Then and now observed

Volume 7 Number 2 February 14 - March 13 2011

Emeritus Professor Tony Klein and colleagues retraced the steps taken by famed colonial photographer Charles Nettleton up the stairs of the tower of Government House to recreate his 1875 photographs of the internationally-renowned Melbourne Observatory.

One fine day in 1875, noted Melbourne photographer Charles Nettleton clambered up the narrow spiral staircase of the recently completed tower of Government House, lugging his heavy wooden camera and tripod, to take photographs of the world-famous Melbourne Observatory, then the most advanced such astronomical facility in the Sothern Hemisphere.

The resulting silver-albumen glass plates, now in the University of Melbourne Art Collection, show the views from that vantage point towards South Melbourne. The left hand sepia picture shows the Observatory building in the right foreground, with a small dome housing the oldest telescope, commissioned some time around 1862. Two other telescope buildings, in the centre foreground were erected in 1873 and 1874.

In the background, an unobstructed view of Albert Park Lake and Hobson’s Bay is clearly discernible, behind many fairly young trees.

The right-hand picture shows the mouth of the Yarra in the background, with several tall ships just barely visible, with more of Albert Park and St Kilda Road in the centre, and the site of the future Shrine of Remembrance. The foreground, however, is dominated by the imposing structure of the Great Melbourne Telescope and its ancillary building.

This remarkable instrument, specially built in and imported from Dublin in order to explore and photograph the southern sky, arrived in December 1868 following a decade-long campaign by William Wilson, Professor at Melbourne University who called for a large reflecting telescope to be built in Melbourne, as part of a national observatory.  For over 20 years it remained the best telescope in the Southern Hemisphere and certainly one the world’s finest instruments. Equipped with a 50-inch (1.27-metre) mirror made of speculum-metal, a tin alloy that can take a mirror finish, it was the pride and joy of the colony’s scientific establishment.

What has changed in 135 years? In order to find out, three of us from the School of Physics of the University of Melbourne, which houses large prints ofthe two old photographs, were kindly allowed to revisit and take photographs from the site where the old pictures were taken.

Along with Professor of Astrophysics Rachael Webster, Professor David Jamieson, Head of the School, and accompanied by Ms Dawn Kinna of the Government House staff, we climbed the same old narrow staircase that winds its way up one of the four legs of the tower, all the way to the platform which holds the flagstaff from which the flag of the State of Victoria may be seen fluttering.

The 360-degree view from up there is truly breathtaking, especially of the tall city buildings to the north-west and the collection of sporting venues to the north east. But the object of our excursion – the site of the Old Melbourne Observatory to the south east – is barely recognisable. Dominated by the tall apartment buildings of St Kilda Road, a glimpse of Albert Park Lake is just discernible in front of Hobson’s Bay and the horizon.

The Old Observatory building is mostly hidden behind large trees, except for the prominent telescope dome in the centre foreground. It wasn’t there in the old photograph because it was only built 14 years later, in 1889, to house another important instrument, the astrograph. Just visible behind some trees, slightly to the right of this, are the two older telescope housings identifiable from the old photo.

On the right of the new photo, the Shrine of Remembrance is now clearly visible. Further to the right, tall South Melbourne buildings hide most of the mouth of the Yarra.

Large trees dominate most of the foreground, including the site where the Great Melbourne Telescope used to be. No use looking for it because it was disassembled and shipped to Mount Stromlo in 1944, long after Melbourne’s city lights rendered it unsuitable for serious observation.

It was refurbished in Canberra in 1961 but, in due course, city lights made it unsuitable there too, so it was mothballed many years ago. Luckily parts of it survived the disastrous bushfires of 2003 fairly intact, so the Australian National University was persuaded to return it to Victoria. Since 2008 it has been in the possession of the Museum of Victoria where it is being carefully refurbished with a view to re-erecting it as a most imposing museum piece.

So what of the Old Melbourne Observatory? While it closed as long ago as 1944 some of the old buildings are still in use. The main building now houses the Observatory Café just outside the Botanic Gardens, and some of the old instruments still housed in them are used by the Astronomical Society of Victoria. The secretary of this group of enthusiastic amateurs, Mr Perry Vlahos, (author of a regular column in The Age Green Guide) hosts occasional public viewings of the sky from there.

Serious astronomical research has long been pursued at other sites, in Australia and overseas, which are uncluttered by man-made lights. As well, of course, from outer space, where the Hubble and other space telescopes are also available to Australian astronomers, including very active research groups at Swinburne University as well as at the University of Melbourne.

Emeritus Professor Tony Klein AM is a former Head of the School of Physics at the University of Melbourne and Chair of the Victorian Regional Group of the Australian Academy of Science.