On 31 March 1855, a memorandum from Governor Sir William Denison to the Executive Council, led to the decision on 4 April 1855 to re-establish the Observatory. (1) The previous Observatory, at Parramatta, had closed down due to the decay of the building and the misconduct of the Government Astronomer.
Rev. William Scott was appointed Astronomer, 16 April 1856 (4). On his arrival in Sydney, 31 October 1856, his first duty was to select a site for the new building. He and Governor Denison chose the site on which the Observatory now stands. The building was commenced in May 1857 and was advanced far enough to begin meridian observations in June 1858. The Time Ball Tower was first used 5 June 1858. It was dropped daily and was 'considered to be correct within half a second'. (5)
An Observatory Board was formed in 1858 for the purpose of inspecting the Observatory and receiving the Astronomer's report. (6) It held its first meeting on 2 December 1858 and described the objectives of the Observatory as 'the determination of the geographical position of Sydney, and other points in the Colony; the accurate determination of mean time, for the use of numerous ships which visit our ports; and the taking part, as a nation, in the advancement of astronomical science'. (7)
In 1906, at the Premier's Conference, it was decided that the Commonwealth take over meteorological work, leaving astronomy to the States. As a result, the meteorological section of the Observatory became a Commonwealth agency in 1908. (8)
An Honorary Board of Visitors was appointed by the Minister for Education in January 1916 and held its first meeting on August 16, reconstituting the Observatory Board which lapsed in 1876-77. The main functions of the Board were to inspect the instruments from time to time; to advise the Government on matters of equipment; and to take a general oversight and interest in the institution. (9)
The location of the Observatory had been considered unsatisfactory soon after its establishment. In 1907 the astronomer announced the selection of a new site "on or near the Canablas Mountain in the vicinity of Orange". (10) In July 1925, the astronomer, Cooke, wrote to his minister urging for relocation of the Observatory to Wahroonga as 'it was almost useless to continue at the present site and with the present equipment.' Rather than bear the cost of removal and re-equipment, the Government decided to close the Observatory in October. Only the protests of the Board of Visitors, the Royal Society of New South Wales, the New South Wales Branch of the British Astronomical Association and the University of Sydney prevailed on the Government to allow it to continue - but with heavily reduced staff and program. Only the time ball and a scaled down astrographic program survived. (11)
The decision to dis-establish Sydney Observatory was due to several issues. The transfer of meteorology to the Commonwealth in 1908 removed the Observatory's most high profile public service; electric telegraphy and radio had reduced, and in time, eliminated the need for local navigational and time services; and ambient city light so restricted astronomical observation that the place was becoming more useful as an astronomical educational centre and de facto museum. (12)
The final decision for the closure of the Observatory came about when the Board wrote to the Minister stressing the need for a new location, which resulted in a letter from the Premier, Neville Wran, to the Chairman of the Board of Visitors, Donald Morton, dated 8 June 1982. The letter announced his decision to 'transfer the Observatory to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences and discontinue scientific work.' The Premier explained 'the decision ... has been prompted both by the financial constraints and the limitations of the present site, and by a recognition that modern astronomical research is probably best conducted as part of the work of the major national and international institutions'. (13)
The Trustees of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences accepted responsibility for the Sydney Observatory from July 1982. (14) The scientific work at the Observatory ceased early in April 1983. Plans for the restoration of the fabric of the building and its rare collection of scientific instruments commenced. (15) The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences Progress review, 1981 - 1982 commented as follows:
" The Observatory project comprises a conjunction of superbly promising conditions: it has a noble 124 year history of research, giving it rare character: it is housed in a highly significant complex of buildings, giving it special aptness as an exercise in historic preservation and regeneration; and it is located close to The Rocks, Sydney's most popular tourist venue, giving it access to an eager audience." (16) The Museum mounted a temporary exhibition of astronomy and timekeeping commencing in June 1983 to mark the new role of the Observatory. (17)
(1) Correspondence relative to the appointment of a Colonial Astronomer in Votes and Proceedings of the Executive Council, 1856 - 57 vol 2 p.139.
(3) ibid., p.144.
(4) Returns of the Colony, 1857, p. 290 [4/290].
(5) Astronomer's Report to the Observatory Board, 2 December, 1858 in Votes and Proceedings of the Executive Council, 1858 Vol.1, p.844.
(6) Suggestions for the formation of an Observatory Board in Votes and Proceedings of the Executive Council, 1858 Vol 1, p.841.
(7) Astronomer's Report upon the necessity of [acquiring an] Equatorial Instrument for the Observatory in Votes and Proceedings of the Executive Council, 1858 Vol 1 p.849.
(8) Kerr, J. S., 'Sydney Observatory: a conservation plan for the site and its structures". Sydney, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, 1991, p.31.
(9) NSW Department of Education Annual Report for 1916, p.21 in NSW Parliamentary Papers, 1917-1918 Vol 2, p. 223 and Concise Guide 2nd edition.
(10) Annual report of the Minister for Public Instruction, 1907 p. 23 in NSW Parliamentary Papers, Second Session 1908 Vol.1, p. 1157.
(11) op.cit., Kerr. pp.33 - 34.
(12) ibid., p.34.
(13) ibid., pp.35-36.
(14) Concise Guide to the State Archives of New South Wales. 2nd ed. q.v. "Sydney Observatory", p.70.
(15) Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences Progress Review 1981 - 82, p.20.
(17) Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences Progress Review, 1983, p.12.
(1) "Concise Guide", 2nd Edition. "Sur - Y ", "Sydney Observatory " p.70.
(2) Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, 1982 p.7.