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Early Days, Volume 8, 1977-1982

William Ernest Cooke, first government astronomer

David Hutchison, Senior Curator, Department of History, Western Australian Museum

Hutchison, David 1980, 'William Ernest Cooke, first government astronomer', Volume 8, Part 4: 93-114.


The creative partnership of Sir John Forrest and the brilliant civil engineer C.Y. O’Connor is well known. 1 Less well known is Forrest’s role in the establishment of Perth Observatory and his selection of William Ernest Cooke as the first Government Astronomer.

Cooke was appointed Government Astronomer in 1896, five years after O’Connor began his great service to the State, and remained in the post for 16 years. These were the most fruitful years of his life. When he moved to a similar post in New South Wales he was at the height of his powers and in the prime of his life. Unfortunately most of the potential of the new appointment was not realised. This paper deals only with Cooke’s period of service in Western Australia.


Cooke was bom on 25 July in 1863 in Adelaide. He was the only child of Ebenezer Cooke and his first wife Eliza Peyton Cooke (nee Ogden). Less than two years later Eliza died in childbirth. Ebenezer Cooke re-married on 8 May 1866. His second wife was Rosa Phillips.

Ebenezer Cooke had migrated to South Australia in 1862 to take up a position with a mining company. Within ten years he was General Manager of this company. In 1875 he was elected to the South Australian House of Assembly for the seat of Flinders. He resigned his seat in 1882 to become Commissioner of the Audit, and became possibly the most powerful public servant of his time in South Australia. 2

This sketchy outline of Ebenezer Cooke’s career suggests the background which helped to mould William Ernest Cooke: a life of relative wealth, security and influence, wihin the Adelaide Establishment.


William Ernest Cooke, first Government Astronomer in Western Australia, taken c. 1909. Photograph by courtesy of Miss E. Minchin.

Where William obtained his earlier education has not been determined, but he spent several years, probably from 1875 to 1878, at the Collegiate School of St Peter in Adelaide. 3 Honour boards in the hall at St Peter’s testify to his outstanding scholastic ability. He won four major scholarships including the Farrell Scholarship, the highest honour attainable in the College. 4

In 1879 he was placed at the head of the First Class list of matriculants, with passes in Greek and Chemistry. He was only 15 years old when he signed the University of Adelaide student roll in March of that year. Candidates for matriculation at that time were only required to have reached the age of 16, and there was provision for admission of younger students who had fulfilled the other conditions of matriculation. 5

In December 1878 he had accepted a Civil Service cadetship, attached to the Adelaide Observatory under Sir Charles Todd. Todd had applied to St Peter’s College for its best mathematician and the headmaster had recommended Cooke. 6 Todd was Postmaster General and Superintendent of Electric Telegraphs as well as Government Astronomer. He had perfomed the remarkable feat of surveying the route of the Overland Telegraph from Adelaide to Darwin. 7 It is doubtful if Cooke could then have found in Australia a better mentor for his subsequent career.

The degree of Bachelor of Arts was conferred on him in 1883. He was listed as a Bachelor of Science student in the Adelaide University Calendar (1884), but apparently did not complete this course. He won the South Australian Scholarship in 1882, which required him to study at Cambridge, Oxford or London. He decided to retain his appointment at the observatory, and relinquished the scholarship. Soon afterwards he was appointed senior assistant, second class at the observatory. 8 He was awarded his Master of Arts degree in 1889.

While working under Todd, Cooke developed a particular interest in the measurement of the exact positions and movements of the stars and in the international programme of mapping the heavens by photography. He demonstrated throughout his career, (as was shown by his later experiments in wireless with one of his sons) a lively interest in any new technologies which promised to improve the efficiency and accuracy of astronomy. His own inventions were directed towards this end.

In 1887 he married Jessie Elizabeth Greayer. They had five children by the time he was offered the post in Western Australia: Violet Ogden (1888), Lionel Ernest (1889, Rosalie (1891), Frank Basil (1892), and Erica Carrington (1894). Rosalie died in infancy. Their sixth child. Maxwell Greayer, was born in the Perth Observatory Residence in 1898. 9


The Forrest Government’s estimates for 1894-95 included an amount of £ 1,000 towards construction of an observatory which was estimated to cost £ 3,000 when completed. 10 The proposal appears not to have been debated at


the time. In the following year Randell (member for Perth) noted that £500 was included in the estimates for 1895-96 and asked if the observatory was likely to be in operation during the next twelve months. Forrest replied that he did not think so, but Sir Charles Todd had advised that the astronomer should be in the colony when the necessary buildings were being erected. It was intended that the astronomer should carry out duties of meteorologist as in other colonies. There had been no consultation with regard to a site, but, if necessary, Sir Charles Todd would be invited to visit Perth, and give the Government the benefit of his valuable advice. The Government would like to have a vote passed even if it was not in force. 11

The Premier’s brother Alexander (member for West Kimberley) thought that the vote could be struck out, “an observatory was not wanted just yet. It was one of the fancy things the colony could well do without”. The Premier replied that the instruments had already been ordered, upon which his brother asked by whose authority. Another member pointed out that Alexander Forrest had voted in favour of it the previous year. Alexander Forrest’s reply, that he had not been aware of it, confirms that the inclusion of the observatory on the previous year’s estimates must not have been debated.

