November 15, 1998 /

DAVID, Tannatt William Edgeworth (1858-1934), professor of geology at the University of Sydney, was ‘well-beloved’ by scientific colleagues and the wider public for his generosity, his vigour, and his restless passion for knowledge. Read MoreEdgeworth David

November 15, 1998 /

ATOMIC TESTING was undertaken in Australia between 1952 and 1963 as Britain sought to develop its own nuclear weapons. The Australian government readily supplied test sites and logistical support, mistakenly believing that greater access to nuclear technology would result. Read MoreAtomic tests

May 3, 1998 /
Cabinet of Curiosities
The Cabinet of Curiosities

Learned friends, a little over twelve months ago, I had the honour of addressing another distinguished gathering. My subject on that occasion was a rather unusual artefact that my colleagues and I had discovered – an item we came to call ‘The Cabinet of Curiosities‘. In the intervening months we have continued our researches into this object and have uncovered some disturbing facts. To be blunt, I believe that we have unearthed evidence of a widespread and long-standing conspiracy. Read MoreA conspiracy reveal’d

March 3, 1998 /

On Sunday I was listening to the local ABC station, 2CN, when a bloke came on talking about “unsung heroes” of Australian history. Apparently it’s a regular spot, and it so happened that the two heroes being sung on Sunday were scientists – Ferdinand von Mueller the botanist, and John Tebbutt, the astronomer. However, my initial pleasure at having scientists included in such a forum, quickly turned to frustration. Read MoreUnsung heroes

November 17, 1996 /

[Contains many broken links – included for historical interest only!]

what is there to know about archives?

In this age of virtual wonders, it seems that our past is rushing towards us. New communication technologies promise greatly improved access to Australia’s cultural heritage. The previous government had hoped to lead us along the aisles of our own “Electronic Smithsonian”, according to its 1995 statement, Innovate Australia [HREF 2]:

…school children will be able over the Internet to read the diaries of Cook and Bligh, Burke and Wills, stories of the Royal Flying Doctor Service in outback Australia, and see the works of Rover Thomas and Arthur Boyd.

In rather less expansive terms, the current government plans a National Cultural Network [HREF 3] that will “simplify and enhance the communication and exchange of cultural and heritage resources, information and ideas”. But where will the material be coming from to fill the virtual display cases? Government statements often point to “libraries, museums and galleries”, but what about archives? Of course we’re meant to assume that archives are somewhere amongst the “cultural and heritage organisations”, and anyway the major libraries collect archival material like diaries, letters and manuscripts. But consigning archives to the ranks of fellow-travellers in the information putsch, means that little attention is given to their specific needs and their unique potential. We will have no strategies for ensuring that appropriate forms of access are developed. Instead of delving deeply into our “vast cultural resources” we may simply skim the top, presenting only the familiar in a new digital guise. Instead of an “Electronic Smithsonian” we might end up with an “Electronic Disneyland”. This paper will examine how the World Wide Web might be used to avoid this by facilitating access to Australia’s archival resources – providing pathways for exploring our collective memory. Read MorePathways to memory

September 23, 1996 /

The atomic bomb is deployed more often as a symbol than a weapon. No discussion of the ‘dangers’ of science is complete without it. But the accompanying stereotype of scientists blinkered to the consequences of their work is hardly accurate. Even before the destruction of Hiroshima, there have been scientists prepared to enter the political fray to ensure that the technology was adequately controlled. Read MorePolitical fallout

July 1, 1996 /

The clouds of radioactive fallout are descending and humanity is doomed to extinction. In Nevil Shute’s book, On the Beach, the inhabitants of Melbourne await their end – the final victims of a 37 day nuclear war that has destroyed the northern hemisphere. John Osborne, played by Fred Astaire in the film version, decides to die in the embrace of the one he loves. So donning his crash helmet and goggles, he pops his suicide pills while sitting behind the wheel of the Ferrari that has recently won him the Australian Grand Prix: ‘The car had won him the race that was the climax of his life. Why trouble to go further?’ For John, as for all, it was the end of the road.

With the onset of the Atomic Age, Australia set out optimistically along the yellow-brick road to peace and prosperity, but 50 years later, the Emerald City seems as far away as ever. Australia’s involvement with nuclear energy has been largely limited to the provision of raw materials – uranium to power other countries’ reactors, and test sites for Britain’s bomb program. To understand Australia’s nuclear history you need to focus not on the journey’s end, but on the journey itself. How was the road mapped? Where were the markers? And who was doing the driving? Read MoreOn the beach: Australia’s nuclear history

June 23, 1996 /

In January 1945, a small Australian Army reconnaissance unit pushed through the jungles of New Guinea, narrowly avoiding the enemy Japanese forces. With the assistance of the local inhabitants, the unit gathered vital information on Japanese movements, relaying it back to headquarters using carrier pigeons. This was “Jockforce”, named after its commander, zoologist Jock Marshall. Read MoreThe many battles of Jock Marshall

May 1, 1996 /
January 3, 1996 /

Ben Gascoigne, a young New Zealand physicist, stepped off the train at Canberra station. It was August 1941. A tall, good-looking man strode across the platform to greet him.

‘Woolley’ he said, offering his hand, ‘Do you play bridge?’.

That evening Ben Gascoigne found himself seated at a bridge table in Woolley’s residence at the Commonwealth Solar Observatory (CSO), atop Mount Stromlo, some fifteen kilometres south-west of the nation’s bush capital.1 Richard van der Reit Woolley had been appointed Director of the CSO less than two years before, in December 1939.2 At the age of 33, Woolley had arrived in Australia, direct from the ancient halls of Cambridge, determined to breathe new life into the observatory, which had languished for ten years without a permanent head. Cla Allen, one of observatory’s astronomers, wrote excitedly that Woolley was determined ‘to make the CSO an observatory of which the Empire can be proud’3. War, however, had put these plans on hold. Read MoreA wartime observatory observed

  1. The name changed in 1943 to ‘Commonwealth Observatory’, however, CSO is used throughout this article. For the history of the CSO generally during the Woolley era see: S.C.B. Gascoigne, ‘Astrophysics at Mount Stromlo: the Woolley Era’, Proceedings of the Astronomical Society of Australia, vol. 5, no. 4, 1984, pp. 597-605; S.C.B. Gascoigne, ‘Bok, Woolley and Australian Astronomy’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 9, no. 2, 1992, 119-126; R. Woolley, ‘Mount Stromlo Observatory’, Records of the Australian Academy of Science, vo1. 1, no. 3, November 1968, pp. 53-57. []
  2. William McCrea, ‘Richard van der Reit Woolley’, Historical Records of Australian Science, vol. 7, no. 3, 1988, pp. 315-345 []
  3. Diary entry, 5 December 1939, vol. 16, C.W. Allen papers, National Library of Australia, MS7360. []