Letter by W Scott, 2 February 1861

Letter by W Scott, 2 February 1861
Letter by W Scott, 2 February 1861
Letter by W Scott, 2 February 1861

Letter by W Scott, 2 February 1861
Letter by W Scott, 2 February 1861
Letter by W Scott, 2 February 1861

Astronomer suggesting alterations in observatory departments



Feb 2 1861


Believing it to be the duty of every head of a department to consider how he may best reduce the cost of his establishment without loss to the public, I feel bound, however detrimental it may be to my own interests, to submit the following remarks for your consideration. The objects aimed at in the establishment of the Sydney Observatory appear to have been.

1 The advancement of astronomical science at large.

2 The cultivation of a taste for astronomical and kindred pursuits.

3 The accurate determination of time for the rating of chronometers.

4 The assistance which would be rendered by a good observatory and competent astronomer to the proposed triangulation of the country.

1 To the first object I believe the people of this colony, with very few exceptions, to be altogether indifferent, and that were it not for the reluctance usually felt to withdraw from a liberal undertaking on which large sums have already been expended, and the fear of discredit in the eyes of the world the observatory establishment at least in its present dimensions would not exist another year. This probability will be greatly increased when I make known to the public that which the arrival of certain long expected documents from the Cape of Good Hope has lately made known to me; namely that our contributions to astronomical science with our present instrumental powers are of very little value.

The documents referred which, owing to the long absence in England of the Cape Astronomer Royal, it has taken me two years to obtain; show the enlarged scale on which operations are now carried on in the Cape Observatory, the vast superiority of the meridian circle (probably the best in the world) to our own and the almost identical nature of the work there carried on with that which has necessarily occupied my attention for the last two years.

It requires no technical knowledge to perceive that where the science work is being carried on at the same time with the first class and a second class instrument the productions of the latter must necessarily be of little value.

The arrival of the first rate equatorial telescope which has been ordered will entirely alter the state of the case as with such an instrument results of the highest order may be obtained. Still I must not in my love for science shut my eyes to the question how far a young colony with recently diminished means, and undeveloped resources can be expected to expend large sums on the pursuit of abstract science which may be elapsed rather amongst the luxuries than the necessaries of national life.

2 The second object of the observatory I see very little prospect of carrying out for many years to come; at all events I have not yet succeeded in finding a single person both able and willing to take advantage of the facilities offered to amateurs.

In after years, when an advanced class of mathematical students shall exist in the university the observatory may be made useful in carrying out this particular object.

3 The accurate determination of time will always be a matter of importance in such a seaport as that of Sydney; but it happens that this particular service can be carried out as well by an ordinary assistant as by the most accomplished astronomer provided the assistant can refer to the astronomer in cases of doubt or difficulty.

4 The proposed triangulation of the country requires but little notice as I am satisfied that such a work will not and indeed ought not to be attempted for a very long time, probably for another century.

Assuming the above view to be correct it becomes my duty to point out what plan ought to be adopted under existing circumstances.

So soon as the university shall have increased sufficiently to require the services of two mathematical professors, one of whom would probably be a professor of pure mathematics and the other of natural philosophy, the direction of the observatory might most properly be entrusted to the latter; in which case the residence attached to the observatory would be a sufficient contribution on the part of the government to such professor’s support.

Previously to such an arrangement I would suggest that the director of the observatory be required to fill some other office bearing the same salary as that now given to the astronomer. The surveyor generals or registrar generals department might probably supply occupation such as an astronomer’s training and habit would especially qualify him for.

Under such circumstances one who really deserved to be called an Astronomer would find in the management of the observatory and in such observations as he might reserve to himself a recreation after the ordinary day’s work rather than a labour. A simpler plan would be either to do away with the assistant and reduce the Astronomer’s salary, or to dismiss the astronomer and retain the assistant; to either of these plans there is this insufferable objection; there must be two persons on the establishment firstly to serve as a check on each other’s accuracy, partly that one may be always at hand in case of the illness or otherwise necessary absence of the other. There is this also to be considered that without the inducement of a respectable position and a sufficient permanent salary it will be impossible to retain the services of any person of good standing as a mathematician, without which the observatory must at once sink into contempt and cease to be regarded as one of the national observatories of the world. Finally there is my own personal claim to be considered. I received my appointment with stipulated salary and residence directly from the home government without any information that I should at anytime be dependent on the legislature of the colony. Regarding it as a life appointment, as in all other national observatories, I abandoned a more lucrative position with all prospects of preferment in Cambridge.

Since my acceptance of office I have established an observatory of a high order, have labored hard even to the injury of my health to produce the best results, both as to quantity and quality, that the limited means in my position would admit of; and having so arranged and systematized the work that it can be carried on with mechanical accuracy with very little superintendence, I also offer to fulfill the duties of any office consistent with my position and powers, and to carry on efficiently the work of the observatory in consideration of the use of the residence and of the opportunity which would thus be afforded me of following up a favorite study.

I will now recapitulate the results of the proposed arrangement.

1 The necessary work of the observatory would be carried on as before; the routine work by the computer the extraordinary and more delicate work by the astronomer.

2 The same opportunities will be offered as heretofore to such amateur students as may present themselves.

3 The work omitted will be that particular work with the meridian circle which is of little value owing to the inferiority of the instruments to others in the southern hemisphere.

4 There will be a saving of the astronomers salary, one hundred pounds per annum, which together with the saving of the salaries of meteorological observers by the new arrangements, recently adopted at my recommendation, will reduce the expenditure of the department from one thousand two hundred and fifty pounds to four hundred and fifty pounds. Moreover, as only the really valuable labors of this observatory will be printed, there will be an additional saving of about fifty pounds per annum in the department of the government printer.

In conclusion it is but justice to myself to state that whatever imperfections exist and the results published by the observatory must have remained unsuspected if I had not taken the trouble to point them out; as there is not now a single person in this colony sufficiently conversant with such matters to have detected them. I have the honor to be.

Your Most Obedient Servant
W. Scott

To the Honorable The Colonial Secretary