John Tebbutt Rebuilding and Strengthening the Foundations of Australian Astronomy

by Wayne Orchiston

John Tebbutt Rebuilding and Strengthening the Foundations of Australian Astronomy This book marks the centennial of Tebbutt s death with a major biographical account surveying his scientific contributions to astronomy prefaced with a foreword by Sir Patrick Moore During the second half of the nineteenth century Tebbutt was Australia s foremost astronomer He devoted his time and funds to astronomy and built a truly international reputation that far surpassed Australia s leading professional astronomers of the day This book marks the centennial of Tebbutt s death with a

Publisher : Springer International Publishing

Author : Wayne Orchiston

ISBN : 9783319445205

Year : 2017

Language: en

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Category : History

Historical & Cultural Astronomy

Wayne Orchiston


Rebuilding and Strengthening the
Foundations of Australian Astronomy

Historical & Cultural Astronomy

More information about this series at

Wayne Orchiston

John Tebbutt
Rebuilding and Strengthening
the Foundations of Australian Astronomy

Wayne Orchiston
National Astronomical Research Institute of Thailand
Suthep District, Muang, Chiang Mai, Thailand

ISSN 2509-310X
ISSN 2509-3118 (electronic)
Historical & Cultural Astronomy
ISBN 978-3-319-44520-5
ISBN 978-3-319-44521-2 (eBook)
DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-44521-2
Library of Congress Control Number: 2016953048
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Astronomy is still one of the very few sciences in which independent astronomers
can play a valuable role and in which their work is welcomed by professional
astronomers. There have been many outstanding independent astronomers in astronomical history, and one of the greatest of these is, without doubt, John Tebbutt.
Tebbutt spent his entire life in Australia, and never ventured abroad, but his reputation was truly international. His home-built observatory at Windsor, in New South
Wales, was comparatively modest, but he made the best possible use of it, and his
work covered many aspects of observational research; he was also the discoverer of
two of the brightest comets of the nineteenth century, those of 1861 and 1881. Long
before the end of his career, he was accepted as Australia’s leading astronomer,
which, it has to be admitted, caused a certain amount of jealousy in some quarters,
and explains why he did not receive as much Government recognition as he unquestionably deserved (though this has been to some extent put right much more recently;
his portrait was to be found on an Australian banknote—an honour certainly unique
for an amateur astronomer—and a lunar crater has been named after him).
Up to now, there has been no full-scale biography of this remarkable man. Wayne
Orchiston is uniquely qualified to write one, and he has filled a notable gap in the
literature. His book gives full details of Tebbutt’s life and accomplishments, but it
does more than this; it paints a graphic picture of the scientific community of the
time, and does not attempt to gloss over Tebbutt’s rather strained relationships with
some of his contemporaries. At least, nobody ever questioned the quality of Tebbutt’s
observational work.
Wayne Orchiston has carried out a tremendous amount of research, and one outstanding feature of his book is the very extensive list of references, which will be of
great value to future historians of science. The text is also very readable, so that it will
be of equal interest to readers who have little or no prior knowledge of the subject.
This is a timely book, which has been long awaited. It merits a place in every
astronomical library and will certainly remain the standard work in its field.
Patrick Moore



How well I remember that sweltering Saturday back in 1959, not long after my
father had scored a new job and we all migrated across ‘the ditch’, from tiny Lincoln
in New Zealand, and settled in Sydney, Australia’s largest city. With lunch pack in
hand, I took the train from Wollstonecraft to Blacktown, in Sydney’s far-western
suburbs, and the rickety little rail motor out to Windsor, some 30 miles distant (see
Figs. P.1, P.2 and P.3 for Australian, greater Sydney and Windsor localities mentioned in this book). Then came a long hot walk from the station, my destination
being a conspicuous cluster of tall trees just east of the town where the weekend
before I had caught a fleeting glimpse of a dome-like structure amongst some old
trees as my father and I sped through Windsor for the first time by car.
Could this possibly be the famous Windsor Observatory of John Tebbutt? Some
years before, under the starry skies of my native New Zealand I had read with great
fascination about Tebbutt, and when our family shifted to Sydney at the end of 1958
it gave me an unexpected opportunity to go in search of this remarkable Australian
astronomer. But there was no point in raising my hopes unduly, for the Observatory
may not have survived the ravages of time—after all, Tebbutt had died in 1916,
more than 40 years earlier. These thoughts and others raced through my teenage
mind as I walked with mounting excitement through the town, the distant trees
growing ever nearer.
At long last, I reached the outskirts of picturesque historic Windsor (Fig. P.3),
passed the old courthouse and headed down Pitt Street, with paddocks on either
side, punctuated to the right by a line of willows marking South Creek. Upon nearing Palmer Street, I caught sight of the group of ageing trees I had glimpsed the
week before, plus a stately old two-storey homestead and a cluster of farm buildings, all nestled on a little hillock, surrounded by the fertile alluvial silts deposited
by flood-prone South Creek. As I moved ever closer, I suddenly saw it: one of the
supposed farm buildings underwent a visual metamorphism to emerge as a handsome little brick cottage, but surmounted by a green dome. Beside it was another,
much smaller, brick building, also topped by a dome (see Fig. P.4). There was no
doubt—I had ‘discovered’ Windsor Observatory. The thrill of that moment will live
with me forever!



