Perth Observatory

Premier John Forrest Laying Foundation Stone

The original Perth Observatory was constructed in 1896 and was officially opened in 1900 by John Forrest, the first Premier of Western Australia. The observatory was located at Mount Eliza overlooking the City of Perth. Its chief roles were keeping Standard Time for Western Australia and Meteorological data collection.

In February 1896, William Ernest Cooke was appointed the first Western Australian Government Astronomer after a similar posting at the Adelaide Observatory. He began his new post at temporary quarters in the Legislative Council building and started upgrading the meteorological system initiated in 1867. Meanwhile, plans for the Observatory buildings were being prepared while the site was being surveyed by the officers of the Colonial Architect’s Department. The contract for the main building was let on 2 July 1896 for £6,622.19s, with a completion date of 3 March 1897. The foundation stone was subsequently laid on 29 September 1896.

The Foundation Stone

By the time the building was completed at the end of 1897, it had cost over seven thousand pounds ($14,000). In keeping with the intended use of the building, the Government Astronomer, W. E. Cooke, had prepared a design for the foundation stone that indicated the positions of the various planets in the zodiacal constellations at the time the stone was to be laid. On arrival in Perth, his first task was to determine the exact latitude and longitude of the colony. He was also able to determine the time of day with great accuracy. Before his arrival clocks could vary by up to half an hour. The time was announced each day by a cannon still present on the grounds. The design was by the government architect, George Temple-Poole, and features a bold combination of styles.

William Ernest Cooke

Cooke developed a time service that linked the Observatory electrically to a State-wide network, providing regular time signals to shipping at Fremantle, the State railways, the post office telegraph system, and controlled public clocks in Fremantle and Perth. In 1899, a public clock was placed at the entrance gates to the grounds on Malcolm Street and, in 1901-02, a time gun (cannon) was set up on the eastern slope of the site, facing the city, and fired daily for a 1pm time signal.

WEATHER MAPS PRODUCED BY COOKE #16 23rd & 24th April 1900
Weather Maps Produced By Cooke 23rd & 24th April 1900

Cooke toured the state extensively, visiting as far north as Wyndham and inland along the Murchison River. He established several new meteorological stations along the way, training local observers and equipping the stations. Weather data was transmitted from the country stations twice a day to the General Post Office in Perth by telegraph. He established a number of voluntary observation posts who transmitted weather data on a monthly basis. Using the observations, he produced the first daily weather maps and daily forecasts, for Perth, the Goldfields and the state. By about 1900, a general weather report, a special rainfall report, an isobar map and a forecast were produced each morning and posted for viewing in Perth and Fremantle.

He established the first official time service on his arrival in Perth. Using a chronometer and a borrowed theodolite, he determined an accurate solar time each night, clear skies permitting, and a time signal was telegraphed to the GPO at noon each day.

The Odolite

The Observatory’s two main telescopes arrived in 1898–99 but were not fully commissioned until October 1901.

In 1897 a small transit telescope replaced the theodolite and in about 1898 two standard German precision clocks were installed to track sidereal time and solar mean time. Several methods of broadcasting the time were used:

  • A time ball was dropped at 1 p.m. daily at the Round House at Fremantle
  • A time ball was dropped daily at the premises of opticians, ‘Frost and Stopham’ in Hay Street, Perth
  • A public clock controlled by the Observatory mean solar clock was installed at the Observatory front gates
  • A parent clock controlled by the mean solar clock was installed at Perth Railway Station, and time signals were telegraphed across the railway network
  • Time signals from two clocks at the main telegraph room at the Perth General Post Office were telegraphed to every telegraph station in the state
  • A time gun was fired at 1 p.m. at Perth and Fremantle

A six-pound cannon was purchased by the Observatory in November 1902 and used as a time gun.

  • His star cataloguing system was accepted at an international astronomical conference in Paris in 1909.
  • He developed a method of plotting the transit of tropical cyclones, and issuing weather warnings for shipping and pearling industries

He invented a type of heliochronometer which could be used to determine local time and true north accurately. The device was known as a sunclock. In 1924 the device won a gold medal at the British Empire Exhibition.

Type of Heliochronometer
  • He recognised that by using radio signals from other parts of the world would enable the accurate measurement of longitude. He worked with his son Basil, a pioneer amateur radio operator, who received time signals from Lyons, France. This technique was used in 1921 by the WA Government Astronomer, Curlewis and the SA Government Astronomer, Dodwell, at Deakin, Western Australia to fix a position for the 129th meridian east longitude (129° east). The same group also traveled to Wyndham, Western Australia to determine the WA/NT border on the ground.
  • Was influential in the introduction of probabilistic weather forecasts
  • Cooke is said to have patented over one hundred inventions

Satellite 3894 William Cooke and Mount Cooke in the Darling Scarp near Jarrahdale are named in his honour.

Observatory Dome being Demolished 1960s

The observatory dome was demolished in the 1960s to make way for the building of Dumas House for government offices, but the former chief astronomer’s house remains, and is now occupied by the National Trust.

