Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gottlieb, Kurt (1910–1995)

by R. Bhathal

This article was published online in 2019

Kurt Gottlieb (1910–1995), engineer, draftsman, astronomer and Jewish community leader, was born on 5 October 1910 at Graz, Austria, son of Ernest Gottlieb, shopkeeper, and his wife Elsa, née Gans. He studied engineering at the University of Technology, Brno, Czechoslovakia (Czech Republic), graduating Dip Ing. To escape Nazi persecution of Jews he fled to Italy, where, in 1940, he boarded the Esquilino, one of the last ships to leave Genoa for Australia before Italy entered World War II in June.

Arriving in Sydney in April, Gottlieb found that his engineering qualifications were not recognised. While earning a living in any job he could get, he enrolled in a draftsman’s course. With World War II in progress there was a great need for engineers and physicists. In Canberra, Mount Stromlo Observatory had been converted into an optical munitions factory producing gun sights and other instruments for the war. Being short of technical staff, the observatory director, (Sir) Richard Woolley, approached the government to allow him to recruit technicians and engineers from European refugees who had arrived in Australia. Despite debate in official circles about their technical abilities, Gottlieb was among them and was assigned into his personal custody.

Having moved into bachelors’ quarters at Mount Stromlo, he worked as a mechanical engineer for the duration of the war. He was responsible for the design of more than eleven different optical instruments including several for the Army Inventions Directorate. On 23 September 1943, at the district registrar’s office, North Sydney, Gottlieb married Isley Turner, a clerk. Subsequently, they were the first couple to have a Jewish wedding in Canberra. He and his wife were founder members of the ACT Jewish Community, which he served in various capacities, including that of president (1962–64). 

After the war Gottlieb remained at Mount Stromlo as a research engineer in charge of the workshops. Together with Clabon Allen, an astronomer, he designed an electron multiplier photometer with a slitless spectrograph and fitted it to the 30.4-inch (76cm) Reynolds telescope in August 1947. It was used to determine stellar photometric gradients and monochromatic magnitudes by photoelectric means. The program was a southern extension of the Royal Observatory’s relative gradient program. Gottlieb was responsible for taking the first photograph of the Russian satellite Sputnik on 8 October 1957 as it passed overhead. When shown by the director of Mount Stromlo Observatory, Bart Bok, to parliamentarians whom he was addressing about the implications of Sputnik, the image created a sensation. It also made the front page of the New York Times.

One of the major challenges for Gottlieb was the reconstruction of the 48-inch (122 cm) great Melbourne telescope that the observatory had acquired as scrap metal from the Melbourne Observatory when it closed in 1945. The refurbished telescope was used extensively by Mount Stromlo astronomers for over twenty years. It made headlines when it was used in the MACHO (Massive Astrophysical Compact Halo Object) project in the search for dark matter. In 1957 Gottlieb was appointed a research fellow at the research school of physical sciences, Australian National University. He remained at Mount Stromlo until his retirement in 1976.

Appreciative of classical music, especially opera, Gottlieb was friendly and had a disarming smile. Predeceased by his wife (d. 1984) and survived by a son and daughter, he died on 21 July 1995 at the Repatriation General Hospital, Concord, Sydney, and was buried in Woden cemetery, Canberra.

 
Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Bhathal, Ragbir, Ralph Sutherland and Harvey Butcher. Mount Stromlo Observatory: From Bush observatory to the Nobel Prize. Canberra: CSIRO Publishing, 2013
  • Doobov, Mervyn, and S.C. Gascoigne. Australian (Sydney). ‘Refugee Engineer Had Precision in His Sights’, 4 September 1995, 13
  • Frame, Tom, and Don Faulkner. Stromlo: An Australian Observatory. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2003
  • National Archives of Australia. SP11/5, Kurt Gottlieb

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Citation details

R. Bhathal, 'Gottlieb, Kurt (1910–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gottlieb-kurt-18054/text29631, published online 2019, accessed online 15 November 2019.

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