The observatory was evidently Sir John Forrest’s proposal. As a former Surveyor-General and explorer, he would have known that the accurate mapping of the state was dependent upon astronomical observations. He was probably also attracted to the more general and scientific interest and value of astronomy. The principal objects of the Observatory would be:

With the Transit Instrument, to assist the Survey Department in fixing the main 'trig' stations of the State, and to maintain correct time throughout the whole State: with the Astrograph, to engage in any astronomical work of importance and also to educate the general public in a knowledge of the heavenly bodies; to organise and carry on the meteorological work of the State. 12

In reply to a letter that Forrest wrote to him in December 1894, Sir Charles Todd expressed his pleasure that the Western Australian Parliament had approved the construction of an observatory. He thought that £ 3,000 would be ample ‘and leave something for instruments’. He would be pleased to provide sketch plans and presumed that the main instruments would be a transit circle for meridian work and an equatorial for ‘miscellaneous work’. He added,

The appointment of astronomer of course requires very careful consideration and I am glad to be able to call your attention to Mr W.E. Cooke, M.A., my first Assistant, who would, I have reason to know, accept the office if offered it.

Mr Cooke has been employed in the Observatory here, under my direction, for about 13 years, and has full experience in all Astronomical and


Meteorological work. He is a most proficient Mathematician and had a most distinguished career at the Adelaide University.

He is about 32 or 33 years of age, and therefore in the full vigour of young manhood — He is very zealous in his work, very steady, and high principled, and is married.

From my intimate knowledge of him and his special attainments I can write with confidence to commend him as the very man you want. You certainly could not do better if you went to England and very probably you would not get nearly so good a man. 13

Cooke was appointed on 1 February 1896, and was commissioned by Forrest to visit Europe. The Astronomer Royal had advised that Cooke should visit England to superintend construction of the optical instruments. 14

Although it has been stated that the observatory site, opposite the entrance to King’s Park, was chosen by Sir Charles Todd, 15 it is more likely that Todd simply approved the already chosen site when he visited Perth for just one week in July 1895. 16 As late as 1929, Cooke’s successor, H.B. Curlewis, still regarded the site as ‘magnificent for meteorological work and astronomical work from every point of view’.

Since the prevailing winds blow over the huge extent of King's Park, its excellence for astronomical work is not impaired by its proximity to the city, as is so often the case with other observatories. ... A glance from the tower, from which a wonderful panorama of Perth may be obtained, shows that no growth of the City can ever adversely affect observing conditions. 17

This judgement, made in the state’s centenary year, was eventually proved wrong. In 1966 increasing interference, caused by city lights and atmospheric pollution, forced the Observatory to move to Bickley. Indeed, Cooke had some misgivings about the site as early as 1912.

The foundation stone of the Observatory was laid by Sir John Forrest on 29 September 1896, six days after a similar ceremony at the site of the new Royal Mint. In opening the proceedings the Commissioner of Railways, 18 F.H. Piesse, said that

Those who knew the colony would admit that they did not expect to see the observatory commenced so early, and he thought Sir John Forrest might take credit for having brought forward the idea much earlier than the Mint.

In performing the ceremony Forrest said that the occasion showed

that in the time of our prosperity we were trying to elevate and improve


the public mind and to do something for the encouragement of arts and sciences in the colony. 19

Forrest's comments show that he had a larger vision for the observatory as an institution which would have values beyond the pragmatic. Cooke was to prove the man to match his vision.

Cooke, meanwhile, was visiting Paris, Nice, Strasbourg, Brussels, and other continental cities to study observatory design and modern instruments. Soon after his appointment he wrote to other astronomers for advice. One reply, apparently the first, was from David Gill, Her Majesty’s Astronomer at the Cape of Good Hope, and a pioneer of astronomical photography. This long letter includes many sketches and detailed descriptions of structures for supporting the main telescope, and of the building to house it. Gill added

It warms the cockles of my heart to find the astronomer of the new Perth Observatory apparently a man so much after my own heart - so full of the things that ought to occupy his mind, and so determined to do the kind of work that is really required for the true advancement of astronomy. 20

He added prophetically,

I fear that one of your troubles will be the visitor, come to see the stars. Let it be clearly understood at the outset that an observatory is for work not for amusement - or for the 'gratification of idle curiosity'. At the same time you will have to yield something to the man who pays the piper. Fix one day in the week and one only on which the public is admitted, and put your most plausible (and useless) assistant in charge of the equatorial on that night.
On the contrary - to every one who really knows something who is really and truly interested in astronomy and has given proof of it - take any amount of trouble. You will get more respect and more true popularity in this way than if you waste public money by wasting your time.

The observatory was constructed by N.W. Frogley for £6,622—more than double the original estimate. It was completed on 3 March 1897. Cooke had returned from overseas on 7 November 1896. It would be nearly two years before the first of the two main instruments was commissioned. In the meantime Cooke began work in two other areas suggested by Forrest: the meteorological service and the time service. 21

The Meteorological Service

W.H. Knight, Auditor General and Registrar General kept meteorological


records from 1867. 22 The service was improved at the end of 1875 by the Surveyor-General, Malcolm Fraser. 23 A first-class meteorological station was established in the grounds of his department, fitted with high-quality instruments, and under his personal supervision. As opportunities offered, other stations were established, usually at post offices. However, the instruments at these stations were not of high quality, the observers were untrained, and their supervision was barely adequate. From 1897, meteorological observations were made at the observatory and continued to be made there until 1967, although the meteorological service had passed to Federal Government control by 1908. 24

When Cooke came to Perth he personally visited nearly all the existing stations as far north as Wyndham and inland to the Murchison. 25 He provided new instruments where necessary, drilled the observers, and established some new stations. He began to issue daily weather maps. 26 Each country station was equipped with wet and dry bulb thermometers in a Stevenson screen, a barometer, and a rain gauge. These stations reported each morning and afternoon and a clerk attended at the General Post Office (later the Treasury Building and now known as the Central Government Offices Building) to receive the data and to prepare the weather map.