Fig. P.1 Australian localities mentioned in this book (Map Wayne Orchiston)

Fig. P.2 The ‘greater Sydney region’, showing localities and geographical features mentioned in
this book (Map Wayne Orchiston)



Fig. P.3 Present-day Windsor, showing the locations of the Railway Station (1), the historic
Courthouse (2), South Creek (3), Tebbutt’s Homestead and Windsor Observatory (4), St. Matthew’s
Church (5) and the Hawkesbury Museum (6) (Map modifications Wayne Orchiston)

Fig. P.4 This is very similar to my first view, in 1959, of the Tebbutt Homestead (in the trees left
of centre) and assorted ‘farm’ buildings on the Peninsula Estate; initially, the dome of the ‘little
cottage’ was not obvious because of the large tree directly behind it (Photograph Wayne Orchiston)



Fig. P.5 John Halley Tebbutt (on the left) and my brother Peter Orchiston at the John Tebbutt
Observatories on 25 April 1992 (ANZAC Day); in those days, many people mistook Peter for my
twin brother (Photograph Wayne Orchiston)

Thus, began a research project that was to extend, intermittently, over more than
half a century and culminated in the writing of this book. In the process, I came to
know the owner of the property, Bruce Tebbutt (1904–1963), who was a grandson
of the astronomer, and his successor, a great-grandson named John Halley Tebbutt
(b. 1942; Fig. P.5).
I also explored the treasure trove of material in Sydney’s Mitchell Library,
deposited in 1917 by John Tebbutt’s son for the benefit of future researchers wishing to flesh out the astronomical skeleton of this greatest of Australian nineteenth
century astronomers. In addition to 16 annual reports and several volumes of meteorological observations (all published at his own expense), John Tebbutt left us copies of his published papers, tomes of inwards bound letters, observational notebooks
and a plethora of other invaluable archival material (for details, see the next chapter
of this book).
During 1960 and 1961, there were numerous weekend sorties to Windsor, sometimes with other members of the North Shore Astronomical Society, and I began
cleaning up the smaller observatory building with the intention of reassigning a telescope to it (Fig. P.6). I wrote my first Tebbutt ‘paper’ at this time (McDonagh and
Orchiston 1961), a simple three-page year-by-year compilation of the sorts of astronomical objects and events that Tebbutt had observed. So, it was not really a research
paper, or even a review paper, in the strict sense, but it did serve as an illuminating
guide for other members of the Society and as a source of inspiration for me.



Fig. P.6 This July 1973 photograph shows the ivy-covered stand-alone observatory in which the
North Shore Astronomical Society planned to instal an 18-in. (46-cm) reflector back in 1960–1961
(Photograph Wayne Orchiston)

