With the rapid growth of Perth in the 1890s due to the gold rush in Kalgoorlie, the need to adopt new technologies was brought home to the young colony of Western Australia. Along with the improvement in transport, communication systems, and electricity, Sir John Forrest, Western Australia’s first premier felt that it was very important for a growing colony to have new public facilities including an Observatory.
The aim of the Observatory was to provide the citizens of Perth and Western Australia with accurate time and weather reports as well as record seismic activity and astronomical observations of the southern sky.
A proposal for an observatory was first introduced to the State Parliament by the Premier in 1891 but failed to obtain financial backing.
In 1895, Forrest invited the Government Astronomer of South Australia Sir Charles Todd to visit Perth to help advise the government on the site and the equipment for an Observatory. While Kings Park was seen as the favoured location for new the Observatory, Sir Charles advised that Mount Eliza would be a better site due to the exposure to the distance from the city.
Todd also sent a letter to Forrest during this time stating that he believed his first assistant William Ernest Cooke had the qualities to be employed as the first government astronomer for the new Observatory and he was duly hired.
1896 - 1912
Once approved as WA’s first Government Astronomers, one of Cooke’s first jobs was to draw up a design for the foundation stone. The main feature of the stone was the planets in their exact locations in the zodiac when the foundation stone was laid by Forrest on the 29th of September 1896.
The laying of the foundation stone was celebrated as a grand civic occasion. The Observatory was completed at a cost of ₤6,622, more than double the estimated cost and 7 months later.
The Observatory at this time included the main office building where the staff worked, Transit Circle Building which housed the Meridian Telescope whose main purpose was to obtain accurate positions of the stars which also allowed the astronomers to discover the Perth’s correct latitude and longitude so they could calculate the time with greater accuracy, and the final building was the dome which housed the Howard Grubb built Astrographic Telescope whose purpose was the mapping of the southern sky which research was to be shared internationally.
In the first decade of the Observatory’s operation, under Cooke, the Observatory achieved the goals set out by Forrest and Todd. In regard to keeping accurate time; The Observatory provided regular time signals to shipping at Fremantle, the state railways, the telegraph system, and controlled public clocks in Fremantle and Perth.
Between 1901-02, a time cannon was set up on the eastern slope of the site and would fire daily for a 1 pm time signal. but it was taken away after repeatedly scaring people and causing someone to go into cardiac arrest
Cooke also produced weather forecasts for the sate that were also displayed in prominent places in the city and published in the press until 1908 when the Federal Government created the Bureau of Meteorology. During that time Cooke developed an interest in the development of low-pressure zones which often dominated the weather cycles and the possibility of tracking these depressions. He studied weather records from the Cape of Good Hope, Natal and Mauritius with the hope of associating weather events there with later events in Australia. He analysed and mapped the passage of cyclones from the North-West into the interior, publishing cyclone forecasts for the first time
In 1900, the Perth Observatory was invited to contribute to the International Star Cataloguing and Mapping Program, along with 17 other observatories around the world. Later on, in 1907, a Catalogue of 420 stars was published.
Cooke was able to establish the exact latitude and longitude for the Observatory in 1899, and the Observatory also provided tide tables for the north-west ports, and astronomical information, including tables of sunrise and sunset, for the general public, the press and for business.
From its establishment, the Observatory was a place of interest to the general public. Cooke opened the Observatory every Tuesday evening to allow public viewings of the equipment and public lectures in astronomy and by 1912, visitors’ evenings were so popular that a 12-inch Calver Telescope was purchased to meet the demand. This device was erected near the main entrance and a series of regular bi-weekly receptions was held.
In 1912, Cooke resigned to take up an appointment with the Sydney Observatory. His position was not officially filled until 1920 when Harold Curlewis was promoted from Acting Government Astronomer to Government Astronomer.
1912 - 1940
In 1912, Cooke resigned to take up an appointment with the Sydney Observatory. His position was not officially filled until 1920 when Harold Curlewis was promoted from Acting Government Astronomer to Government Astronomer.
This long delay in making Harold the government astronomer was due to the state government’s lack of support for the Observatory. The state government had even applied to the commonwealth government to take the running of the Observatory over in 1902. While the Commonwealth didn’t want to take on the Observatory, it did take over the meteorological work in 1908, with the new Bureau having offices located in the city
The State Government threatened to discontinue the Observatory in late 1912 and again suggested that the Commonwealth should take over the running it. After strong protests from astronomers in England, against its closure and elsewhere, the Observatory continued operations, pending continuing negotiations with the Commonwealth. The matter of who would run the Observatory was only decided in 1928, when the State Government, after much uncertainty, decided to retain the Observatory.