Cooke instituted a series of daily forecasts, sometimes twice daily, for Perth, the Goldfields, and the colony in general. Cooke later claimed that, over the years, about 90% of these forecasts were totally correct, 8-9% partially correct, and 1-2% wrong. The judgement of the accuracy of a forecast depends upon its specificity and the size of the region to which it relates. Therefore it is difficult to say what such a claim really means.

Cooke also established a large number of voluntary observer stations equipped only with rain gauges. These sent in monthly returns.

Letter books at Perth Observatory contain many letters to and from the out-stations. Cooke frequently chided observers for poor readings of their instruments. The correspondence demonstrates his determination and attention to detail as he tried to ensure that the data from the outstations were accurate and reliable. Outstations south of the tropics, except for those in the far south-east, were inspected annually.

Cooke wanted to provide the public with the best possible weather service - not only an accurate and reliable one, but also an accessible one. By the turn of the century a general weather report, a special rainfall report, an isobar map, and a forecast were made available in the morning for exhibition at several places in Perth and Fremantle.

The premises of the optician Frost and Shipham in Hay Street were the main centre for Perth citizens. 27 A supplementary forecast was issued at noon for publication in the Daily News, and special forecasts were wired at noon for publication in the Boulder Evening Star, and to Cue and Peak Hill for exhibition in the post offices. Another general forecast was issued at 4.p.m. This, covering


the following day, was published in the morning newspapers. Special forecasts were also then wired to Coolgardie, Menzies, Kalgoorlie and Kanowna for the local daily papers. The forecasts posted in Frost and Shipham’s window included graphic illustration. 28

It was characteristic of Cooke, as will be shown in his astronomical work, that he rarely tackled a pragmatic task without devising a new method of observation, a more efficient method of calculation, or a new theoretical base for the work. In developing the Western Australian meteorological service he made a substantial contribution to the science of meteorology.

Cooke later wrote:

Before leaving Adelaide, in 1896, I had looked forward with fear and trembling to the issue of daily weather forcasts. 29

Under Todd, the South Australian meteorological service had developed a fuller understanding of the weather of that State. It was believed that there were two distinct types of ‘disturbance’ which affected the weather of that state: a summer and a winter disturbance. The winter disturbance appeared to be associated with a ‘low’ travelling along the ocean south of Australia and moving in a general east-southeast direction. 30

It had been pretty well established that the passage of changes in Adelaide could be traced back beyond Eucla to C. Leeuwin, and were generally connected with a series of 'lows' passing along the Southern Ocean from West to East ... The picture formed in my mind (also those of Sir Charles Todd, Mr Griffiths, and many others) was that of an extensive area of low pressure extending from about 40°S to the South Pole, with isobars running roughly parallel to the parallels of latitude. Every now and again something gave them a poke upwards, from S to N... The result was a surge upwards of a ˆ of low pressure, which partook of the general drift from W to E, and so moved along past the southern littoral as an ‘Antarctic depression'. 31

Cooke was worried that, operating in Perth, he would have virtually no advance warning of these approaching depressions. ‘My first indication would be at C. Leeuwin and then the fat would already be in the fire.’ He wondered if these ‘lows' came past the Cape of Good Hope, and if he might trace connections between weather changes at the Cape and the Leeuwin! ‘I even entertained a wild idea of following them all round the world’.

Cooke was probably aware of Russel’s study of anticyclones, published in 1893, which had advocated linking up observations from both sides of the Indian Ocean to reconstruct the routes of cyclones. 32

When he moved to Perth he realised that he would have to investigate the development of weather well to the west. He studied the records from the Cape, Natal and Mauritius, to see if any storms could be traced from these stations to Australian waters. He was not successful and concluded that ‘some of the facts are almost sufficient to justify that assertion that our winter storms certainly do not come from even as far west as Mauritius'. 33


Cooke, of course, lacked nearly all the modem aids to forecasting. However, he

... found that the lows travelled with remarkable smoothness, and that the three observers at the Leeuwin were particularly meticulous and reliable. On the whole I was unexpectedly successful, more so than we had been in Adelaide with Eucla and Leeuwin to help us. It seems to me that the greatest difficulties occur after the low reaches of Eucla. 34

One of Cooke’s major contributions to this science was his analysis of the passage of cyclones from the north-west coast into the interior. He wrote:

At Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie probably 100% of the people believed that their heavy rain storms came across from Sydney - principally, I suppose, because they were invariably preceded by easterly winds. I certainly did not share those views, but was probably the only one who did not. Still, for a time, I had nothing to offer per contra, so let the matter lie for a bit. 35

A severe storm, in April 1905, enabled Cooke to explain the passage of these cyclones. A very severe cyclone struck a north-west station and passed inland to be lost temporarily from view. About two or three days later very heavy rain fell at Kalgoorlie. Cooke 'suspected the identity of the two storms’. He collected as much information as he could from the scattered stations between the two locations and showed that the cyclone had travelled overland from the northwest coast to the goldfields and thence to the Bight. He was then able to forecast the passage of these cyclones more accurately, so earning the gratitude of the pearlers and of other northerly residents.

Cooke believed that the analysis of this cyclone gave him new insights into the movements of the so-called ‘Antarctic depressions.’ He decided to drop that term. He studied barometric readings all along the west coast, as far as Wyndham, and

... found definite indications of quite a large number of lows passing down the Indian Ocean, roughly parallel to the contour of the coast, and not a great distance out at sea. They all follow a course roughly parabolic, first towards the SW in the lower latitudes (e.g. off Wyndham) then gradually veering towards the left and recurving somewhere about lat 20°. A fair number of them crossed the coast and travelled overland towards the Bight, more or less ... The majority I should say, kept out at sea and rounded the Leeuwin just as if they might be ships bound from the Timor Sea to Melbourne. After reaching the Leeuwin they behaved just like the ordinary series of so called 'Antartctic depressions'. A few of them crossed the SW comer of Australia between the Leeuwin and Perth, and their passage was prettily shown by the abnormal backing of the wind at Leeuwin, from E.


