Tebbutt Observatory, Windsor

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Tebbutt Observatory, Windsor
Tebbutt Observatory, Windsor

John Tebbutt, the man on the $100 note, is one of Australia’s notable astronomers.

John Tebbutt arrived in Sydney on the Nile in 1801 as a free settler with his wife Ann and children Thomas (b.1792) John (b.1794) and Elizabeth (b.circa 1796). The family established itself on a farm owned by Reverend Samuel Marsden in the Windsor district and by 1845 owned a 170 acre (68 hectare) property known as ‘Peninsula’, so named because the high ground became isolated when South Creek and the Hawkesbury River were in flood.

The son, John married Virginia Saunders and their only son, another John [1834-1916], grew up to become one of Australia’s notable astronomers. He was always interested in mechanical objects and built a collection of instruments that enabled him to make many important observations of the southern sky. Windsor had the advantage of clear skies free from smoke of the large number of wood and coal fires used to heat homes in Sydney.

Tebbutt calculated the total eclipse of the sun on 26 March 1857, measured the position of comet Donati (1858VI) and plotted its orbit. On 13 May 1861, Tebbutt observed a faint object in his telescope, noted its motion over a number of days and discovered the Great Comet of 1861 (1861 II) which brought his name to the attention of the scientific world. The comet Encke appeared the following year and was observed on seven of its return orbits around the sun during Tebbutt’s lifetime. The debris of this comet creates a meteor shower as Earth passes through the tail around the middle of November every year.

Tebbutt won a silver medal at the 1867 Paris Universal Exhibition. In 1872 be bought a 4 inch equatorial refractor telescope with which he observed the transit of Venus in 1874. This rare event was previously observed by Captain James Cook and Joseph Banks in 1769 which led to the discovery of the eastern coast of New South Wales. Tebbutt discovered another comet in 1881 and in 1886 he bought an 8 inch telescope made by the internationally renowned makers, Grubb of England.

In 1895 he was the first president of the New South Wales branch of the British Astronomical Association. He was also president of the Windsor branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society and in 1877 asked Sir Henry Parkes for leniency towards settlers in paying their government land dues. He was awarded the Hannah Jackson gift and bronze medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, London, in 1905.

Trevor Patrick is a local historian of the north-west of Sydney, Australia. His latest book, In Search of the Pennant Hills, recounts some of these stories (and others) in more detail.