New observatory at Bickley

In the 1960s, light pollution from the city of Perth and a small part of the implementation of the 1955 plan by Stephenson-Hepburn Report saw the land where the Perth Observatory resided make way for what was to initially be five government office blocks, however there was only one ever built, Dumas House. After nearly being closed by the State Government, the Observatory was moved to its current site at Bickley near Mount Gungin in the Darling Range.

When the land was being cleared for the site at Bickley a huge tree had to be felled. Unfortunately it fell the wrong way and crushed the tree-fellers car.

New Observatory Buildings at Bickley

By mid 1965, construction on the Administration building was well underway and in December 1965, the staff moved in.

Staff from the Observatory commuted extensively from Perth to the new site in Bickley, but several later purchased houses in Kalamunda.

New Observatory Buildings at Bickley

The official opening of the Perth (Bickley) Observatory occurred on 30th September 1966, by Sir David Brand, Premier of Western Australia and a new foundation stone was laid, 70 years and one day since the previous foundation stone was laid for the Perth Observatory. The Observatory cost $600,000 to construct.

Meridian 1st August 1965

After the administration building was completed, work on the telescope domes commenced. All work performed was by hand, with no drilling or blasting performed on the laterite rock, so as to ensure the stability of the site for use by the sensitive telescopes and measuring equipment.

The measures to ensure stability can be identified by the use of 50-year-old bricks, from the old W.A. Claremont Mental Asylum, being used for the piers of the Meridian Telescope.

Lowell Telescope Building

High up in the observatory tower is the Lowell telescope

It was donated by the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona so Perth could be part of a NASA program, the International Planetary Patrol, from 1970 to 1976.

When the Lowell Telescope was first installed at Bickley, there was a problem with the shutters that open to allow the telescope to view the stars. They were jammed open so a tarpaulin had to be pulled over the opening after every use. This tedious move had to be implemented again in recent years when there was a power failure.

Dr. Muriel Utting Honorary Historian

Whilst Honorary Historian, Dr. Muriel Utting wrote three books on the early history of the Observatory. This fantastic record is an invaluable record of the operations of the Observatory from 1896 to 1962.

The Perth Observatory has a tradition of nominating honorary historians and Mr. Craig Bowers currently holds that office having succeeded Dr. Utting. Craig is an excellent historian to write the next chapter of the history of the Perth Observatory as he worked as an astronomer for periods in the 1980s and 1990s. Craig knew many of the people and was personally involved in some of the astronomical programs and discoveries – most significantly the discovery of the “spiral arms” in comet Halley.

DR. MURIEL UTTING Honorary Historian #47

Recent history

The observatory has fought off several attempts to close the facility by the State Government, the most serious being in 1987 when it was part of the Department of State Services. An outcry from the public, scientific and amateur communities was helpful in retaining the observatory.

Centenary 1996

In January 1996, the centenary of its foundation, the observatory was transferred to the Department of Conservation and Land Management, now part of the Department of Parks and Wildlife (Western Australia).

Bickley Observatory heritage listed

In 2005 the Bickley site was heritage listed, being Australia’s oldest continuing operating observatory and Australia’s only remaining State Government operated astronomical observatory

Matt Woods

In 2013 the State Government cut the research program at the Bickley observatory, and two years later all staff but one, a caretaker, were made redundant.
This effectively ended the observatory’s role in offering science education and stargazing tours.
But then a group of 80 volunteers rallied, focused on keeping the facility open.
And against all odds they did.

As of July 2015, The Perth Observatory Volunteer Group runs the Observatory under a community partnership agreement between the Department of Parks and Wildlife and the Perth Observatory Volunteer Group which was signed in June 2015.

It’s no longer a research site, but a dedicated group of volunteers who love staring at the night sky are determined to keep the Perth Observatory open.
It’s an achievement tour administrator Matt Woods is enormously proud of.
“They gave us a one-year commercial lease agreement and said if we were really good, we were probably looking at a three or four-year lease after that,” he said.
“We actually got 10 years after that first year”.
“We are really excited that we have been able to get the observatory back up and running.”


Housed in special domes in the tree-lined grounds are the Observatory’s four major telescopes. The largest instrument, the automated Perth-Lowell 61-cm Cassegrain Reflector, is used for CCD (electronic} imaging, photometry and photography. The 33-cm Astrographic Refractor, the original main instrument, has been in use since 1901 when it was used to photographically map the southern skies. It is now used to photograph comets and asteroids in order for their orbits to be calculated. The 41-cm University Reflector was built by the University of WA Physics Department and is now mainly used for deep-sky photography. Recently, a 25-cm Robotic Telescope was built in the Observatory’s workshop. It is equipped with a CCD camera and is used to track comets and asteroids, and monitor the brightness of stars. A public viewing facility has been established and is equipped with several telescopes. Pride of place in this facility is the fully restored 32-cm Calver Telescope. It was originally purchased for the public to view Halley’s Comet – during the 1910 apparition! A 35-cm Schmidt Cassegrain Reflector is also used for public viewing as well as teaching.

