Wellington is an extraordinarily beautiful city, especially when viewed from the Botanic Gardens lookout at the top of the Cable Car on a day not like today (gale force winds etc). But few visitors to this stunning summit are fully aware of the heritage around them. In the picture above, the cool little building lit up on the left is the old Dominion Observatory, currently occupied by the geographx map designers. In the centre of the image is a German-built Krupp field artillery gun from World War One, which marks the location of the ‘Botanic Garden Battery’ that stood here from 1894-1904 as part of our response to ‘The Russian Scare‘. To the right of the gun is a small dome which once housed an astrolabe, an instrument that measures the altitude of stars and planets. Behind this scene is the Thomas King Observatory and Carter Observatory (images below).  Just like Wellington Museum’s Bond Store, Carter Observatory’s building and surrounds are the first taonga (treasured objects) in our collection.Welcome to our potted history of the weird and wonderful history of observatories in Wellington.

Thomas King Observatory Historic Places Trust
Thomas King Observatory

Strangely, in order to get up the hill to Space Place at Carter Observatory in 2015, we need to start down on Queen’s Wharf near the current Wellington Museum before it was built. This is where, in the late 1860s, the Customs Building had a ‘time ball‘ fixed to its roof. Those of our readers who weren’t around in the mid-nineteenth century (ahem) may be asking ‘What is a time ball?’ It was an element of the first Provincial Observatory, which had been built on the waterfront to aid shipping schedules. In the mid-nineteenth century, time was set according to when the sun or a star passed the meridian – an imaginary line in the sky running from north to south that goes through the zenith – an imaginary point in the sky immediately above. The time ball was hoisted to the top of its mast and dropped at precisely 12 noon every day so that ship captains and other observers could set their time pieces. All key ports in New Zealand had such observatories, and the heavens were observed solely, or primarily at least, for time-keeping purposes.

Wellington Harbour Time Ball (top of building second from right)

But soon the port was too busy and crowded for astronomical observation and in 1869 the decision was made to build a new Colonial Observatory up above the city. Some years later, in a magnificent gesture of devotion, the observatory was demolished to make way for the tomb of Prime Minister Richard John Seddon after his death in 1905. It’s hard to imagine an equivalent gesture for any of our recent prime ministers (though perhaps the transfer was as much to do with the site being at the top of a cemetery, and the necessity for a better facility). In any case, the demolition made way for a larger structure to be built. Just two years later a new observatory was in place in the Botanic Gardens: Hector* Observatory, renamed the Dominion Observatory in 1925, which still stands on the site today. Time-keeping was still the primary function of the observatory but it was also used for astronomical observations, meteorology, climatology and seismology.

Colonial Time Service observatory on the Seddon site. Photo Carter Observatory
Colonial time service observatory on the Seddon site

Finally, in 1912 a specifically astronomical observatory was opened across from the Dominion Observatory and named the King Edward Observatory for the royal who had died that year. Later this was shortened to the King Observatory and then unofficially renamed the Thomas King Observatory, after New Zealand’s 1887-1911 Astronomical Observer. This observatory was publicly available for the observation of major astronomical events, and it became the headquarters for the  Wellington Astronomical Society.

Meteorological Enclosure, and Dominion Observatory on the Observatory Reserve, Botanic Garden, Kelburn, Wellington, 10 August 1945.
Meteorological enclosure and Dominion Observatory c1945

And this is where benefactor, Charles Rooking Carter steps into our story.

Charles Rooking Carter was a man of his times – self taught, confident, enthusiastic and able, he was a go-getter and felt comfortable in a leadership role. He was influential in developing the settlement of the vast plains of the Wairarapa… and represented his area in local government between 1857 and 1863, leaving the legacy of a town named for him – Carterton. (Peter Wells 2010)

Charles was inspired by the South Pacific voyages of James Cook and fascinated by the idea that New Zealand represented better opportunities for ordinary working folk. It certainly seemed to present opportunities for him. Like many of his era, after immigrating here, he moved from building to land-owning and politics.

Charles Rooking Carter. RefPA7-17-13. Alexander Turnbull Library
Charles Rooking Carter

Particular to this story, Charles was keen on science, and saw how important astronomical observation could be to a developing nation. On his death he left a significant bequest for the establishment of ‘an Astronomic Observatory fitted with telescope and other suitable instruments for the public use and benefit of the colony.’ His bequest wasn’t quite enough to achieve his hopes, but 44 years later Carter Observatory was built.

alexander Turnbull pic
Carter Observatory: the early years

This brief history has revolved around colonial settler Pākehā men in particular, because it has focused on Wellington observatory buildings and therefore the people who built them. But that is not really where the story of astronomical observation in Aotearoa begins or ends. In the next post, we’ll explore the rich and abundant history of astronomy before Europeans even knew New Zealand existed, and fast forward to Carter’s latest incarnation, which tries to encompass the vast expanse of Space all in one Place.

*named after James Hector, a pioneer explorer, geologist, and natural scientist, who founded many of New Zealand’s scientific organisations and was closely involved with the establishment of the Wellington Botanic Garden. Hector’s or Maui’s dolphin was also named after him.

With thanks Peter Wells 2010 http://www.if-9.de/zei_b370.htm & Friends of Botanic Gardens http://www.friendswbg.org.nz/newobservatories.html