With the invention of photography, astronomers were able to study the sky in great detail and soon began to create highly accurate maps of the stars. Both professional and amateur astronomers use photography to capture beautiful images of the cosmos.

With the invention of photography, astronomers were able to study the sky in great detail and soon began to create highly accurate maps of the stars. Both professional and amateur astronomers use photography to capture beautiful images of the cosmos.

© Canadian Heritage Information Network, 2003

In the late 1800s, a project called the Astrographic Catalogue was launched to map the positions of the stars. Twenty observatories around the world took part. Each was assigned a specific zone of the sky, and together they charted the positions of 4.6 million stars. Australia’s Sydney Observatory mapped 250 000 stars-so many that it took 76 years to publish the results.

The Great Star Map

The Astrographic Catalogue project was a great international plan to map the whole sky. When Henry Chamberlain Russell (the Government Astronomer) committed Sydney Observatory to this project in 1887, he unknowingly established its future direction for most of the next century.

By the 1880s photography had become sufficiently advanced that it became possible to take pictures of the sky through telescopes. Russell was invited to a conference in Paris in 1887 to discuss a project to map the whole sky photographically. To do this the sky was divided into zones that were allocated to the 20 or so participating observatories. Each observatory was to use identical telescopes to photograph their zone, measure the coordinates of the stars and publish the results. Read More
In the late 1800s, a project called the Astrographic Catalogue was launched to map the positions of the stars. Twenty observatories around the world took part. Each was assigned a specific zone of the sky, and together they charted the positions of 4.6 million stars. Australia’s Sydney Observatory mapped 250 000 stars-so many that it took 76 years to publish the results.

The Great Star Map

The Astrographic Catalogue project was a great international plan to map the whole sky. When Henry Chamberlain Russell (the Government Astronomer) committed Sydney Observatory to this project in 1887, he unknowingly established its future direction for most of the next century.

By the 1880s photography had become sufficiently advanced that it became possible to take pictures of the sky through telescopes. Russell was invited to a conference in Paris in 1887 to discuss a project to map the whole sky photographically. To do this the sky was divided into zones that were allocated to the 20 or so participating observatories. Each observatory was to use identical telescopes to photograph their zone, measure the coordinates of the stars and publish the results.

Russell ordered a suitable lens from the firm of Grubb-Parsons in England and designed a mounting for the astrographic telescope that was built by Morts Dock Engineering Company in Sydney. Photography for the catalogue began in 1890, initially at Sydney Observatory although later the telescope was moved to a site at Pennant Hills.

Sydney Observatory had been assigned one of the largest of all zones. The 1400 photographs needed to cover the zone with almost a quarter of a million star images on them were only exceeded by one observatory in South Africa. A large number of the required photographs were taken in the first ten years. Some further exposures were taken in the 1920s to fill gaps and to replace some low quality photographs, while some final ones were taken in the 1940s.

The real brake on the project was the measuring of the photographs. Rather than prints, these were glass-plate negatives, each containing hundreds of star images. Cheaper to employ, young women were engaged in the repetitive task of measuring the plates to determine the position of each star image with great accuracy.

Once the measurement was completed, the astronomers had to work out an equation for each plate that allowed star positions to be converted to positions in the sky. All this took an unexpectedly long time; Sydney Observatory did not publish its final results until 1963-76 years after Russell had begun the project!

© Canadian Heritage Information Network, 2003

'The Sydney astrographic zones'

'The Sydney astrographic zones'

Department of Lands, NSW
Powerhouse Museum
1895
New South Wales, AUSTRALIA
Lithograph
32 x 32.5 cm
P3549-14
© Powerhouse Museum


Mary Allen and Ethel Wilcox

Mary Allen and Ethel Wilcox measuring astrographic plates.

From 'Pix', 15 March 1941

© Powerhouse Museum


Troughton and Simms plate measurer

This machine was used to measure the small dots that made up the star images on glass plate negatives. It was made in 1915. Most of the plates used on this measurer were exposed at the Observatory's astrographic station near Pennant Hills. However, it was quicker and easier to take photographs than to measure them. By the time this machine was purchased there were 20 years worth of plates waiting to be measured.

Powerhouse Museum
This information is from the exhibition "By the light of the southern stars" at Sydney Observatory, part of the Powerhouse Museum.
1915
H10139
© Powerhouse Museum


Henry Chamberlain Russell was the Government Astronomer at Australia’s Sydney Observatory from 1870 to 1905. Russell was an early pioneer in using photography to capture the details of sky objects. Among his many photos were some excellent images ot the Moon.

Henry Chamberlain Russell was the Government Astronomer at Australia’s Sydney Observatory from 1870 to 1905. Russell was an early pioneer in using photography to capture the details of sky objects. Among his many photos were some excellent images ot the Moon.