In 1920, Curlewis was involved with the Government Astronomer of South Australia, George Dodwell, in the fixing positions for the marking of the West Australian border on the ground with the South Australian border at Deakin, Western Australia.
In 1921 the same group travelled by the State Ship, MV Bambra to Wyndham, where they were guided by Michael Durack to a point on Rosewood station near Argyle Downs close to the 129th meridian east longitude (129° east). They used the relatively new technology of the day, wireless radio time signals, and other methods to fix a position for the Northern Territory border with Western Australia.
These early determinations led to the 1968 agreement for the formation of Surveyor Generals Corner which is a remote point where the Australian state boundaries of South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory meet
In 1922 an expedition was undertaken to take photographs during an eclipse of the sun, from which the bending of light as it passed by a massive body such as the sun could be measured. Such measurements were required to test Einstein’s newly proposed Theory of Relativity.
Expeditions had previously failed due to bad weather, the Great War delaying the mounting of further expeditions, and an instrumental deficiency.
The next scheduled solar eclipse was on the 21st September 1922 and the most favourable site on earth was a spot on Eighty Mile Beach on the northern coast of Western Australia.
There was no port, so the equipment would have to be taken ashore through the surf in rowing boats from the ship and then be transported to the site by teams of donkeys. It was only through the strong and enthusiastic advocacy of Professor Alexander Ross (University of Western Australia) that there was an expedition. The result was that the most accurate measurements made to that date being achieved.
The scientific personnel consisted of parties from England, the US, Canada, India, Perth Observatory and Alexander Ross, New Zealand’s Government Astronomer Charles Adams, and J.B.O. Hosking of Melbourne Observatory
The US team’s telescopes worked perfectly, and a few plates developed on the spot showed excellent images. On April 1923, after meticulous research of the plates, the results were announced to Einstein and to the world with Einstein theories being vindicated.
1940 - 1962
Harold Curlewis’s successor as Government Astronomer was Hyman Solomon Spigl between 1940 and 1962. Hyman was from a surveying background and progressed with rebuilding a post-war-ravaged Observatory. Astronomy staff had been reduced to two people during the great depression and remained at this level until the post-war period. Spigyl did this by rejuvenating the time service, seismology services, getting the Observatory involved in the International Geophysical Year by installing a Markowitz Moon camera and restarted the publications for the Royal Astronomical Society.
He was able to get the Observatory to complete the Astrographic Catalogues and between 1949 and 1953, the Edinburgh/Perth Astrographic Catalogues were published which record the position of 139 000 stars.
In 1958 Spigl was awarded a Gledden Travelling Fellowship by the University of Western Australia; Spigl spent 12 months travelling in the US, UK and Europe.
Spigyl was actively searching for a new site for the Perth Observatory as a result of the decision for it to be relocated due to the 1955 Stephenson-Hepburn Report which identified the Observatory site as a place where government offices could be located, close to Parliament House.
Unfortunately, Hyman passed away on the 20th of August 1962 and was succeeded by his assistant Bertrand Harris.
1962 - 1974
Harris, who had been Spigl’s assistant since 1957, became the Government Astronomer of the Perth Observatory upon Spigl’s death in 1962.
Harris had to step into the role at a time when the Perth Observatory was on the move to its new site in Bickley. The clearing of the land commenced in February 1964 and the new Observatory was built at a cost of $600,000 and was opened by the Premier, David Brand, on the 30th of September 1966, 70 years and one day after the laying of the foundation stone of the original Observatory
Harris oversaw the installation of a meridian telescope at the Observatory as part of an expedition by astronomers from the Hamburg Observatory in 1967. The expedition worked on the international Southern Reference Stars program that resulted in a revised, larger and more accurate meridian catalogue of the Southern Hemisphere which was called the Perth 70 meridian catalogue and had mapped the position of nearing 25, 000 stars.
Harris then moved the Astrographic telescope, which had been in storage since 1963, to the new site after arranging its refurbishment; the telescope recommenced observations in 1968.
In 1968, the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona sent a 24-inch Boller and Chivens telescope to the Perth Observatory as part of the International Planetary Patrol Program a project consisting of 7 telescopes around the world (Including Mount Stromlo) and was sponsored by NASA. The program was designed to collect 35mm photographic data on the atmospheric and surface features of Solar System planets.
In 1974, observations were scaled down to only the three most successful stations, of which Perth was one. In 1976, the program was suspended, and replaced by space probe technology.
Harris while successful in increasing the staff numbers at the new Perth Observatory as its role moved to a more scientific function, he also restarted the public tours in1966 and also continued time and tide services for Western Australia.
This Perth Observatory Meridian team continued and expanded on the Germans work, resulting in the Perth 75 meridian catalogue which mapped the positions of nearing 2600 stars.