He concluded that

there is only one type of storm which affects Western Australia. . . and probably most of the continent the whole year round. . .(and). . . that there is no such thing as a northward extension of the antarctic low pressure as a practical factor in our meteorology, but that all our disturbances are from somewhere in the tropical regions and follow the usual course, first southwest, then recurving and moving in a southeast and a southwest direction.

However, he admitted that he could not account for ‘lows’ that seemed to appear suddenly in the Bight, without any very strong indications of passing the Leeuwin. His data was too sparse for him to have recognised the coastal isobaric trough and midlatitude depressions. 38 He was wrong to asume that there were only tropical disturbances. Now, with the aid of many more reports from ships and aircraft, and with images from satellites, we have a much better understanding of the cold fronts and ‘lows’ which move in from the south-west. However, Cooke’s insights into tropical cyclones were remarkable given the sparse data available to him.

In January 1908 the meteorological service was taken over by the Commonwealth, enabling Cooke to concentrate on his astronomical work.

The Time Service

Cooke also established a time service for the State while waiting for the installation of his astronomical instruments. A few years after the service was introduced he wrote:

When I first came here I found that everybody kept his own time, more or less, and it seemed to trouble nobody if his watch differed 15 minutes from his neighbour’s. I believe it was a not infrequent occurrence for a person to be late in catching the train at Fremantle (reckoning by Perth time) and yet find he had ten minutes to wait before the railway starting time; or else to be five minutes early (as he thought) and miss the train. 39

The colony’s parliament did not determine a standard meridian for the colony’s time until 1895 when it enacted that this should be the 120th meridian. 40 This became effective on 1 December of that year.

In October 1896, while Cooke was still overseas, the Under Secretary for Railways requested the provision of a time service. On his return, in November Cooke borrowed a chronometer (poole 4415) and a 5 inch theodolite from the Lands Department to establish this. The chronometer was used to record mean solar time and the theodolite was used each night, weather permitting, to observe stars so that the chronometer’s accuracy could be checked. A time-signal was telegraphed from the G.P.O. at noon each day. This means that the chronometer


probably had to be taken to the G.P.O. each day. In 1897 a small transit telescope was obtained to replace the theodolite for the star observations; it was mounted on a brick pillar erected in the observatory grounds. 41

About 1898 two standard clocks, made by Kullberg of Germany, were installed. 42 The transit telescope provided a more accurate check of sidereal time than had been possible with the theodolite. One of the standard clocks recorded sidereal time, and the other mean solar time. The latter was connected electrically to various indicators:

1. A time ball was dropped daily at 1 p.m. at Fremantle and at other such times as may have been requested by commanders of mail steamers.

2. A time ball was dropped in Hay Street at the premises of Frost and Shipham.

3. A public clock, controlled by the mean solar clock, was installed at the front gates of the Observatory. 43

4. A parent clock at the central Railway Station, Perth, was also controlled by the mean solar clock. Signals were telegraphed throughout the railway service each day.

5. Two clocks in the Telegraph Operating Room, Perth, were controlled, and daily signals were telegraphed to every telegraph station in the State.

6. A time gun was fired at 1 pm. daily at Perth and Fremantle. 44

In November 1902 the observatory bought an old six-pounder cannon for £ 3 to use as the time gun. When it was fired the litter of paper from the wad used in the charge was scattered over Harvest Terrace and Parliament House grounds. In 1913 Cooke’s successor, H.B. Curlewis, reported that the time gun was wearing out and in danger of bursting, so it was replaced by fog signals in January 1914. In 1940 the two standard clocks became obsolete when time signals, radioed from overseas, became available. Modem communication made the time signal unneessary and, appropriately, the last signal was fired on Armistice Day 1955.

Astronomical Work

While establishing the meteorological and time services, Cooke was supervising the installation of the astronomical instruments. The principal instruments which were ordered were an equatorial for astrography and a 6 inch transit telescope for determining star positions accurately. The former, made by Grubb, was at the standard size for its work, with 13 inch photographic and 10 inch visual glasses. The transit room, to house the Troughton & Simms transit telescope, was a special pattern designed for hot climates by Sir David Gill. It was the first in the world built to Gill’s design. The experimental construction proved successful and the definition achieved with the instrument was usually excellent. 45

There were other tasks to perform while the meticulous work of installation and checking was proceeding. Surveyor-General Johnston asked Cooke to


fix the position of a few of the state’s principal trig stations. The only available insturment was a 12 inch theodolite, a very fine instrument for trigonometrical survey work but inadequate for the accurate determination of latitude and longitude. Cooke mounted the theodolite on a brick pillar in the Observatory grounds but was not satisfied with the accuracy attainable by the usual method of observation. The work asked of Cooke was important as there were serious anomalies in the mapping of the state.

