RUSSELL, Henry Chamberlain (1836-1907)


RUSSELL, Henry Chamberlain (1836-1907)
astronomer
son of the Hon. Bourn Russell, M.L.C., was born at West Maitland, New South Wales, on 17 March 1836. He was educated at West Maitland grammar school and the university of Sydney, where he took his B.A. degree in 1859. He joined the staff of the Sydney observatory under W. Scott who resigned in 1862. Russell then became acting director for a few months until the new government astronomer, Mr Smalley, was appointed. On the death of Smalley in 1870 Russell was given the position and held it for 35 years. He immediately began reorganizing and refurnishing the building, which he succeeded in getting considerably enlarged during the next seven years. His first important work was preparing for the observation of the transit of Venus in 1874 for which four observing stations were equipped. Russell arranged for a band of competent observers to staff them, and the results were generally very successful; an interesting account of them was published by Russell in 1892, Observations of the Transit of Venus.
Russell began to develop the meteorological side of his work and in 1877 published a substantial volume, Climate of New South Wales: Descriptive, Historical and Tabular. In this volume some attention is given to the question of weather periodicity, on which he had written a paper in 1876. In later years he gave a great deal of attention to it. At the beginning of Russell's appointment there were only 12 observing stations in New South Wales, but before he resigned there were about 1800. There was little money for equipment, but Russell did wonders with what was available, and himself designed a rain gauge which could be made at a cost of one-sixth of the imported gauges. He also invented various self-recording barometers, thermometers, anemometers and rain-gauges. This reduced and made possible the work of his observers, nearly all of whom gave their services voluntarily. In collaboration with Sir Charles Todd (q.v.) of South Australia, and Ellery (q.v.) and Baracchi of Victoria, the work of weather reporting in Australia was co-ordinated until the daily weather forecasts showed a very high percentage of accuracy. The long series of Meteorological Observations made at the Government Observatory, Sydney, published under Russell's direction contain an enormous mass of information relating to the climate of New South Wales.
Russell was much interested in the study of double stars and published in 1882 Results of Double Star Measures made at the Sydney Observatory 1871 to 1881. He also gave a great deal of attention to the application of photography to astronomical work. In 1887 he attended the astrographic congress at Paris and arranged for the co-operation of the Sydney observatory. This involved the taking and measurement of 1400 photographic plates. Russell supervized the preparation of the portion of the astrographic catalogue undertaken by the Sydney observatory until his retirement. In 1888 he was elected president of the newly-formed Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science and in 1891 became vice-chancellor of the university of Sydney, but resigned within a year on account of the pressure of his other duties. In 1903 he had a severe illness from which he never completely recovered. He resigned the position of government astronomer in 1905 and died at Sydney on 22 February 1907. He married Emily Jane, daughter of Ambrose Foss, who survived him with a son and four daughters. He was for some years president of the Royal Society of New South Wales, was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, London, in 1886, and was created C.M.G. in 1890. In addition to the works already mentioned Russell contributed papers to various societies, many of which appeared in the Memoirs and Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Others will be, found in the Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, and other journals. He also took an important part in the initiation of technical education in New South Wales.
Russell was conscientious and enthusiastic, a great worker; his hours of attendance at the observatory were commonly from nine in the morning until midnight. He was an excellent mechanic and was responsible for many inventions which proved to be of great value in connexion with his work. His theory of a 19 years cycle in weather periodicity could not be proved on the information available, and the same may be said of the 33 years cycle of Charles Egeson, an assistant of Russell's at the observatory. Russell's paper on the River Darling read in 1879, suggesting that vast supplies of water must be flowing at a lower level was a very interesting prediction considering that artesian water was practically unknown at the time. But, however interesting these theories may have been, the great value of Russell's efforts lies in the mass of tabulated work done by him or under his direction in astronomy and especially meteorology, which has been a mine of information for all workers in the subjects.
Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 1908, vol. 80a, p. LX; Monthly Notices the of Royal Astronomical Society, 1908, vol. LXVIII, p. 241; Journal and Proceedings Royal Society of New South Wales, 1907, vol. XLI, p. 23; The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 February and 2 March 1907; Who's Who, 1907.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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