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The Perth Observatory, 1940-1962

Utting, Muriel (1999) The Perth Observatory, 1940-1962. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Following the worldwide economic depression of the 1930s and the war years of the early forties the Perth Observatory was left in a rather dilapidated state. Its principal activities during this period were the time service and seismology and the former was a valuable contribution to the war effort. However due to economic constraints the Observatory staff had been reduced to two and this was barely sufficient to maintain these essential services.

With the retirement of the second Government Astronomer for Western Australia, H.B. Curlewis, in 1940 a young surveyor Hyman Solomon Spigl, was appointed as his replacement. He faced a daunting task of reviving the fortunes of the Perth Observatory in a difficult economic climate. However, he applied himself to the task and soon succeeded in having the Perth Astrographic Catalogues printed in Europe. This was a huge task involving the analysis of hundreds of photographic plates collected over 40 years of careful study. These plates were analysed at the Royal Edinburgh Observatory as a result of Spigl’s persistence and dedication. The Perth Astrographic Catalogues are now universally recognised as a valuable contribution to astronomy and their publication kept faith with a commitment made by the first Government Astronomer, Ernest Cooke in 1896.

Spigl also succeeded in maintaining and modernising the time service and this was an essential requirement for a modem industrial society. He fought tenaciously to retain the seismology service but the Commonwealth Government eventually took over control of this from the State, partly for defence purposes. Subsequently he tried to develop some scientific work in seismology at the Observatory but this was stifled by politics and a shortage of funds.

As the economic climate improved in the fifties, Spigl directed his efforts towards developing new projects for the Perth Observatory. He negotiated with American astronomers to install a Markowitz Moon Camera on the 13” astrographic refractor. This was used to determine the Moon’s position accurately by star occultations with the aim of deriving absolute measures of latitude and longitude. The project was of considerable interest to mapping agencies in Australia and overseas and this project was part of an international effort coordinated by the United States. Spigl made several visits to the USA for consultations on this project and other international cooperative ventures.

One of these was the international satellite tracking project known as Moonwatch, which began in the late fifties. This involved collaboration between the Perth Observatory and the Astronomical Society of WA in tracking the orbits of the first Earth satellites. This was a subject of great public interest and also of significance for defence purposes. This collaboration between amateur and professional astronomers was an excellent example of how high quality astronomical research could be carried out at a minimum cost.

Through these efforts Spigl built support in the community for astronomy and the Perth Observatory began to expand again in the late fifties. New staff were appointed and plans were made for the eventual move from Kings Park to Bickley. Unfortunately, H.S. Spigl died in 1962, at the age of 51, at the height of his career, and his work was completed by his assistant B.J. Harris.

This thesis explores the role of Spigl as a scientist interacting with Government, industry and the public to maintain a complex scientific institution in a difficult economic and political climate. It examines the difficulties that he faced in dealing with agencies and leaders who had short-term priorities and a lacked understanding of the long-term needs of scientific research. The success of Spigl's efforts despite these obstacles illustrates the skill required of scientists these days in managing major research facilities.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Division of Science and Engineering
Notes: Note to the author: If you would like to make your thesis openly available on Murdoch University Library's Research Repository, please contact: Thank you.
Supervisor(s): Jennings, Philip and Biggs, J.
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