To fix the trig station positions a portable transit instrument was needed. This would have had to be mounted on two brick pillars at each station, adjusted meticulously, and provided with shelter. This would have been impractical. Cooke decided to adapt a method of determining latitude, longitude and azimuth which had been devised 20 years earlier by S.C. Chandler at the Harvard College Obsera-tory. For this method Chandler had designed a special instrument, the ‘almucantar' which had to be floated on mercury to ensure accurate levelling. Cooke wrote:

... after carefully going through the mathematical theory, and wishing I had such an instrument, and that it could be made in a portable type, it suddenly occurred to me how an exactly similar result might be obtained from an ordinary theodolite. Instead of mercury flotation, I utilised a sensitive level in order to secure the line of sight remaining in the true celestial circle. I tried the method first with a 12 inch theodolite, and obtained results of even unexpected accuracy. In fact, with this comparatively small instrument, the results obtained with the new method were of at least equal, if not superior accuracy to those obtained with a very much larger and more expensive transit circle. 46

The Surveyor-General asked Cooke to adapt the method to the more common 5 inch theodolite, which he accordingly did. Sir John Forrest, during one of his frequent visits to the observatory, expressed disbelief, as the accuracies of observation obtained exceeded the accuracy of calibration of the instrument. Cooke was able to explain that the accuracy was due to the reduction of observations to an ideal circle traced out by the instrument in a horizontal plane, and not to the instrument’s calibrated circles.

The two telescopes were received and mounted during 1898-1899, but observations did not start until 6 October 1901. Until then the telescopes were mainly used for demonstrations to visitors. In March 1901 Cooke went to Adelaide to carry out observations simultaneously with observers in Perth for accurate determination of longitude.

On 24 March 1901 the lighthouse keeper at Cape Leeuwin reported sighting a comet.

Comet appearing in NW sky. Owing to elections several comets have been seen here lately. This one, however, appears to be legitimate. 47


The sightings of this comet involved Cooke in controversy about public admission to the observatory. There were criticisms in the press that the public was not admitted to visit the observatory to see the comet through the telescopes. Cooke may have been reluctant to be diverted from his main astronomical work, so recently begun. The comet was visible only in the early morning, at which hour few people may have wished to visit the observatory anyhow. One letter to the Morning Herald of 8 May complained that people did not see why such a highly-paid official as the Government Astronmer was necessary to the state.

If the public library educates the people, why cannot the Observatory, which is, to all appearances, a waste of public money, be made instrumental in bringing about the same result, only in a different manner.

The editor of the paper defended Cooke:

No civil servant we have has displayed a greater readiness to assist and instruct the public as [sic] the Government Astronomer.

Cooke had written to the Colonial Secretary in August 1898 that it would be unwise to allow admission of the public to the observatory grounds unreservedly. However, he was anxious to afford the public every facility not only of seeing the view from the domain, but of inspecting the instruments and seeing the heavenly bodies through them. This could only be at stated times, and under conditions which would ensure the safety of the instrument and the prosecution of the researches of the staff. It was not possible to do this while the work of installation was incomplete, ‘but when the proper time comes I shall show that I wish to be distinctly one of the people’s institutions for astronomy, as it is already becoming for meteorology .’48

Despite what must have been considerable inconvenience to the small observatory staff when the astronomical programme was in full swing on top of the meteorological work, Cooke was true to his word. The observatory was open for inspection every Tuesday afternoon and the large equatorial instrument was at the disposal of visitors at least three times per month. A special effort was made to accommodate schools and literary societies and classes from the Technical School and Training College. In addition classes for pupil surveyors were held there and also the practical examinations in astronomy and field work for the Licensed Surveyors Board of Examiners. The observatory also became the headquarters of the university extension committee of which Cooke was the honorary secretary.

Admission of the public caused problems beyond the diversion of time. In 1910 the purchase of another instrument, a 12 1/2 inch reflector, was approved to free the main equatorial for professional work. This instrument was received in July 1911 but was not mounted until the base and shed had been completed. 49

When the principal instruments were being erected and adjusted, but before a definite programme of work had been arranged, the Permanent Committee of the


International Astrographic Congress asked the Western Australian Government if the Perth Observatory could co-operate in the international star cataloguing and charting scheme. 50

The geographical position and the equipment of Perth Observatory were well suited to such work and the invitation was accepted. Perth was allotted the zone of 32° 40° south declination. Cooke was to embark on his major astronomical work, and the Perth Observatory, under his direction, was to make a notable contribution to the great international scheme. The nature of the work is best described in Cooke’s own words:

With the astrograph photographs covering the region assigned to us are being taken. Each plate contains an area of two degrees square, and successive plates overlap so that the edge of one corresponds to the central line of the next. Sufficient exposure is given to secure every object down to the 11th magnitude. In the Milky Way there are sometimes as many as 20 000 stars in a single plate, whereas in other portions of the sky there are less than 100. These are all measured and the positions referred to two straight lines on each plate as axes of coordinates. These measures, of course, only give relative positions, subject to various errors due to incorrect orientation and scale values. In order to obtain the absolute places in the sky we must know the positions of say, twelve standard stars on each plate. These are determined by means of the Transit circle. There are thus two main parallel lines of work going on. The rectangular coordinates of all stars in the assigned region down to the 11th and the positons of about ten thousand sleeted stars are being rigorously determined by measurements of the transit circles. 51

The work required extremely painstaking and meticulous observers and, without modern aids for observation and calculation, must have been tedious. Moreover this effort had to be sustained year after year. Cooke realised that a lot of this effort was being squandered because the observations were not sufficiently systematic.

A Catalogue of 420 Standard Stars was published by the Perth Observatory in 1907. Cooke prepared a statement to accompany the catalogue in which he criticised the international programme. 52 This statement (and the introduction to the Catalogue) refers to various technical refinements Cooke introduced into his methods of observation, and then explains the plan which he had adopted:

I have adopted a plan which I hope to see copied by a number of other observatories. I propose that the Perth Observatory shall confine its transit observations to this particular region and prepare a catalogue of exactly the same stars every 10 or 12 years, or as frequently as possible, including each time a redetermination of the 420 secondary standards. Thus in course of time the worker in this part of the sky will turn to the Perth catalogues with the certainty of finding a number of stars in any ordinary sized field all of whose positions have been regularly determined from time to time and can therefore be brought reliably up to date.


