eirometer by Jones and a hygrometer by Saussiere. 

By 1840 meteorological stations were established at South Head, Port Macquarie and in Melbourne. The observations were kept by convicts of a class known as ‘specials’, or gentlemen convicts, who, because the work was specifically recommended by the Secretary of State, were paid and annual per diem of one shilling and six pence. The abstracts of their work were published weekly in the Government Gazette. 

The new Sydney Observatory was completed in 1858 and by the middle of that year the Government Astronomer, William Scott, had unpacked twelve sets of meteorological instruments and made journey’s into the country to establish meteorological stations at Albury, Armidale, Bathurst, Cooma, Deniliquin, Goulburn, Maitland, Parramatta, Gabo Island, and Newcastle. 

Meteorological work was amongst the most important undertaken by the Sydney Observatory and in 1858 Scott presented a ‘progress report’ on meteorology to the Philosophical Society of New South Wales. Scott also saw the summaries were sent as monthly reports to be published in the Sydney Morning Herald. 

In 1860, due to the inconstancies in the recording of information from country stations, Scott requested that eight sets of instruments should be transported to telegraph stations. As a result meteorological observations and a monthly return of their observations to Sydney Observatory become a part of the telegraph clerk’s duties. 

The next Government Astronomer G. R. Smalley was appointed in 1864. The extensive list of projects prepared for the new astronomer was made up by the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich. Although the list proved impossible for Smalley to accomplish on the observatory’s limited budget he did initiate the first systematic recording of tides in Sydney Harbour. These were conducted at Fort Denison and by 1866 were being recorded automatically. A second major project initiated by Smalley was the establishment of a coterie of volunteer observers. By 1870 forty three of these observers were situated around the colony where they recorded rainfall, evaporation, temperature and wind at 9 a.m. each day. Each observer was also provided with the requisite set of instruments necessary for making these records. 

Smalley died in 1870 and was replaced by H.C. Russell who revoked Smalley’s policy to enable the observatory to focus more on astronomical work. However meteorological work was not ignored and in 1877 Russell arranged for the telegraphic exchange of observations to be expanded to include observations from selected stations in other Australian states and also began publishing a daily weather chart for Sydney. By 1898 the number of volunteer observers had grown to over 1600. 

The next Government Astronomer was H. A. Lenehan who was appointed to the position in 1903 after Russell became ill. Lenehan himself became ill and died in 1908 but one of his major achievements was the starting, in 1906, of the recording of the earth’s activity using a Milne Seismograph. This device continued to be used for the next 40 years. 

By 1896 H. A. Hunt was working with Russell and had assumed responsibility for preparing the daily weather charts. However after Russell left the Sydney Observatory’s meteorological duties were complicated by the introduction of the Commonwealth Bureau of Meteorology, headed by H.A. Hunt, on 1 January 1908. This initiated a separation of the work of the meteorological branch from other activities at the observatory. 

Lenehan’s replacement, W. E. Cooke, was appointed in 1912 while the New South Wales office of the Weather Bureau still occupied the residence part of the Observatory building. The Weather Bureau was moved out of the Observatory around 1917 and initially occupied the Observatory messenger’s cottage. From 1922 moved into a purpose-built building on Observatory Hill. 

Post by Geoff Barker
Harley Wood, ‘The Sky and the Weather’, A Century of Scientific Progress: the Centenary Volume of the Royal Society of New South Wales, Published by the Society, Science House, Sydney, 1986?
H.C. Russell, ‘Astronomical and Meteorological Worker in New South Wales, 1778 to 1860, in Proceedings of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Sydney, 1888
Russell, H. C., ‘Moving Anticyclones in the Southern Hemisphere’, in Abercromby, R., Three Essays on Australian Weather, Frederick W. White, Sydney, 1896
G. P. Walsh, ‘Henry Chamberlin Russell’, in (ed) G. Searle and R. Ward, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, 1851-1890, Melbourne University Press 1968
Gipps, Sir George, to Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone, Dispatch 144, 3 June 1847, Historical records of Australia, Series 1, Governor’s Dispatches to and From England, Volume 25, April 1846 – September 1847, Library Committee of the Commonwealth parliament, 1925, p.183

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