© Canadian Heritage Information Network, 2003

Russell attended the 1887 Paris conference that initiated the Astrographic Catalogue project - a huge international project to photographically map the whole sky with identical telescopes. Russell undertook the photography and measurement of a large area of the southern sky on behalf of Sydney Observatory. This task became the main activity of the Observatory, continuing for almost 80 years until 1963.

These photos were taken in 1890-1891 while waiting for the astrographic lens Russell had ordered in 1887. Russell adapted a Dallmeyer portrait lens to the telescope mounting he had designed for the project. He immediately published a book of photos of the Milky Way and several nebula, the luminous patches of light in the night sky composed of gases, dust and stars. These photographs were ’believed to be the first of their kind of the Southern Skies, so much so that in several important respects we must modify the views which have been the outcome of the study of these Star Spaces with ordinary telescopes . The plates which follow were taken on fine nights, with three hours exposure or about that .’.

Photographs of the stars can capture detail whic Read More
Russell attended the 1887 Paris conference that initiated the Astrographic Catalogue project - a huge international project to photographically map the whole sky with identical telescopes. Russell undertook the photography and measurement of a large area of the southern sky on behalf of Sydney Observatory. This task became the main activity of the Observatory, continuing for almost 80 years until 1963.

These photos were taken in 1890-1891 while waiting for the astrographic lens Russell had ordered in 1887. Russell adapted a Dallmeyer portrait lens to the telescope mounting he had designed for the project. He immediately published a book of photos of the Milky Way and several nebula, the luminous patches of light in the night sky composed of gases, dust and stars. These photographs were ’believed to be the first of their kind of the Southern Skies, so much so that in several important respects we must modify the views which have been the outcome of the study of these Star Spaces with ordinary telescopes . The plates which follow were taken on fine nights, with three hours exposure or about that .’.

Photographs of the stars can capture detail which the human eye cannot see, even with the most powerful telescopes. Russell’s photos of the Moon were acclaimed when shown at the 1893 Chicago World Exhibition and at the Royal Astronomical Society in London.
1. H C Russell, Photographs of the Milky Way & Nubeculae taken at Sydney Observatory, Government Printer, Sydney, 1890, pp 3-4
© Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 2001

Henry Chamberlain Russell

Hear from Henry Chamberlain Russell about his role at the Sydney Observatory and his work to document the important event of the Transit of Venus. Then Henry Chamberlain Russell discusses his astronomical observations as they relate to timekeeping, mapping the sky, and photography.

Oh, I didn’t notice you there. No no, come in, come in. My good wife tells me I’ve become so engrossed in my work, I notice little else. Ah yes, this telescope, is it not a superb instrument? I had to import the lenses but I had the tube and the mounting built locally. It has been in use for well over a hundred years. I’m so glad you could visit my observatory. My name is Russell. Henry Chamberlain Russell. I was appointed Government Astronomer in 1870, and such is my passion for this place, I have never been able to leave it.

I first came to the observatory in 1858, soon after its establishment, to take up my position as a computer. Huh huh, yeah, I amuse you I see, but I can assure you that we too had computers all those years ago. That was the name given to the men who made scientific calculations. How I wish I had been able to take advantage of one of your modern computers. I trust you will not think me a braggard if I tell you I transformed this place. I made many improvements, the observatory being completely refurbished with instruments of the most modern and perfect forms. Upon my appointment as government astronomer, I at once took steps to prepare for a very important astronomical event – the transit of Venus.

Canadian Heritage Information Network

© Canadian Heritage Information Network, 2003


H C Russell in his office

H C Russell in his office

Charles Bayliss
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney
1890 - 1900
Photograph
17.5 x 22.5 cm
95/239/23
© Powerhouse Museum


The Moon

No 2 Sept 2 1891' (The Moon)

Henry Chamberlain Russell
1891
Photograph
24 x 17.5 cm
95/239/5
© Powerhouse Museum


Beta Centauri

Taken from 'Photographs of the Milky Way and Nebeculae, taken at Sydney Observatory, 1890'.

Henry Chamberlain Russell
Government Printer, Sydney 1890
1890
Photograph
20.5 x 15.5 cm
96/6/11
© Collection: Powerhouse Museum


'The Nebula about Eta Argus'

The Nebula about Eta Argus.

Henry Chamberlain Russell
1890
Photograph
21.5 x 16.5 cm
95/239/6
© Powerhouse Museum


Learning Objectives

The learner will:

  • Describe scientific and technological developments, past and present and appreciate their impact on individuals and societies
  • Describe the role of photography in mapping space, and how this technology has developed over time

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