Century-old astrographic telescope preserved

It also still houses the first telescope bought when the observatory was founded in West Perth in 1896, along with the original mount and dome, which was transported intact when the observatory moved to the hills in 1962.

“It was one of the first jobs that our first government astronomer, Sir William Ernest Cooke, had after planting the foundation stone,” Mr Woods said.

“He got on a ship, went to England and did a tour of the telescope makers.”

Cooke settled on a telescope made by famed Irish maker Sir Howard Grubb and it was installed by 1901.

“It is actually two telescopes — one where you look out and one with the glass plate for capturing images,” Mr Woods said.

The collection includes 100-year old telescopes, seismographs, meteorological instruments, clocks and chronometers, architectural drawings, glass photographic plates, working papers and correspondence.

The POVG has been working for the last four years identifying and cataloguing the heritage collection and now seeks to better interpret and display parts of that collection. The first step in this process is the development of an interpretation plan.

The plan is expected to be completed by the end of 2016 and with it, the POVG will look to revamp its existing display spaces.

Perth’s unique view of the universe

These days the facility’s volunteers run night sky tours, day tours with school groups and look after the telescopes and grounds in the Bickley hills. The observatory is also a museum dedicated to Perth’s long history in astronomy research.

It was responsible for 10 per cent of the images captured worldwide of Halley’s comet in the 1980s, and was one of two observatories that discovered the rings around Uranus.

“We live in an area where there are telescopes on the east coast and then there is nothing else until you get to South Africa, so we are smack, bang in the middle of where we need to be,” Mr Woods said.

Perth joins the International Planetary Patrol

“We were part of a group of different telescopes where NASA could get 24/7 access to Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn,” Mr Woods explained.

“They had probes and they wanted to see cloud rotations on Venus.

“With Mars, they were looking for dust storms because the Mariner probes were going out there.”

The Lowell telescope is more of a giant camera; it cannot be used to view space directly.

With its huge lens pointed skyward, the astronomers would take photographs on film and analyse them after they were developed.

In 1976 it was instrumental in the discovery of rings around Uranus — a realisation only made when they looked at the developed film the next day.

Nothing beats looking at the stars

While the Government has now switched its focus and funding to radio astronomy, including the Square Kilometre Array in the Mid West, among the general public there is an enduring fondness for old-fashioned stargazing.

The observatory hosts hundreds of visitors, even during winter, on its tours.

“There is something about just looking through an actual eye piece and seeing it for yourself,” Mr Woods said.

“There is nothing like looking at Saturn and seeing the rings on a crisp night, seeing the actual division between the rings.

“Or seeing something like the Tarantula Nebula which is 160,000 light years away from our own galaxy.

“Stuff like that just blows your mind when you have a look at it and you just see what an awesome place the universe is.”

The Perth Observatory is Western Australia’s oldest observatory which is located 35km east of Perth in Bickley. The Observatory has served WA for over 120 years and remains actively involved in the service of public education through Day Tours for schools and Night Sky Tours for the public. In recognition of its scientific, cultural and historical significance, the Observatory was entered on the state’s Heritage Register in 2005.

As of the 1st of July 2015, the Perth Observatory Volunteer Group has been running the Observatory for the Western Australian Government, so we can continue to provide the Observatory with a bright future and a place to inspire the public and young minds.

Some of the important research that has been completed at the Observatory include:

  • Co-discovered Uranus’s ring system
  • Publishing numerous Meridian Catalogues during its history
  • Was part of the NASA International Planetary Patrol in partnership with the Lowell Observatory
  • Our Astrographic telescope produced 10% of all ground-based positions for Comet Halley
  • Our Automated Supernova Search has discovered 30 supernovae
  • Discovered 29 Minor Planets between 1970 and 1999
  • Helped discover the super-earth exoplanet OGLE-2005-BLG-390lb
Restored 1899 6-inch Troughton & Simms Meridan Telescope

The Observatory conducts many and varied tours and talks. They are very active with special programs for school visits. For full details visit their website.

Of interest for viewing is the fully restored 1899 6-inch Troughton & Simms Meridan Transit Cirle Telescope on display in the front foyer of the Perth Observatory at Bickley. Also you must view the rare astronomical book,”Atlas Coelestic” by the first Government Astronomer of England. This book was donated to the Perth Observatory in August 2001 and is believed to be one of only ten in the world.

References:           Article:         Pickering Brook Heritage Group
                                              Half a Century of the Perh Obervatory in Bickley by Craig Bowers

                           Images:      1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, 18, 19, 21, 22, 40      Battye Library
                                             15, 17, 20, 41, 42, 43       Internet
                                             23         John Goldsmith
                                             24, 25, 35, 36, 38, 48            Perth Observatory
                                             26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 37, 39, 44, 45, 46, 47       Kalamunda & Districts Historical Society
                                             49, 50          Gordon Freegard