Trip 4:August 5, Part 1

Cool, dazzling morning. I was up at 7 and off to see Sydney. Had a cup of tea and toast with Vegemite, and then Brian and I headed for the train station. The magpies were caroling and gum trees lined the streets. Glorious. I am wildly happy to be back.

Pleasant train ride into the city, through rambling suburbs and over the Parramatta River. Disembarked at the Wynyard Station. Even the shops in the underground station made it clear that I’m “somewhere else,” and I was nearly giddy with delight. Did I not believe I’d be able to return?

I emerged from the station to the bustling streets of downtown Sydney. Heading over to George Street, I turned toward the harbor, walking down to Circular Quay and along the shore, through the Rocks, up under the Harbour Bridge, past Dawes Point, and into to the Miller’s Point area. This stroll took me through an area that is impossibly rich in Australian history—and it was a piece of that early history that drew me on.

Australia’s history is rather anchored in stargazing. The coast was first mapped by Captain Cook on a trip that had sent him to the South Seas to observe the transit of Venus. During the 1700s and 1800s, both navigation and scientific curiosity were turning eyes skyward. Australia’s first observatory was built almost immediately after the arrival of the First Fleet by Lieutenant William Dawes on the point of land that is now known as Dawes Point. A larger and more formal observatory was built in 1858—the Sydney Observatory —and it was here that I was headed.

The observatory itself is quite wonderful—a heritage building on a historic site—and the museum it contains is delightful. I browsed through the often beautiful antique orreries, clocks, models of the solar system, telescopes, and other devices used in the 1800s for studying the motion of planets. I enjoyed the displays and videos that offered detailed insights into not only how the tools helped with research but also how observations fit into everyday life.

I learned about Australian astronomer and meteorologist Henry Chamberlain Russell. He began working at the observatory when it first opened in 1858, as a calculator, back when humans did the work machines do now. By 1862, he was the working director, and in 1870, he was appointed the official government astronomer. He took some of the first photographs of the southern skies—and the images were outstanding.

Russell increased the number of meteorological stations and worked on making measurements of time more precise. These were astonishingly important things for a world bounded by water. I learned that a brass ball on top of the observatory was dropped every day at exactly 1:00 p.m., so that all the ships in the harbor could set their chronometers accurately. The observatory’s telescope (among other things) made it possible to calculate time more accurately.

On display was the Earnshaw 520 Chronomoter, made by British watchmaker Thomas Earnshaw. This was one of five chronometers used on the voyage of explorer Matthew Flinders—and is the only one still working at the end of the three-year voyage (1801–1803) that first circumnavigated Australia. Also on display was a book on longitude, published in 1808, in which Earnshaw related to the public his contributions to the development of chronometers, particularly making them more cost effective and therefore more widely available. It reminded me that things we not take for granted were once new and rare.

So much more to see and learn, but those (and a display on the transit of Venus, important to both Cook and Russell) were among the most significant early histories of the place. The rest needs to be seen.


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Filed under Australia, History, Science, Travel

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