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Flagstaff Observatory, 1858-1863

Theodolite - Ertel, 13 Inch, 1850s

Image: Theodolite - Ertel, 13 Inch, 1850s

Source: Museum Victoria

Flagstaff Observatory, established at Flagstaff Hill in central Melbourne in 1858, was the creation of German scientist Georg Balthasar von Neumayer. He had trained as a physicist, and absorbed the current interest in terrestrial magnetism and its practical importance for navigation and exploration. Neumayer visited Victoria in 1852, and spent time as a miner at Bendigo and ship's mate on coastal vessels. While in Victoria he developed the idea of establishing a magnetic and meteorological observatory in Melbourne, applying the new sciences to virtually unexplored terrain.

Back in Germany, Neumayer lobbied to raise funds for his Australian project, receiving support for the purchase of instruments from King Maximilian II of Bavaria, and funds from the City of Hamburg for an oceanographic survey on the voyage to and from Australia. Arriving back in Melbourne in January 1857, Neumayer initially struggled to get support from the Victorian government, with some local scientists seeing Neumayer as a threat to plans for a new astronomical observatory, and politicians sceptical of the practical value of such research. In any event Neumayer received financial support both from the local German community in Melbourne, and a government grant to employ staff and repair the old Flagstaff Hill signal station for use as an observatory.

The Flagstaff Observatory commenced observations in March 1858, establishing a series of meteorological observations, measurements of atmospheric electricity, and observations of the various elements of terrestrial magnetism. (Kew Observatory in England had commenced a similar range of observations in 1850; Neumayer was in correspondence with Edward Sabine, who was analysing the Kew data.) The magnetic and electrical observations were made every hour, night and day, every day of the year, requiring an assistant to make the observations and enter them in a register. One of the first assistants was young surveyor William J. Wills, who left Flagstaff Observatory in 1860 to join the ill-fated Burke and Wills Expedition.

Flagstaff Observatory took over official responsibility for meteorological measurements from the Crown Lands Department in March 1859, and Neumayer coordinated the gathering of measurements from throughout the colony. He also undertook an extensive magnetic survey of the colony, which provided baseline data and practical information for magnetic correction of maps. Neumayer also examined nearly 200 ships logs from ships' captains who had voyaged to Victoria from Europe, in order to analyse weather and ocean currents.

Neumayer was cautious about making unsustainable claims about potential correlations between the different kinds of physical, meteorological and oceanographic data he was gathering. At this stage, his energies were directed at making reliable series of observations that could feed into subsequent international analyses.

As early as 1860 it became clear that Flagstaff Observatory was no longer an ideal site. In mid-1859, an iron shed and sawmill were erected nearby, creating disturbances to the delicate magnetic instruments. Neumayer and Robert Ellery, in a similar situation with an unsuitable observatory site at Williamston, began in 1860 to discuss future sites for a combined astronomical, meteorological and magnetic observatory, which would result in the establishment of Melbourne Observatory in 1863.

Flagstaff Observatory ceased its observations in November 1863, as responsibility for the magnetic and meteorological observations passed to Melbourne Observatory. Neumayer completed his magnetic survey of Victoria, and departed in June 1864, although his final analysis of his Victorian data would not be published until 1867.

References:
First Annual Report of the Board of Visitors of the Astronomical and Magnetical Observatories, Victorian Parliamentary Papers, 1860-61.
Home, R.W. (1991). 'George Neumayer and the Flagstaff Observatory, Melbourne,' in J. Tampke & D. Walker, eds, From Berlin to the Burdekin, Sydney: New South Wales University Press, pp.40-53.
Home, R. W. & Kretzer, Hans-Jochen. (1991). 'The Flagstaff Observatory, Melbourne: New Documents Relating to its Foundation,' Historical Records of Australian Science, 8: pp.213-243.
Neumayer, G. (1858). 'Description and System of Working of the Flagstaff Observatory,' Transactions of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria, 3: pp.94-103.
Neumayer, G. (1867). Discussion of the Meteorological and Magnetical Observations made at the Flagstaff Observatory, Melbourne, during the years 1858-1863, Mannheim.

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