The Legacy of Mt Stromlo

By Paul Curnow [B.ED]

Just over 100 years ago a South Australian-born astronomer named Walter Geoffrey Duffield (1879-1929) was to propose a national solar observatory for Australia. Duffield, who was born at Gawler, had noted the lack of solar observatories in Australia. In 1911, Pietro Paolo Giovanni Ernesto Baracchi (1851-1926) the Government Astronomer of Victoria would travel to Mt Stromlo with his assistant Joseph Mason Baldwin (1878-1945), in order to site-test the location for its suitability for our first Commonwealth Solar Observatory. Baracchi who was also likely the first professional Italian-born astronomer in Australia, would use a telescope that was donated to them by James Oddie of the Ballarat Observatory.

Consequently, in 1924, Mt Stromlo was established as a solar observatory and Walter Geoffrey Duffield would become the Mt Stomlo Observatory’s first director (then still known as the Commonwealth Solar Observatory). However, he would only serve as Director for a short time as he suddenly died at the age of 50 in 1929. He was buried at the top of Mount Stromlo near the Oddie Telescope; overlooking the observatory he so loved. Due to the economic climate of the time there was a lapse of 10-years before a new Director would be appointed. The observatory would continue to expand and in 1939 after the appointment Sir Richard van der Riet Woolley (1906-1986) the focus of the observatory would change to non-solar observations and the word solar was dropped off the official name to become Commonwealth Observatory. It was only later in January 1957 that the observatory would officially be known as the Mount Stromlo Observatory.

The 2nd Director of the observatory, Richard Woolley, was born in the U.K. and had studied in South Africa & Britain. He had also spent two years at the renowned Mount Wilson Observatory in California; therefore, his experience made him a sure choice as the new director in 1939. Ironically, he had campaigned to have the word ‘solar’ dropped from the name even though the majority of his own work still focussed on the Sun. Woolley turned out to be an exceptional diplomat and was largely responsible for bringing the large telescopes to the MSO.
(Picture 1: Richard Wooley)

Recently, I was able to visit the Mt Stromlo Observatory and although I was aware of the devastating bushfires of 2003, I don’t think that I had seriously contemplated what was lost on that fateful day. Before I had taken up astronomy seriously as a passion, I had first visited the observatory 21 years ago and was looking forward to revisiting the site. The first thing I noticed during the short drive to the top was the many clumps of large pine forests that were present over 20 years ago, were now completely gone. Upon reaching the summit of the observatory at 770 metres, the damage is immediately apparent.


Over 20 years ago, at the top of the road, I remember being greeted by a shiny silver dome, however, as I reached the summit, the dome was no more and all that remains is a skeletal shell of this once great observatory. This shell once housed the largest refracting telescope in Australia, the 26-inch (66cm) Yale-Columbia Refractor. Built in 1923-24 for the Yale University, it would first be installed at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa as the Yale-Southern-Station in 1925. However, as the metropolis of Johannesburg expanded, light pollution insidiously crept into the once dark skies. As a result, in 1952, Richard Woolley arranged for the telescope to be moved to Mount Stromlo.
(Picture 2: The dome as it appeared over 20-years ago)

In South Africa, the Yale-Columbia Refractor had been used to measure stellar parallaxes and this work would be continued at Mt Stromlo. From 1955-1963, it was utilised to measure over 2,000 stellar parallaxes. The lenses for the telescope had been manufactured by McDowell of Pittsburgh in 1923 and the telescope tube and mounting were built in the Yale University workshop. In 1943 the Columbia University joined the program and the telescope became known as the ‘Yale-Columbia Refractor’. In the mid-1960’s and early 1970’s, it was used to help to determine the orbits of Jupiter’s & Saturn’s satellites for the Voyager Spaceprobe missions to the outer planets. Then from 1977-1992 it would be used to resume its stellar parallax measurements by observers from the University of Virginia. Additionally, in 1994, it was used to video the impact of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 on the gas giant planet Jupiter.
(Picture 3: The Yale-Columbia Refractor dome as it appears today)

Ominously, on the 18th of January 2003, Canberra would witness some of the worst bushfires in Australian history. This firestorm would destroy over 500 houses and four people would lose their lives as a result. It would also result in the greatest scientific tragedy in Australia as the fires crept towards the Mt Stromlo Observatory. Sadly, this would be the last dawn for the Yale-Columbia Refractor and many other telescopes at the site.

A short walk up the road from the Yale-Columbia dome stands the large dome of the 74-inch (1.9-metre) Reflector. This telescope like so many others was totally destroyed in the bushfire. As I peered through the dome window, there frozen in time was the telescope as it appeared after the firestorm, it was somewhat depressing to see the charred and melted remains of this once great telescope. The 74-inch Reflector had been manufactured by the renowned Grubb-Parsons in the UK and erected at Mt Stromlo 1954-55. It had actually been completed in 1951, but was delayed as it was placed on display at the London Exhibition. Furthermore, construction of the building and the dome were delayed and it was not officially inaugurated until November 1955. It was then the largest optical telescope in Australia and the equal largest telescope in the southern hemisphere until 1974 when the Anglo-Australian Telescope would take this title. This telescope was used to study the dynamics and structure of the Milky Way & Magellanic Clouds. Furthermore, it gave us a greater understanding of the chemical evolution of our galaxy and the Magellanic Clouds. This earthbound cosmic leviathan would identify quasars and enigmatic black holes, and at various times held the record for identifying the youngest, oldest and most distant objects known to humankind. It was the starry backbone of the observatory that was tragically snuffed out in 2003.
(Picture 4: The remains of the 74-inch dome)

