The tale of a telescope

In this month’s Journal for the History of Astronomy I have a book review of Richard Gillespie’s The Great Melbourne Telescope – a book I enjoyed reading and a review I enjoyed writing.

The Great Melbourne Telescope. Richard Gillespie (Museum Victoria Publishing, Melbourne, 2011). Pp. 188. AUD 29.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-92183-305-2.

This readable and well-illustrated book takes a journey that begins in 1840s Ireland and passes through the astronomical élites of Victorian Britain, colonial Australian society and twentieth-century international collaborative research programmes. The telescope that provides the focus of this story is both a remarkable physical pres- ence and an object of different meanings in the minds of those who dreamed it up, designed it, built it, worked with it or simply visited it. The cast of characters who swiftly cross these pages include British princes, a Fenian agitator, colonial officials and, of course, astronomers major and minor.

Gillespie commendably handles this broad canvas and the specific or more technical details. The content, bibliography and endnotes are proof of knowledge and research that is woven well into an engaging narrative, only occasionally weighted down with the detail necessary to explain the frequent delays and pauses that characterized the history of this telescope. Each chapter opens with a section of semi-dramatized storytelling that, although it felt a little artificial with repetition, works to keep the reader’s interest and, more importantly, to focus attention on telling episodes.

Thus the first chapter opens on a cold night in Ireland, with Lord Rosse, Sir James South and Thomas Romney Robinson observing with Rosse’s ‘Leviathan’. These men, the ambitious telescope and the aim of resolving disputes about the nature of nebulae form the story’s background. The southern hemisphere beckoned as a field that, despite John Herschel’s work, remained relatively unexplored, and with climates more promising than Ireland’s for the use of large mirrored telescopes. Rosse and Robinson, while President of the Royal Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science respectively, had their moment in 1852 to create the joint Southern Telescope Committee.

The published correspondence of this committee presents the historian with a wonderful resource to explore the currents of astronomical research, telescope design, politics and personalities. Disagreements caused delay as did, almost fatally to the project, the Crimean War. It took intense lobbying from the colonies to revive the project, and so enters, in the second chapter, the bounding figure of William Wilson, an ambitious, undiplomatic professor of mathematics in Melbourne. Gillespie’s account of society in colonial Victoria is particularly well drawn, with a sense of its burgeoning development until depression hit late in the century. It is a place where names and fortunes could be made, where local, colonial and national identities were consciously developed, and where a large telescope could make a big statement.

The following two chapters open with the drama of casting the telescope’s mirror at Thomas Grubb’s Dublin workshop, and with the Melbourne Observatory’s director, Robert Ellery, writing to explain the difficulties encountered working the telescope at a distance from British and Irish expertise. Not until chap. 5 and the 1870s do we see “The telescope at work” in a regular, satisfying manner, although problems remained in finding observers, keeping the mirrors untarnished and producing results that would justify the costs. As described in the following chapter, however, justification was also found in telescope’s symbolic role within Melbourne and beyond. From the beginning, monthly open evenings were held, and the telescope’s educative, or public relations, role as “the city’s scientific icon” (p. 119) should not be underestimated.

The affection felt for this instrument explains its final chapter. While economic slowdown and changing priorities meant that it was largely unused in the first half of the twentieth century, its symbolic importance, along with claims of economy, let to its post-war “Rebirth”. Twice it was completely remodelled, with increasingly automated operation and a new mirror collecting light for analysis by a host of instru- ments. Where once the observer tackled the telescope manually, trained his eye to see and interpret the faint light of nebulae, and recorded his impressions in drawing and lithograph, now the Great Melbourne Telescope’s light was analysed by computer in the search for evidence of dark matter.

This new life was ended by a bushfire in 2003. This disaster has, however, given Victoria’s Museum and Astronomical Society the opportunity to reunite the original Grubb axes and bearings with parts of the telescope long-since removed. Because of the desire to use the instrument for public observing sessions, it will be fitted with new mirrors and finding system, creating a curious hybrid, like most of our working historical telescopes. While astronomical research continues onward to ever-larger reflectors, this instrument will play its old role of engaging the public with astronomy. And as Richard Gillespie’s enjoyable book makes clear, it should also lead visitors to consider Australia’s astronomical heritage, tied closely as it is to the history of the nation itself. The telescope’s story is one worth telling.

5 thoughts on “The tale of a telescope

  1. I don’t know if anyone has already written a book about it, but if not it is a suggestion of follow-up for the author to write about other emotional Australian “telescope”: Hanbury-Brown intensity interferometer. I would be in line to buy such a book too.

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