Marvellous Melbourne

As the metropolis of the great nation of the south, [Melbourne] possesses means and appliances, wealth and energy, with which no place on this side of the equator can enter into competition… [The telescope] is a noble object, to which some portion of the apparently inexhaustible wealth of our gold-fields may be worthily devoted.
– Melbourne University professor William Wilson, arguing in 1856 for the erection of a large reflecting telescope in Melbourne.

The decision to commission the Great Melbourne Telescope reflected the wealth and confidence of Melbourne and the colony of Victoria in the 1850s and 1860s.

In turn, the Great Melbourne Telescope came to represent Melbourne’s ‘greatness’ to its citizens. Engravings of the telescope appeared in newspapers and magazines in Britain, Europe and America, projecting Melbourne’s confidence abroad.

When a visiting journalist in the 1880s dubbed the city ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, the locals seized on the phrase.

Melbourne in the 1850s

Melbourne grew dramatically following the discovery of gold in 1851. Founded in 1835, it was still a small trading port and centre of a pastoral industry with a population of 20,000 in 1850. In just a decade, Melbourne’s population exploded to 125,000.

The growing colony of Victoria, newly separated from New South Wales, suddenly faced huge challenges to deal with law and order and public infrastructure. But it also benefited from gold revenues, customs duties on imported goods and the wealth brought by immigrants, many of them skilled artisans.

The Flinders Street Terminus of the Melbourne to Hobson's Bay railroad, 1854
The Flinders Street Terminus of the Melbourne to Hobson’s Bay railroad, 1854
Source: Museum Victoria

In a few heady years, a range of public works and cultural institutions were established. The year 1854 alone saw the first railway line, the telegraph, and the establishment of a university, public library and museum. In 1856 an elected parliament sat for the first time.

In 1856 construction workers at the university and parliament building sites downed tools and marched successfully for the introduction of an eight-hour working day. Melbourne would be the first city in the world to gain the eight-hour day as a widespread right.

Little wonder then that William Wilson, professor of mathematics at the new University of Melbourne, argued that some part of Melbourne’s golden wealth could be directed to a large telescope. It would take ten years before Wilson’s dream took shape; a contract was placed for the telescope in 1865.

A Scientific City

A local community of scientists and scientific institutions had been established in Melbourne by the mid 1850s. Several government scientific officers were appointed: Alfred Selwyn as Government Geologist, Robert Ellery as Astronomer to the new Williamstown Observatory, Ferdinand von Mueller as Government Botanist, and William Blandowski as Government Zoologist.

Robert Ellery, Government Astonomer & President of the Royal Society of Victoria, giving the address to the annualConversazione, Australian Sketcher, 11 September 1860Source: State Library of Victoria
Robert Ellery, Government Astonomer & President of the Royal Society of Victoria, giving the address to the annualConversazione, Australian Sketcher, 11 September 1860
Source: State Library of Victoria

Few in the local scientific community were professional scientists; most were doctors, engineers or educated pastoralists, pursuing their scientific interests as a passionate hobby. They gathered in the newly-established Philosophical Society of Victoria (1854), soon renamed the Royal Society of Victoria.

Melbourne and the goldfields attracted settlers who saw education and self-improvement as a key to their personal success and to building a civilised community. Science and technology were seen by many as a measure of the degree of civilisation that had been brought to an untamed land, and of the economic and social improvement that had been achieved in the colony in a few short decades.

The Great Melbourne Telescope, the Botanic Gardens, the Museum and the State Library became powerful symbols of those achievements, showing Melbourne’s ability to emulate the institutions of London and the Continent.

In 1880 this culminated in the Melbourne International Exhibition, its focal point the imposing Exhibition Building, where science, technology and the practical arts displaced religion in a building that echoed the cathedrals of Europe.

A Melbourne Icon

When the Board overseeing the Melbourne Observatory decided in 1867 to call the new instrument the ‘Great Melbourne Telescope’, they had their finger on Melbourne’s pulse. Melbourne saw itself as a young, great city, worthy of the largest telescope in the southern hemisphere and the second largest in the world.

A popular pastime in colonial Melbourne in the 1870s and 1880s was to visit Melbourne Observatory at night to observe the planets, moon and stars, preferably with the Great Melbourne Telescope. Sometimes the Governor would bring dinner guests over from the adjacent Government House.

Groups were able to book ahead to view the Great Melbourne Telescope on evenings when the moon prevented scientific use.

When a superb photograph was taken of the Moon in 1872, the government directed Melbourne Observatory to distribute copies to all Victorian schools, libraries and mechanics’ institutes.