The Perth Observatory soon established an international reputation for its work in this field. The plan for the meridian observation work was commended by the Director of the Johannesburg Observatory as excellent and he hoped that other observatories in the southern hemisphere would follow the example. The Astronomer Royal for Scotland congratulated Cooke on producing substantial work so promptly. Dodwell, of the Adelaide Observatory, was advised by the Astronomer Royal ‘to follow implicitly the head of the Perth Observatory and copy their methods ... their catalogues are excellent, and they seem to be able to maintain the maximum efficiency with the minimum expenditure of energy.'

The astrographic work was also praised. Sir David Gill wrote:

The Perth Observatory has so far done its share of this great international undertaking in a most able and energetic manner, to the scientific credit of the Colony and to the great advantage of science.

The Astronomer Royal commended the photographic plates as up to the standard of any other observatory in the world. Professor Sampson wrote that 'the work at Perth has been organised with ability and great breadth of view by Mr Cooke.' 53

On 27 February 1909 the West Australian cited an article in Lone Hand by E.C. McKay, which referred to Perth Observatory as ‘at present the one live institution' of the four Australian observatories. ‘A young, vigorous establishment under the control of W.E. Cooke, Perth may be looked to for a brilliant record in the future.'

Cooke advocated his plan for international adoption:

I wish to put forward a plea for united effort in meridian work. . . If the millions of observations that have been taken in the past had been properly co-ordinated we ought to be able to obtain good star positions in abundance in any portion of the sky ... [However] It is a matter of everyday occurrence that an astronomer desires a number of references in some particular field, and as a general rule is obliged to use approximate positions first and re-observe his reference stars with the transit circle at the next convenient opportunity. . .From existing catalogues he will probably find that most of his star positions have been determined once somewhere or other, but he will be very fotunate if he obtains sufficiently accurate information to bring the positions up to date. It is, moreover, disappointing to the transit observer to feel that he is putting an immense amount of work into a catalogue the greater part of which will never be read. 54

He advocated the preparation of three catalogues, and that astronomers be requested to confine their meridian or other exact work to the stars in one or other of these catalogues:

A. Bright Stars. This does not form part of the proposed scheme, but, of


course the regular observation of the principal stars must be continued.

B. Fundamental Stars for the general scheme. As a matter of detail I suggest that these be selected of about the sixth magnitude and in every region of the sky.

C. Main Catalogue, comprising say three stars to every square degree, and, of course, including the whole of B. This would make a total of over 120,000 stars.

Cooke attended the International Astrographic Conference in Paris in 1909 and was able to persuade his colleagues to accept his plan. When he returned to Perth on 16 September of that year he wrote a report on the conference for the Colonial Secretary. 55 His pleasure in the results of the conference are evident. He wrote that he had three main objects in attending: (a) to take his part as one of the 18 members of the Permanent Committee and to expand his professional contacts, (b) to act as a ‘kind of advocate’ for Australia, and (c) to bring forward the new scheme of international co-operation in all future observations of standard and fundamental stars. As to his second object he felt that he had been placed in a position of delicacy and difficulty.

Australia has undoubtedly been regarded contemptuously as a contributor to the world’s intellectual progress, much as we might regard, say, Greenland or Tibet. There is, unfortunately, some reason for this opinion. Three nominal observatories (Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide) have been in existence for about half a century, and their output of useful astronomical knowledge is remarkably small. Two of these agreed to take each one share of the International Durchmusterung. This was about 20 years ago, and so far nothing whatever has apparently eventuated. All four Australian Observatories ... .are supposed to be taking part in the international investigations of earthquakes, yet the only records that are regularly received are those of Perth. During the last 10 years the only astronomical contributions issued to the world from Australia are the three volumes of Perth observations ...

He then expressed his delight that his own scheme was unanimously adopted by the conference and that a sub-committee had been appointed to carry it into effect.

Cooke was at the peak of his career and his correspondence shows that he was confident of his positon at the head of his profession in Australia. The confidence was justified and was expressed candidly but not boastfully. The tone of his letters, although they deal with professional matters, reveal something of the man: an intense devotion to the progress of astronomy in Australia allied with some attractive ingenuousness. Included is a ten page statement on the Commonwealth Government’s proposal to establish a Solar Physics Observatory.

Cooke was absent from Perth from mid-February until June 1911. At the request of the South Australian Government he assisted the Adelaide Observatory


to redetermine the boundary between Victoria and South Australia. He then went on to join a party sent to the Friendly Islands to observe an eclipse. 56 Not long after his return he was appointed Government Astronomer of New South Wales.

Cooke was able to leave the Perth Observatory well satisfied with its development. He was able to cite references to the work of the observatory which had appeared in the October and December 1911 issues of the British journal Observatory:

As an example of the work required to be done in our State (NSW) Observatory, let one point to the excellent work now issued from the Perth Observatory ... Had work like that been carried out at Sydney during the last half century, we should now have something to boast of.


... in 1911, 24 years after the Conference of 1887 which decided on the charting of the heavens by photography, the first printed measures for the Southern Hemisphere have at last appeared. And they are from an observatory which started 13 years behind the others: to take the place of one which never started at all. Mr W.E. Cooke, of Perth, deserves a word of praise for being first in the field with his contribution of 14,000 stars ... 57

Other Interests

Despite the demands of his professional work, Cooke was active in public affairs. Education was an abiding interest and he was working on a book about education at the time of his death. In one draft of a section of this manuscript he mentioned his work on behalf of the University of Adelaide in Western Australia:

I was requested by the Adelaide University to try to get together a committee in Perth to co-operate with the Adelaide University & extend their system of public exams throughout W. Australia. This was done & before very long every child in WA. had an opportunity of sitting for the Adelaide exams — (I may mention that this committee took a strong part in educational matters & eventually laid the foundations for the University of W.A.) 58

(At this time there was no University of Western Australia.) Cooke was, as has already been mentioned, secretary of this university extension committee. It is beyond the scope of this present study to examine Cooke’s claims about the effectiveness and extent of the committee’s work and influence. However he later regretted the inflexibility of an examination system which he had helped to introduce.

