TEBBUTT, John (1834-1916)


TEBBUTT, John (1834-1916)
astronomer
was born at Windsor, New South Wales, on 25 May 1834, the only son of John Tebbutt, then a prosperous store keeper. His grandfather, John Tebbutt, was one of the early free settlers in Australia; he arrived at Sydney about the end of 1801. Tebbutt was educated first at the Church of England parish school, then at a private school kept by the Rev. Mathew Adam of the local Presbyterian church, and finally at a small but excellent school under the Rev. Henry Tarlton Stiles, where he had a sound training in Latin, Greek, French, and mathematics. His first teacher, Mr Edward Quaife, was interested in astronomy, and in later years encouraged his former pupil in his study of this science. Tebbutt's father had retired from store keeping about the year 1843, purchased a tract of land at the eastern end of the town of Windsor known as the peninsula, and built a residence there. This subsequently became the site of the observatory built by his son, who at 19 years of age had begun his observations of the heavens with an ordinary marine telescope and a sextant. About nine years later, on 13 May 1861, Tebbutt discovered the 1861 comet, one of the most brilliant comets known. There was no means then of telegraphing the intelligence to England where it became visible on 29 June. Tebbutt was acknowledged as the first discoverer of this comet, and the first computer of its approximate orbit. In November 1861 he purchased an excellent refracting telescope of 3¼-inch aperture and 48-inch focal length, and in 1862 on the resignation of the Rev. W. Scott he was offered the position of government astronomer for New South Wales but refused it. In 1864 he built, with his own hands, a small observatory close to ins father's residence, and installed his instruments consisting of his 3¼-inch telescope, a two-inch transit instrument, and an eight day half-seconds box-chronometer. Shortly before this period Tebbutt had begun to record meteorological observations, and in 1868 published these for the years 1863 to 1866 under the title Meteorological Observations made at the Private Observatory of John Tebbutt, Jnr. He continued the publication of these records at intervals for more than 30 years. He had also begun a long series of papers which were published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society of London, in the Astronomical Register, London, and in the Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales. He contributed to other scientific journals, and made an immense number of contributions to the Australian press. In 1872 a 4½-inch equatorial refracting scope was purchased for the observatory, in 1881 Tebbutt discovered another great comet, and in 1886 a new telescope of 8-inch aperture and 115-inch focal length was purchased, which enabled him to considerably extend his operations. He published in 1887 History and Description of Mr Tebbutt's Observatory, and followed this with a yearly Report for about 15 years. A branch of the British Astronomical Society was established at Sydney in 1895 and Tebbutt was elected its first president. In 1904 in his seventieth year he discontinued systematic work, though he retained his interest in astronomy and continued to do some observing, and in the following year the Royal Astronomical Society of London recognized his work by awarding him the Jackson-Gwilt gift and medal of the society. In 1908 he published his Astronomical Memoirs, giving an account of his 54 years' work, and he was much gratified in 1914, during the visit of the British association, by a visit to his observatory of a small party of astronomers. He died at Windsor on 29 November 1916.
Tebbutt did rearkable work as anastronomer over a long period, and his success, considering the limited equipment in his early days was remarkable. The value of his work was acknowledged throughout the world, and the 1861 comet is known by his name. Some idea of his industry will be gained from his Meteorological Observations and the list of 370 of his publications in the appendix to his Astronomical Memoirs. It would be difficult to find a parallel in value and amount of single-handed work in astronomical science. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1873, and his observatory was recognized in Great Britain, the United States, France, Germany, Brazil and Mexico. A large collection of his manuscripts and pamphlets is at the Mitchell library, Sydney.
J. Tebbutt, Astronomical Memoirs; Journal and Proceedings, Royal Society of New South Wales, vol. LI, p. 6; The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 November 1916; The Observatory, vol. XL, p. 141; J. Steele, Early Days of Windsor; J. H. Heaton, Australian Dictionary of Dates.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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