In 1853 Melbourne was developing rapidly and the need for consistent, accurate time across the burgeoning colony saw the first observatory built in Williamstown. Time was communicated… ‘by dropping a ball on the Williamstown Flagstaff at one o’clock…This signal was watched from the Melbourne Flagstaff, about 4.5 miles distant, by aid of telescope, and a ball was dropped there also’ (1).

Wood engraving from 1862 showing the Williamstown Observartory.

Astronomical Observatory, Williamstown, IMP15/11/62/9

A print showing the Flagstaff cottage overlooking early Melbourne.

 Signal Station, MelbourneH15274/2

By 1854, the lighthouse at Point Gellibrand was giving time signals to ships in Hobsons Bay (2). This was done by ‘eclipsing the light of the lighthouse every night at two minutes to eight and suddenly exposing it at eight o’clock'(3).

In 1863 a new Melbourne Observatory was built in the Botanic Gardens. ‘The intricate timing instruments of the Observatory, kept accurate by daily calibration with the stars, were connected by telegraphic wire with the clock displayed in Bourke Street’ (4). The Great Melbourne Telescope was installed in 1869 at the Observatory where ‘the astronomers had to painstakingly observe faint nebulae and distant galaxies, then produce pencil sketches of their observations’ (5).

Wood engraving from 1868 of The great Melbourne telescope.

  The great Melbourne telescopeIMP22/05/68/72

A wood engraving published in 'The Australasian sketcher' of people' visiting the Great Melbourne telescope.

A party of amateur astronomers, A/S11/07/74/45 

The Melbourne Observatory closed in 1944 and the timekeeping responsibilities were taken over by the Postmaster-General’s Department (6). The Great Melbourne Telescope was transferred to the Academy of Science at Mt Stromlo in Canberra in the 1950s.

The Library holds many online astronomy resources, including a Miniature celestial globe reputed to have been used by Captain Cook and pages of the star map Atlas coelestis, as well as the Sir Isaac Newton pamphlet Spiritual astronomy, our solar system from a spiritual standpoint.

Written by Paul Dee,
Librarian, Australian History and Literature

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