A Visit to the Historical Melbourne Observatory

Tina Baradaran is an educator and astronomy guide at Sydney Observatory and has completed her studies in Medical Radiation Physics. In this post Tina discusses a recent visit to the historical Melbourne Observatory.

The Melbourne Observatory was founded in 1862 to serve as a scientific research institution for the rapidly growing city of Melbourne, the capital of the colony of Victoria. The observatory was tasked by the Victorian government with maintaining an accurate time reference for the colony through observations of stars using a transit telescope as well as general astronomical research. The observatory was home to a large telescope with a 48-inch (120 cm) wide metal mirror known as the ‘Great Melbourne Telescope’, installed in 1869, and for decades was the largest fully steerable telescope in the world.

The Great Melbourne Telescope was eventually moved to the Mount Stromlo Observatory where it was badly damaged in the 2003 Canberra bushfires. Currently, a project is underway to restore the telescope to working order so that it may be used for educational and public viewing in its original home at the Melbourne Observatory by 2024. This is a joint undertaking of Museum Victoria, the Astronomical Society of Victoria and the Royal Botanic Gardens. The restoration project will incorporate bringing the telescope’s optical, mechanical and electrical systems into line with current best practice.

The Great Melbourne Telescope.
Image P3549-5. Copyright MAAS.

In 1887 astronomers from around the world embarked on a massive enterprise the international Astrographic Catalogue project which involved photographing and measuring the stars in both hemispheres. Australia was actively involved in this international project with observatories in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth being keen participants. Each observatory was allocated a zone of the sky and was expected to record it using instruments of a standard pattern. Being the most southerly of the sites taking part, Melbourne was assigned the region around the south celestial pole south of declination -65° using the 13-inch Melbourne astrographic telescope made by Howard Grubb.

With the coming of the Federation in 1901, the Commonwealth government was assigned the responsibility for astronomy and time-keeping and control of the observatory was gradually handed over by the state government. At the same time, the impinging light pollution from the growing city of Melbourne gradually made quality astronomical observations increasingly difficult. Then, in 1933 the flood-lit Shrine of Remembrance was completed in the parkland adjacent to the observatory impacting its skies further until the observatory was finally closed in 1944. Most of the scientific equipment and instruments, including the Great Melbourne Telescope, were sold or moved elsewhere.

The 13-inch (33 cm) Astrographic refractor, now known as the Melbourne astrograph, was moved to Sydney Observatory in the late 1940s. It replaced Sydney Observatory’s own locally built astrograph and a new dome was constructed in Sydney to house it. The Astrographic Catalogue project was one of the most significant astronomical projects undertaken in Australia and played a major role in the development of astronomy and the sciences in Australia.

Today, at the Melbourne Observatory while most of the original buildings still stand on the site, only two of the original instruments remain. Both were installed in 1874 to observe the transit of Venus. One is an 8-inch (20 cm) refracting telescope by Troughton and Simms of London, and the other is a fully restored 4-inch (10 cm) Photoheliograph by Dallmeyer of London. The building which was used by the 13-inch (33 cm) Astrographic telescope for the ‘Carte du Ciel’ survey now houses a 12-inch (30 cm) Newtonian reflector telescope owned by the Astronomical Society of Victoria.

The 8-inch (20 cm) refracting telescope at Melbourne Observatory.
Photo and copyright Tina Baradaran ©, all rights reserved.

The Astronomical Society of Victoria run regular night tours at the site. I visited the Melbourne Observatory at the Royal Botanical Gardens for a Starry Southern Skies night tour. On a clear winter’s night we viewed the planets Saturn and Jupiter and their moons. We also viewed the binary stars Alpha Circini, Alpha Centauri and two star clusters, 47 Tucanae and the Jewel Box, through the telescopes. It was truly an extraordinary night and a great experience to learn about the history of the observatory and to look through the historic 8-inch (20 cm) refracting telescope and the 12-inch (30 cm) Newtonian reflector telescope.

The 12-inch (300 mm) Newtonian reflecting telescope at Melbourne Observatory.
Photo and copyright Tina Baradaran ©, all rights reserved.

Sydney Observatory and Melbourne Observatory are both highly significant 19th century observatories and both are heritage sites, public observatories and museums of astronomy. For anyone with an interest in the history of Australian astronomy and science I strongly recommend a visit to the Melbourne Observatory. The historic Great Melbourne Telescope will hopefully be back by 2024, in time for the Observatory’s 160th anniversary.

And if you are in Sydney you should also have a look at the historic 13-inch (33 cm) Melbourne Astrograph which is currently on display in the East Dome at Sydney Observatory.


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