At the request of the Director of Education, Cyril Jackson, Cooke wrote a small textbook on astronomy, but the public examination system mitigated


against the widespread adoption of this in schools. 59 In 1909 Cooke was appointed a Royal Commissioner to ‘enquire upon the question of whether the time is opportune for the establishment of a university of this State’...

Despite Cooke’s interest in the establishment of a university, he argued against absorption of the Perth Observatory into the university.

Cooke appears to have believed that state observatories were essentially institutions for astronomical observation and that it was the role of the universities to undertake theoretical research. This attitude probably arose from his concern for the enormous amount of observation required in Australia to provide adequate data. This view now appears to be short-sighted but may have been understandable at the time.

Later he argued against the establishment of the University of Western Australia near the Perth Observatory. The proposed site appears to have included Parliament House and grounds, High (Hale) School and a part of King’s Park. Cooke thought that the site was too small.

In 1902 Cooke was elected the first chairman of the newly formed Civil Service Association. 60 He was also a very active councillor of the Natural History and Science Society from its inception in 1904. This Society later became the Royal Society of Western Australia. When Cooke moved to Sydney he was made an honorary member of the Society. 61

Despite all this extramural activity, he published a number of scientific papers and many reports of astronomical observations. He also produced the prototype of his major invention, the ‘sunclock’ or ‘helio-chronometer'.

Details of the ‘helio-chronometer’ were published in 1907 62 but an application for a patent was not lodged until 1924.63 The patent application summarises the design and use of this instrument:

This invention relates to an improved clock in which the hands are automatically moved to indicate the correct apparent, mean, or standard time by the act of forming an image of the sun on a day chart.

The invention comprises means for indicating on an ordinary clock dial the correct time during sunlight hours for every day of the year, means for determining and indicating the geographical meridian through the clock’s station, means for determining the true geographical bearing of any location within view of the clock’s station as distinguished from the compass or magnetic bearing, means for determining the latitude of the clock’s position, and means for determining the time of sunrise and of sunset for any day of the year.


Following Cooke’s retirement in 1926, Cooke’s Sunclocks Limited was formed to market an improved version. By that time, however, the development of wireless signals made such an invention obsolete. Only about fifty were produced and sold. The ‘helio-chronometer’ was awarded a medal at the 1924 Wembley Exhibition. Professor Wheatstone had described a solar chronometer to a meeting of the Bristol Association in 1848. 64 However Cooke’s instrument indicated mean solar time directly, and Wheatstone’s the apparent solar time which would then have had to be corrected by using the ‘equation of time'. Cooke’s instrument could also be set to indicate standard time instead of local time. 65 Cooke’s ‘helio-chronometer' was therefore substantially novel.

There are two examples of Cooke’s instrument at the Perth Observatory, one in Prince Alfred College, one in the Science Museum of Victoria, and one in private possession in Perth. A sixth has been donated recently to the Western Australian Museum. 66 There may be others, perhaps in the possession of the people who are not fully aware of the significance of this invention.

The Perth Observatory continues to be an important contributor to the international star mapping programme. The influence of its founder continues. His colleagues admired him for his scientific prowess and for his character. After Cooke’s death on 7 November 1947 the Government Astronomer of South Australia, his former colleague and long-time friend, G.F. Dodwell wrote

He was a man of noble, kindly and brotherly character, and the good influences of his life will always live on in the memory of all who knew him. 67

* * *

For an account of Cooke’s later life and a Bibliography of his writings, see the article by David Hutchison “William Ernest Cooke, Astronomer (1863-1947)“ Journal of the Academy of Science Vol V, part ii, in which is also a full bibliography of Cooke’s writings.


1. M. Tauman, The Chief: C.Y.O’Connor, Nedlands, 1978.

2. Entry for Ebenezer Cooke, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 3, 1851-1890, Melbourne, 1969, pp.450-451.

3. J.E.S. Miller, Headmaster St Peter’s pers. comm. 20 March 1978, gave his period at the College as 1876 to 1882, but this does not tally with scholarship and matriculation dates.

4. Adelaide Observer, 30 November 1895, p.l6a.

7. Entry for Sir Charles Todd, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 6, 1851-1890, Melbourne, 1976, pp.280-282.

8. Dodwell, Government Astronomer, Adelaide Advertiser, 12 November 1947; Todd to Forrest, 2 January 1895, State Library of S.A., GRG 31/1/4, pp. 103-104.


9. Maxwell Cooke at this date is living in Sydney.

10. Parliament of Western Australia, Votes and Proceedings, vol. II; Todd to Forrest, op.cit.

11. W.A. Parliamentary Debates, 1895, vol. VIII (New Series), p.682.

12. H.B. Curlewis, The Perth Observatory,’, Civil Service Journal, 20 July 1929, pp.73-74.

13. Todd to Forrest, op.cit.

14. Twentieth Century Impressions of Western Australia, Perth, 1901, p.76.

15. H.B. Curlewis, op.cit.

16. B.J. Harris, former Government Astronomer, MS notes (Perth Observatory).

17. H.B. Curlewis, op.cit.

18. This was a ministerial post. Piesse also held the public works portfolio.

19. West Australian, 30 September 1896.

20. Gill to Cooke, in possession of Maxwell G. Cooke.

21. B.J. Harris, M.S. study of Cooke’s work on meteorology and the time service (Perth Observatory).

22. W.H. Knight, Western Australia: its History, Progress, Condition & Prospects, Perth, 1870, p. 19.

23. W.E. Cooke, The Observatory’, Western Australian Year Book 1902-04, Perth, 1906, pp.l 122-1125.

24. J. Gentilli, ‘A history of meteorological and climatological studies in Australia’. Univ. Stud. Hist., vol. 5, 1967. pp. 54-88.