For reasons that had mainly to do with my relative youth and poverty, unfortunately the Astronomical Society’s plan to install Ignace Debono’s historic 18-in.
(46-cm) reflector (see Orchiston and Bembrick 1995) in the dome never materialised, but this did not dampen my programme of archival research on Tebbutt, and
in 1968 I presented a 1 h lecture titled ‘Biography of a gentleman astronomer: John
Tebbutt, F.R.A.S’. at the 20 March meeting of the New South Wales Branch of the
British Astronomical Association in Sydney. A two-page precis of my paper was
printed in the Branch’s Bulletin the following month (Orchiston 1968).
Four years later, Joseph Ashbrook (1972) prepared a general account on Tebbutt
for international readers of Sky & Telescope, and in 1976 a volume of the Australian
Dictionary of Biography appeared with an essay on Tebbutt by the late Dr. Harley
Wood (1976), Director of Sydney Observatory. In the same year, Ann Moyal’s fascinating Scientists in Nineteenth Century Australia was published, and Tebbutt was
one of those who featured in the short section on ‘Astronomical Pioneers’ (Moyal
1976). Then, in 1979 and 1980, first Graeme White (Fig. P.7) and then Chris
Kimpton published review papers on Tebbutt that specifically targeted Australian
professional and non-professional astronomers, respectively.



Fig. P.7 In 1979, radio
astronomer Graeme White
was the first person to
bring John Tebbutt’s
achievements to the
attention of modern
Australian astronomers
(Photograph Wayne

While these developments were occurring, I was experiencing a self-imposed
exile from astronomy as the challenges of Ph.D. research and the resulting job-quest
took priority, and it was only in 1980 that I was able to return to my Tebbutt Project.
This turned out to be particularly timely since 1981 marked the centennial of
Tebbutt’s discovery of the Great Comet of 1881, and I was moved to prepare a commemorative paper for the occasion (Orchiston 1981; cf. Orchiston 1999a).
Centennials then proved excellent catalysts for further research. The year 1882
marked Tebbutt’s attempt to form Australia’s first national astronomical group, and
also the construction date of what was to become his largest and most important
telescope, and two further commemorative papers were prepared (Orchiston 1982a,
b). A summary of the second of these also was presented in absentia, and prior to
publication, at the 1982 national conference of the Royal Astronomical Society of
New Zealand. The late Dr. Frank Bateson, who was then the proud owner of the
telescope in question, kindly read the paper on my behalf.
These papers focussed on what I saw to be specific ‘critical events’ that had a
profound effect upon Tebbutt’s subsequent astronomical career, and I identified
three others. First, there was his discovery of the Great Comet of 1861; then, in 1862
he was offered (but declined) the vacant Sydney Observatory directorship; and in
1863 he established the Windsor Observatory. Papers on these last two topics were
published in 1988 (see Orchiston 1988a, b; see, also, Orchiston 2001).
Tebbutt’s appearance on the new Australian $100 note in 1984 generated for the
first time in nearly 70 years a heightened public awareness of who John Tebbutt was
and a demand for information about his achievements. After submitting a letter to
the editor of Sky and Telescope, I presented a review paper on Tebbutt as my
Presidential Address to the Astronomical Society of Victoria on 20 February 1986,
and followed this up with a feature article in The Age newspaper (Melbourne) on 8
February 1988 and a review paper in the English astronomical magazine, Astronomy
Now (Orchiston 1988c). Tebbutt also featured prominently in ‘The role of the amateur in early Australian astronomy’ (Orchiston 1989), one of three commissioned
review papers on the history of Australian astronomy that I prepared for Search in
connection with the Australian Bicentennial.



