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Early Meteorology in Australia

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Australia has a long history of Meteorology, dating back to the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. Many of Australia’s earliest meteorological observations were conducted from Sydney Observatory, and the Australian Bureau of Meteorology eventually formed out of Sydney Observatory’s efforts in recording the weather.

Lieutenant William Dawes, who came out to Australia with the First Fleet, made the first recorded meteorological observations in Australia. In 1821 Governor Thomas Brisbane arrived in New South Wales from Scotland, and set up the colony’s first observatory near Government House at Parramatta. He brought with him a range of meteorological instruments, and began making weather observations from Parramatta from about October 1822 onwards.

By 1840 meteorological stations had been established at South Head and Port Macquarie, as well as in Melbourne. The observations were kept by convicts of a class known as 'specials', or gentlemen convicts who, because the work was specifically recommended by the Secretary of State, were paid a small annual salary. The abstracts of their work were published weekly in the Government Gazette.

The new Sydney Observatory was completed in 1858 and by the middle of that year the Government Astronomer, William Scott, had unpacked twelve sets of meteorological instruments and established country meteorological stations at Albury, Armidale, Bathurst, Cooma, Deniliquin, Goulburn, Maitland, Parramatta, Gabo Island, and Newcastle. Meteorological work was amongst the most important undertaken by Sydney Observatory and in 1858 Scott presented a 'progress report' on meteorology to the Philosophical Society of New South Wales. Scott also saw that summaries were sent as monthly reports to be published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

In 1860, due to the inconsistencies in the recording of information from country stations, Scott requested that eight sets of instruments should be transported to telegraph stations. As a result, it became part of the telegraph clerk’s duties to take meteorological observations and return a monthly report to Sydney Observatory.

The next Government Astronomer George R. Smalley was appointed in 1864. Among the projects initiated by Smalley was the first systematic recording of tides in Sydney Harbour. These were conducted at Fort Denison and by 1866 were being recorded automatically. A second major project initiated by Smalley was the establishment of a coterie of volunteer observers, and by 1870 there were 43 of these observers were situated around the colony. Each observer was provided with the requisite set of instruments, and would record rainfall, evaporation, temperature and wind at 9 a.m. each day.

Following Smalley’s death in 1870, Henry Chamberlain Russell was appointed as the next Government Astronomer. Russell’s vision was for the Observatory to focus more on astronomical work, and so he revoked some of Smalley’s policies. However meteorological work was not ignored completely, and in 1877 Russell arranged for the telegraphic exchange of observations to be expanded to include observations from selected stations in other Australian states. Russell also arranged for a daily weather chart for Sydney to be published in the Sydney Morning Herald. Russell later began working with Henry A. Hunt (who later became the first director of the Bureau of Meteorology), and by 1896 Hunt had assumed responsibility for preparing the daily weather charts. By 1898 the number of volunteer observers had grown to over 1600.

After Russell became ill in 1903, he was replaced as Government Astronomer by Henry A. Lenehan. In 1906 Lenehan began a program to record the earth's activity using a Milne Seismograph. While Lenehan himself became ill and died in 1908, the device continued to be used for the next 40 years.

In 1906 the Commonwealth Bureau of Meteorology was established, under the Meteorology Act, bringing together the state meteorological services that existed before then. The states officially transferred their weather recording responsibilities to the Bureau of Meteorology on 1 January 1908 and Russell’s colleague, Hunt, became the bureau’s first director.

This initiated a separation of the work of the meteorological branch from other activities at the observatory. Lenehan's replacement, William E. Cooke, was appointed in 1912 while the New South Wales office of the Weather Bureau still occupied the Observatory residence, but in 1917 The Weather Bureau was moved out of the Observatory. They initially occupied the Observatory messenger's cottage, and from 1922 moved into a purpose-built building on Observatory Hill. Today the Bureau’s headquarters are situated in Melbourne, with major offices in the capital city of every state, and field offices and weather recording stations around the country. Observatory Hill remains one of the main weather stations for Sydney.

Geoff Barker, Curator, December 2007
Updated: Sarah Reeves, Assistant Curator, February 2017.

Harley Wood, 'The Sky and the Weather', A Century of Scientific Progress: the Centenary Volume of the Royal Society of New South Wales, Published by the Society, Science House, Sydney, 1986?
H.C. Russell, 'Astronomical and Meteorological Worker in New South Wales, 1778 to 1860, in Proceedings of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, Sydney, 1888
Russell, H. C., 'Moving Anticyclones in the Southern Hemisphere', in Abercromby, R., Three Essays on Australian Weather, Frederick W. White, Sydney, 1896
G. P. Walsh, 'Henry Chamberlin Russell', in (ed) G. Searle and R. Ward, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, 1851-1890, Melbourne University Press 1968
Gipps, Sir George, to Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone, Dispatch 144, 3 June 1847, Historical records of Australia, Series 1, Governor's Dispatches to and From England, Volume 25, April 1846 - September 1847, Library Committee of the Commonwealth parliament, 1925, p.183