25. Twentieth Century Impressions of Western Australia, p. 76.

26. W.E. Cooke, ‘Meteorology of Western Australia’, Report of the eight International Geographical Congress, held in the U.S., Washington, 1905, pp. 386-392.

27. Post Office Directory, 1898, gives the address as 411 Hay St, on the south side west of Barrack St.

28. W.E. Cooke, ‘Some aspects of W.A. Meteorology’, ca. 1944, MS in possession of author.

29. Ibid.

30. Cooke, ‘Meteorology of Western Australia’, op.cit., pp.386-387.

31. Cooke MS, op.cit.

32. J. Gentilli, pers. comm.

33. Cooke, ‘Meteorology of Western Australia, op.cit. p. 390.

34. Cooke MS, op. cit.

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid.

37. Cooke, ‘Meteorology of Western Australia’, op.cit., p. 391.

38. J. Gentilli, ‘Dynamics of the Australian troposphere’, J. Gentilli (Ed.), Climates of Australia and New Zealand, Amsterdam, 1971, p.90.

39. B.J. Harris, pers comm., 12 February 1971.

40. Standard Time Act 1895, 59 Vic. No. 2.

41. B.J. Harris, pers. comm., 12 February 1971.

42. Both clocks are still at Perth Observatory. It is planned to transfer them, with the transit telescope, for display at the Western Australian Museum.

43. Its installation was reported in the West Australian, 1 June 1899. It was


the first accurate public clock in the Colony. It was superseded by the clock in the Edith Cowan Memorial opposite the old observatory site.

44. W.E. Cooke, The Observatory’, op.cit.

45. The Year Book of Western Australia 1912, Perth, p.96.

46. Morning Herald, 23 March 1903. The newspaper also referred to favourable mention of this new method in the English Mechanic and World of Science. W.E. Cooke, ‘On a new and accurate method of determinig time, latitude and azimuth with a theodolite’. Queensland Institute of Surveyors Transactions and Proceedings, vol. 2, 1902-03, pp.73-83.

47. Harris MS.

48. West Australian, 26 August 1898.

49. Harris MS.

50. W.E. Cooke, ‘History of the Perth Observatory’, Natural History and Science Society of W.A. Journal, 1912, pp.80-82.

51. Ibid, p.81.

52. Perth Observatory file No. 09.

53. Summarised in a typescript by Cooke in possession of Maxwell G. Cooke.

54. W.E. Cooke, The next international scheme - a suggestion’, Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, vol. LXV,No. 9, pp.859-861.

55. Cooke, handwritten draft, Perth Observatory file No. 09.

56. West Australian, 17 June 1911.

57. Ibid, 3 February 1912.

58. W.E. Cooke, MS in poss. Maxwell G. Cooke.

59. W.E. Cooke, Elementary Practical Astronomy for Primary Schools, Perth, 1904. • '

60. G.P. Stevens, The Civil Service Association’, The Civil Service Journal, 20 July 1929, p.68.

61. M.A. Browne, Hon. Secretary of the Society, to Cooke, 4 September 1912.

62. W.E. Cooke, The New Sun Dial or Helio-Chronometer, Bulletin No. 25, Department of Agriculture, Perth, 1907.

63. Australian patent application No. 15,458/24, 16 February 1924.

64. Frank W. Cousins, Sundials, London, 1969. Dr. Guy Hamilton drew my attention to this reference.

65. Dr. Denys Vaughn, Science Museum, London, pers. comm., 16 October 1979.

66. The donor is Mr. Eric Minchin of Broken Hill, a grand-nephew of W.E. Cooke.

67. G.F. Dodwell, The Advertiser, Adelaide, 13 November 1947.


Many people have assisted my researches but I must thank in particular Mr. Maxwell Cooke and Mrs. Dulcie Cooke for their generous help, friendship and hospitality. Dr. I. Nikoloff, Government Astronomer, has made the records of the Perth Observatory available and helped to elucidate some technical points. Three institutions have given their usual valuable assistance: the Battye Library,


the Mitchell Library and the State Library of South Australia. The Headmaster of Prince Alfred College and the Registrar of the University of Adelaide have answered all my inquiries promptly and helpfully. Miss Barbara Minchin of Adelaide and Mr. J.E. Minchin of Broken Hill also contributed information and photographs. Others who have helped to elucidate particular points are Dr. J. Gentilli and Mr. W.H. Robertson, Government Astronomer of New South Wales. Dr. Guy Hamilton shared with me his wide knowledge of sun-dials. Mr. B.R. Cant, of the Commonwealth Patents Office, and Mr. Cecil Jefferey assisted with research into patents. Mr. J. Honniball made constructive criticisms. The late Dr. S.E. Williams was helpful when my inquiries began. Naturally none of those who have helped are in any way responsible for my interpretations. Finally it would be remiss not to pay tribute to the skill of Mrs. Erlinda Lawson who made such a good fair copy of my own clumsily typed manuscript.

Garry Gillard | New: 7 September, 2020 | Now: 12 September, 2020

Cooke seated left (left) and standing centre (right)