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Cooke, William Ernest (1863–1947)

by D. E. Hutchison

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

William Ernest Cooke (1863-1947), astronomer, was born on 25 July 1863 in Adelaide, son of Ebenezer Cooke, commissioner of audit, and his first wife Eliza Peyton, née Ogden. Cooke won a series of scholarships at the Collegiate School of St Peter in 1875-79 and at the University of Adelaide (B.A., 1882; M.A., 1889). Next year he won the South Australian scholarship but waived it to go to the Adelaide Observatory as assistant to Sir Charles Todd. Cooke joined in surveys of the South Australian borders with Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. He was especially interested in the international programme to map the heavens photographically.

Sir John Forrest, premier of Western Australia, invited Cooke in 1896 to become the first government astronomer. He made Perth Observatory one of the best-equipped in Australia for the photographic mapping of stars. His work was acclaimed internationally; the astronomer royal's advice was to 'follow implicitly the lead of the Perth Observatory and copy their methods'. An international conference in Paris (1909) adopted his proposals for a more efficient international star-mapping programme. Until 1908, when weather services were taken over by the Commonwealth, Cooke was also government meteorologist; he established an efficient Weather Bureau. He was the first to plot the transit of a tropical cyclone across the State, and instituted warnings which reduced their hazards for the shipping and pearling industries. He promoted public interest in science, and was the first chairman (1902) of the State's Civil Service Association.

In 1912 Cooke became both government astronomer for New South Wales and professor of astronomy at the University of Sydney, with his salary paid by the government. He was promised a new observatory and equipment and helped select a site at Wahroonga, but World War I frustrated his plans, and he could not obtain support after the war. An incompetent Public Service Board inquiry criticized him for becoming involved in wireless experiments in 1918—most unfairly in the opinion of his colleagues. With his son Frank Basil, a pioneer amateur radio operator, he had received time signals from Lyons, France, and recognized that this new technique would fix longitude more accurately.

Cooke improved the observatory equipment and introduced new methods of observation and computation which led to markedly better output. In 1926 the Lang government proposed to close the observatory, but was persuaded to continue it with fewer staff; Cooke was forced into early retirement. He had been planning to co-operate with observatories throughout the Pacific to test the theory of continental drift. Cooke believed that he had detected systematic variations in observations which supported the theory. He retired in Sydney, but in 1936 returned to Adelaide. On 30 June 1887, in Adelaide, he had married Jessie Elizabeth Greayer in the Unitarian Christian Church; they had three sons and two daughters who survived infancy. Predeceased by his wife, he died of cardiac disease in Adelaide on 7 November 1947.

Cooke was a considerate and kindly man. He found the New South Wales experience humiliating and frustrating, and Australian astronomy was possibly deprived of the full benefit of his potentially richest years. He wrote numerous papers. His status as a fertile inventor will only be evaluated after further research, as few of his inventions, said to number more than one hundred, were patented. His ingenious 'heliochronometer', a sun-dial which could be used to determine local time and true north accurately, won a gold medal at Wembley exhibition in 1924. He was a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1926, 2nd session, p 165, 200
  • Sydney Observatory, Papers, no 31 (1958)
  • H. B. Curlewis, ‘The Perth Observatory’ and G. P. Stevens, ‘The Civil Service Association’, Civil Service Journal (Perth), 20 July 1929
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 Aug, 10 Nov 1926
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 12, 13 Nov 1947
  • Observatory records (Perth)
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

D. E. Hutchison, 'Cooke, William Ernest (1863–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cooke-william-ernest-5767/text9775, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 16 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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