An important milestone occurred in 1987 when Tebbutt’s 1908 Astronomical
Memoirs was reprinted (see Tebbutt 1986), complete with an excellent ‘Introduction’
by Graeme White (1986). White also took advantage of the return of Comet 1P/
Halley in 1985 to examine Tebbutt’s observations of this comet in 1910 (see Roser
and White 1986). At about this time, I also published a number of short communications on different aspects of Tebbutt’s work (Orchiston 1987, 1990, 1991).
In 1993, the Australian astronomical historian, Dr. Ragbir Bhathal, produced a
short, popular paperback book titled Australian Astronomer John Tebbutt: the Life
and World of the Man on the $100 Note, and in 1996 Raymond and Ros Haynes,
David Malin and Dick McGee produced the masterly Explorers of the Southern Kky
…, which included numerous references to Tebbutt and his work.
In more recent times, I have prepared papers on Tebbutt’s Great Comets of 1861
and 1881 (Orchiston 1998b, 1999a) and on the history of the Windsor Observatory
(Orchiston 2001), an overview of his wide-ranging observational programmes
(Orchiston 2004b) and a detailed account of his variable star work (Orchiston
2000a). A case study relating to comets and amateur-professional tension in
Australasian astronomy (Orchiston 1999b), and review papers on nineteenth century astronomy education in Australia and on the formation and development of
Australia’s earliest astronomical societies (Orchiston 1997, 1998a), all contain substantial material about Tebbutt, and his long-running feud with Sydney Observatory
Director, H.C. Russell, is examined in Orchiston (2000b, 2002). At the General
Assembly of the International Astronomical Union, which was held in Sydney in
July 2003, I promoted Tebbutt’s achievements as Australia’s foremost nineteenth
century observational astronomer by preparing a poster paper about his observational work (a précis of the Orchiston 2004b paper mentioned above) and presenting
an oral paper on the Tebbutt Collection of manuscript material in the Mitchell
Library, Sydney (see Orchiston 2004a).
After working on a range of other topics, Ragbir Bhathal eventually returned to
write about John Tebbutt in 2009, and the following January a short popular article
appeared in the Royal Astronomical Society’s Astronomy & Geophysics (Bhathal
2010). Meanwhile, I presented a paper titled ‘The amateur-turned-professional syndrome: two Australian case studies’ at the StephensonFest Conference at the
University of Durham in April 2011, and while this dealt mainly with R.T.A. Innes
and C.J. Merfield, I did provide a theoretical framework within which to examine
the ‘ATP Syndrome’ and included John Tebbutt in this discussion (see Orchiston
2015, pp. 330–335).
The most recent presentation in which I specifically focussed on Tebbutt was
titled ‘John Tebbutt and the formation of Sydney’s earliest astronomical societies’.
This was the Keynote Paper presented at the 14 March 2015 seminar organised by
the Sydney City Skywatchers and Sydney Observatory to celebrate the 120th anniversary of the founding of the New South Wales Branch of the British Astronomical
Association. John Tebbutt was the inaugural President in 1895–1896, and it was an
honour for me to occupy this same office a little over a century later.
The foregoing narrative indicates that, one way or another, John Tebbutt has
been a conspicuous part of my astronomical consciousness for more than half a



century, so it is only fitting that I should end up writing a book about him. And the
timing is impeccable, for this year (2016) marks the centenary of his death.
I should mention that as an unexpected by-product of my Tebbutt research, the
‘Tebbutt Collection’—but particularly the numerous volumes of inward correspondence—in the Mitchell Library led me to study a number of other nineteenth century or early twentieth century astronomers (e.g. Beattie, Biggs, Bone, Butterfield,
Gale, Grigg, Hoskins, Howarth, Swindlehurst, Innes, Macdonnell, Merfield,
Roseby, Ross, Scott, Ward, Wooster and Hugh Wright), various cometary discoveries, notable historic telescopes, and the astronomical work of New South Wales
Lands Department. What began as a simple narrow-focus Tebbutt study became the
catalyst for a much broader trans-Tasman canvas which eventually extended to
Innes’ work in South Africa at the Cape and Union Observatories!
This book attempts to bring some of these research themes together by drawing
on my published works for many of the chapters. In the first Section of the book, I
begin by overviewing John Tebbutt’s life and achievements, and then discuss the
remarkable ‘Tebbutt Collection’ of records in the Mitchell Library that made this
study possible. Then follow two chapters which outline key developments in
Australian astronomy during the nineteenth century. These two chapters provide a
chronological context within which to place John Tebbutt’s astronomical contributions. Then follow ten different ‘Case Studies’, each of which deals with a different
specialised aspect of Tebbutt’s wide-ranging ‘astronomical portfolio’. Most of these
are based on published material, but parts of Chaps. 8, 11, 14 and 15 are new.
Despite the broad brush-strokes adopted here, I have not attempted to paint the
definitive picture of John Tebbutt, Australian astronomer extraordinaire. Rather, this
book is an introduction to what I feel are some of the more interesting aspects of his
illustrious astronomical career. In the course of the following chapters, I hope that
some of Tebbutt’s immense passion for astronomy comes through, together with the
interesting interplay of power, patronage and politics which served to make him a
key figure in late nineteenth century Australian astronomy.
Chiang Mai, Thailand

Wayne Orchiston

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Bhathal, R. (2010). Australia’s great comet hunter. Astronomy & Geophysics, 51, 1.23–1.25.
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Orchiston, W. (1981). Illuminating incidents in Antipodean astronomy: John Tebbutt and Great
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