Harris was responsible for the August 1973 IAU Symposium No. 61 in Perth on “New Problems of Astrometry”. Like his predecessor, he died at an early age, 49, but had raised the standing of the Perth Observatory to a well respected scientific institution within Australia and internationally.
Dr Iwan Nikoloff
1974 - 1984
With the death of Harris at the end of 1975, Iwan Nikoloff became Acting Government Astronomer until it was made official in 1979.
After escaping his home country of Bulgaria which was behind the Iron Curtain, he arrived in Australia in 1964 where he got a job as an Astronomer Grade II at the Perth Observatory on the 1st of May 1964. He worked on the Observatory’s astrograph and with his previous experience also saw him set up and calibrate Zeiss plate measuring machine that had recently been acquired.
With the relocation of the Perth Observatory from Bickley, Nikoloff’s surveying skills were extensively used in setting up the new Observatory during 1965.
Nikoloff worked with the German Hamburg Observatory meridian circle telescope expedition on the Perth 70 catalogue, from 1969 until 1971, before the expedition astronomers returned to Germany that Christmas.
In 1971, with funding by the State Government and negotiations for the loan of the Hamburg telescope, Nikoloff was placed in charge of the newly formed Perth Observatory Meridian Section. Dr Nikoloff commenced a new observing program of FK4 and FK4 Supplementary stars that would result in the Perth 75 catalogue of 2,549 stars. The catalogue not only extended the well-revered Perth 70 catalogue but provided valuable Southern Hemisphere information for the construction of the new FK5 reference frame sought by the international astronomical community.
As Government Astronomer, Nikoloff passed on the Meridian Section to Dennis Harwood but kept a keen involvement in the construction of the subsequent Perth 83 meridian catalogue. While daily administrative duties kept him busy, Nikoloff continued observing on all the Observatory’s telescopes at night and on weekends.
In 1977, Perth Observatory hosted Dr Bob Millis from Lowell Observatory in Arizona, who had come to Perth to study the occultation of the star SAO158687 by Uranus. NASA also sent the Kuiper Airborne Observatory to Perth to study the occultation as well. By monitoring the intensity of the starlight from SAO158687 as Uranus passed in front of it through a photometer, both the Kuiper Airborne Observatory and Perth Observatory were hoping to study the atmosphere of Uranus.
Unfortunately, Perth was slightly too north to see the occultation, but before there was too much light from the sunrise, Bob Mills and Dr Peter Birch an astronomer at Perth Observatory were able to record the disturbance of the light from the star 5 times and once the Kuiper Airborne Observatory had arrived back in Perth that recording the Perth Observatory took was able to help confirm that Uranus had rings which was a very important discovery as up until that time, astronomers thought only Saturn had rings.
In 1982, with the closure of research at the Sydney Observatory, we became the last State-funded Observatory in Australia. Iwan retired in 1984 and sadly died only in April 2015.
Nikoloff maintained a good relationship with the University of Western Australia, was a Foundation member and Fellow of the Astronomical Society of Australia, a life member of the Astronomical Association of Western Australia and a member of the IAU’s original Commission 8 (Astrometry) and I (Fundamental Astronomy); he also continued the Observatory’s public information services and tours. He retired on the 4th January 1985 and died on the 8th of April 2015 at the age of 93.
1984 - 1993
With the compulsory retirement age still in place, after Dr Iwan Nikoloff retired, Michael Candy became the first Director of the Perth Observatory and he oversaw Perth Observatory play a vital role in the research of the Comet Halley in 1986 as it came back into the inner Solar System to make a pass around the Sun. The comet approached the Earth from the north, went behind the Sun, and then reappeared in the southern skies, where it was inaccessible to the northern hemisphere.
In 1969 Candy was offered the position of Director of the British Astronomical Association, however, he declined the offer due to his plans to emigrate to Australia that year.
After arriving in Australia 12 May 1969, he commenced at the Perth Observatory as an Astronomer Grade II and in November 1969 took over the running of the Perth Observatory Astrographic telescope from Dr I Nikoloff.
It took little time for Candy to position the Perth Observatory at the forefront of southern cometary astrometry but by 1972, the Perth Observatory was 9th in the world in producing cometary positions. Not content with this, Candy introduced new photographic glass plate processing practices to increase the limiting magnitude of objects achievable at that time from 14th to 19th. The new processes were to see the recovery of five comets and the positioning of the Observatory to 2nd place between 1973 and 1977 and 4th between 1978 and 1984, resulting in him being awarded the prestigious Merlin Medal of the British Astronomical Association in 1975. Under his direction, the Perth Observatory discovered over 100 new asteroids as well as contributing a significant number of observations to the Minor Planet Center.
