Sydney has many beautiful, historic buildings and this week, The Past Present is examining one of the more well known of these – Sydney Observatory. The postcard above dates from the early 1900s and shows the Observatory and the grounds surrounding it.
Sydney’s first observatory was established in 1788 by William Dawes at what was then called Point Maskelyne, in honour of the famous Astronomer who supplied Dawes with books and instruments. The name was later changed to Dawes Point. After Dawes returned to England in 1791 the observatory fell into disuse. In 1821 Governor Brisbane built a private observatory in Parramatta, not far from Government house, and after Brisbane left the colony, his astronomical instruments were purchased by the government.
By 1847 the Parramatta Observatory was in a state of disrepair. In 1856 Governor William Denison selected what is now known as Observatory Hill as the location for the Sydney Observatory because, standing 40 metres above sea level, it was the highest point in Sydney. Originally, there were only plans to build the time-ball tower, which would drop its ball at 1pm on a daily basis, in conjunction with a cannon fired at Dawes Point to let residents and ships in the harbour know the accurate time. When the observatory was actually built though, the design included two telescope rooms, offices and even accommodation for the astronomer and his family. By 1877 the observatory was in need of extension and a library, additional offices and a third telescope room were added.
Sydney Observatory remained in continuous use from the time of its construction until 1982 when ownership and management of the site was transferred to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, now known as the Powerhouse Museum.