Another of the great telescopes that would meet its end on that fateful day was the 50-inch Reflector (1.3-metre). Once known as the “Great Melbourne Telescope” (GMT) it was originally built in 1868 by Grubb in Ireland. When installed at the Melbourne Observatory it was the largest steerable telescope in the world. However, the telescope was plagued with a number of problems and proved to be somewhat of a ‘white elephant’, and was only employed from 1869-1893. It then remained out of use for over 50-years. In March 1944, because of encroaching light pollution, the Melbourne Observatory closed and the Mt Stromlo Observatory bought the telescope. It was extensively rebuilt from its original 48-inch mirror design and became the 50-inch Reflector, fitted with a new Pyrex glass mirror. Between 1956 and the late 1970’s this telescope was used extensively for photometry (measuring star brightness) and spectroscopy. Then after an extensive rebuild in the 1980’s it was used as part of the MACHO (Massive Astrophysical Compact Halo Objects) Program in the search for dark matter in the Universe. In 2000, the telescope was used to search for Pluto-like dwarf worlds that might reside in the outer regions of our solar system.

The 30-inch (76cm) Reynolds Reflector was another telescope severely damaged in the blaze. John Henry Reynolds (1874-1949), the wealthy British industrialist and amateur astronomer had donated the telescope to the Australian Government in 1924. Reynolds was a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society for over 50-years and had previously donated another 30-inch telescope to Egypt. Installation of this telescope took place from 1927-1929. In the 1940’s and 1950’s, it was used for some of the earliest detailed studies of southern stellar types and galaxies. During the 1950’s, it was used to study Cepheid variable stars in the Magellanic Clouds which went on to prove that the Universe was twice as old and twice as large as previously thought. It was refurbished in the 1970’s and by the 1990’s amateur astronomers were using it to monitor supernovae events.
(Picture 5: The remains of the 30-inch dome)

The old Commonwealth Solar Observatory building was also gutted in the fire. Ironically this building had survived another blaze that seriously damaged the observatory back in the early 1950’s. However, this time the extensive library and years of records were lost. The two small domes at either end of the building were also severely damaged. In addition, the Director’s residence was completely destroyed and only the walls stand to this day. Perhaps one of the most poignant losses in 2003 was the very telescope that was used to first site-test the location for the Commonwealth Solar Observatory.

The ‘Oddie Telescope’ was a 9-inch (23cm) refractor that had been built by Thomas Grubb in Ireland in 1888. As mentioned earlier, it had been used by Pietro Baracchi (1851-1926) and other Melbourne Observatory staff in order to establish the suitability of the site from 1911-1913. By the 1930’s the telescope was doing valuable work studying the spectra of stars, and in the 1940’s it was being used to determine the orbits of binary stars in order to establish their masses. From the early 1970’s, the Oddie Telescope became the main public outreach telescope for the facility. Interestingly, parts of this telescope may once again rise like a phoenix from the ashes. Professor Fred Watson from the Siding Spring Observatory informs me that there is interest in rebuilding what little remains of this historical telescope.

Also lost in the January 2003 blaze was a laser range finding facility. Nevertheless, the sun has once again risen over Mt Stromlo because the My Stromlo Laser Range Finding Facility was completely rebuilt and officially reopened in 2004. This facility is used to track the positions of satellites and does so by bouncing a laser-beam off the satellite in order to establish that it is at the correct distance from Earth in its orbit. The facility is also used to track Near-Earth Objects (NEO’s), and can track objects as small as in the 1-20cm range. The Mt Stromlo Observatory without doubt was the premiere observatory in Australia during most of the 20th century until the Anglo-Australian Observatory near Coonabarabran in N.S.W. was established. It achieved many firsts and gave humankind a greater understanding of the cosmos in which we reside. It continues its astronomy tradition with the new Research School of Astronomy & Astrophysics: Advanced Instrumentation & Technology Centre which was built to replace the workshops lost in the 2003 blaze. Furthermore, it has invested in the new 1.3 metre ‘SkyMapper Telescope’ at the Siding Spring Observatory that will provide a deep digital map of the sky.

Mt Stromlo is a serene place; it offers stunning views of the surrounding countryside and the outer suburbs of Canberra. It still attracts astronomers from all over the world to hone their skills in astronomy. It is a popular destination for amateur astronomers, mountain bikers and tourists. I highly recommend you make the pilgrimage to this sacred-site of astronomy and take pleasure in the celestial ambience of the place.

Watson, Fred, 2004, Stargazer: The Life & Times of the Telescope, Allen & Unwin, Australia.
Haynes, Raymond, Haynes, Roslynn, Malin, David, & McGee, Richard, 1996, Explorers of the Southern Sky, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
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Updated 20th February 2011