Mike continued the first publication of the Perth Observatory on the comet and minor positions, commenced by former Government Astromoner Bertrand Harris, with Communication No. 2, 3, 4 and the last, that of Communication No. 5 in 1986.
By 1979, his astrometric abilities and contributions were widely acknowledged and he became Vice President of International Astronomical Union, Commission 6, a position he held until 1982 when he was elected President for a 3-year term. At the same time, he became a working member of International Astronomical Union Commission 20 until 1988 – Positions and Motions of Minor Planets, Satellites and Comets.
In 1986, Perth Observatory staff took positions of the comet taken with the Astrographic telescope that were used to fine-tune the positions of the comet for the armada of spacecraft heading for the comet. 10% of all Earth-based positions of Comet Halley to get ESA’s Giotto spacecraft to the comet were taken from Perth. Astronomers from the University of Maryland in the United States also visited the Observatory to used the Observatory’s telescopes as well as the first digital camera to be used in WA, which they brought with them to study the physics of the comet, with the rotation period of the comet which was confirmed from images taken from the Observatory.
In 1987, the future of Perth Observatory was once again thrown into doubt when the Minister for Works and Services, Peter Dowding, asked the Bickley astronomers to ‘justify’ their research projects and their annual budget of $750,000.
As had been the case with earlier attempts to withdraw funding from the Observatory, support for its work flooded in from local and interstate scientists.
To better inform the public about the valuable work that the Observatory carried out, in the late 1980s the staff of Perth Observatory decided to provide night tours again using the Observatory telescopes. Within a short time, this program battled to meet public demand. In addition, school groups and special interest groups were catered for during the day.
In the early 1990s, the Lowell telescope was equipped with a special camera and automated making it one of the first telescopes in the southern hemisphere to be. By automating the telescope it would enable it to track targets and for the camera operation to be fully computer-controlled. This work was undertaken by Observatory staff, and academics from Curtin and Murdoch Universities, and the University of Western Australia.
Candy was a councillor of the Astronomical Society of Australia from 1988 to 1990, councillor of the Royal Society of Western Australia between 1988 and 1990, and president of the Royal Society of Western Australia in 1989.
With the compulsory retirement age no longer in place, unlike his predecessor, Candy was able to continue working at the Perth Observatory on projects including the eclipsing binary FO Hydra, a comet hunter telescope, a new theory on comet origins and evolution, the analysis of the lost comet Gale, as well as comparison of a South Australian comet discovered in 1979 with that of a comet from 1770.
On Christmas Eve 1993, Mike officially retired and sadly died less than a year later on the 2nd November 1994. His work was honoured by the naming of Minor Planet 3015 Candy in 1980 and after his death with the naming of the comet hunting telescope at the Observatory being named after him.
Dr James Biggs
1994 - 2010
In 1994 James Biggs became the Government Astronomer and started to bring the Observatory into the digital age with the use of CCD imaging, and robotic telescopes.
Perth Observatory became part of the Department of Conservation and Land Management with the advantage being that better computer network support would become available to the Observatory allowing for the networking of computers to remote control of telescopes.
The Observatory also celebrated its centenary on the 21st of September and was attended by many Australian and International astronomers, as well as past staff and distinguished guests, including the Premier Richard Court who laid a new commemorative foundation stone to celebrate 100 years of the Observatory’s existence.
A Centenary lecture was run on the lawns at the back of the Observatory by NASA’s Goddard Flight Centre’s Dr Joseph Dolan and a series of ‘car park astronomy nights’ were also held around the Perth City during the year at the first quarter moon.
In 1996 the Perth Observatory Volunteer Group was set up to help the astronomers with the night tours. By 2001, the Perth Observatory Volunteer Group (POVG) numbers had grown to the level where it could become incorporated
Perth Observatory also received in 2001 an ‘Atlas Coelestis’ which was donated by Ethelwin Flamsteed Moffatt a decedent of the creator John Flamsteed the first Astronomer Royal, of which only ten are believed to exist in the World.
In 2005, the Perth Observatory was also entered on the Register of WA Heritage Places
In 2007, the observatory installed its first Internet telescope with students regularly using the new Internet telescope, and another second telescope was added, later on, effectively creating one of the most powerful robotic telescope systems in the world at the time.
Dr Ralph Martin
2010 - 2013
The last few years of research at the Perth Observatory saw a decline in funding with the WA Government focusing more on radio astronomy with the SKA and the Gravity Wave Centre at Gingin.
Jamie resigned in 2010 and Mr Ralph Martin acted in the Directors until 2013 after which the role of Director ceased as part of the closure of research.
From 2009, the POVG took control of performing public tours from the Observatory’s staff. This continued until all research at the Perth Observatory ceased in 2013 and the final permanent staff left in 2015.