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Harris, Bertrand John (1925–1974)

by P. J. Jennings and Muriel Utting

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Bertrand John Harris (1925-1974), astronomer, was born on 2 March 1925 at Patcham, Sussex, England, son of Joseph Bertrand George Harris, a clerk in the civil service, and his wife Dora Winifred Brunsdon, née Barnett. Educated at the Royal Grammar School of King Edward VI, Guildford, John played Rugby, cricket and chess, and competed in the debating team; he matriculated in 1941 and won the Magnus prize for mathematics.

During World War II Harris served (from April 1943) with the Royal Navy, rose to leading seaman and visited Brisbane when his ship put in for repairs. On 20 November 1946 he joined the Royal Greenwich Observatory, London, as a temporary clerk and was promoted temporary scientific assistant next year. At the parish church, Orpington, Kent, on 7 January 1950 he married Ethel Mary Moore, a civil servant. An external student at the University of London (B.Sc., 1952), he was appointed an experimental officer at the observatory on 10 May 1956.

Within a year Harris resigned to take the post of assistant-astronomer to H. S. Spigl at the Perth Observatory. He began work there on 20 May 1957. His initial task was to take responsibility for the observatory's role in the Markowitch International 'moonwatch' programme which aimed to map the precise position of the moon at any given moment for the benefit of space craft. He later took charge of the observatory's main research work—to prepare part of the meridian catalogues, another internationally organized project which set out to produce a comprehensive chart of the position of the stars. In 1961 he visited Canberra and Sydney to discuss with government astronomers his plans for a programme of astronomy at the Perth Observatory; his major interest involved a new plate-measuring machine which the observatories had acquired for their meridian work. Having acted in the post from 5 November 1961, Harris became government astronomer on 24 October 1963. At the meeting of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Canberra that year, he was elected a member of the International Astronomy Union.

Following the threatened closure of the Perth Observatory in the early 1960s, the government responded to Harris's pleas to move the building to a site at Bickley in the Darling Range, 15 miles (24 km) east of its original location at Mount Eliza. He promoted the new institution by co-operating with observatories at Hamburg-Bergedorf, West Germany, and at Flagstaff, Arizona, United States of America. His encouragement of close relationships between his observatory and the Physics Department at the University of Western Australia and other astronomical institutions resulted in the installation at Bickley in 1967 of a partially automated meridian instrument and an electronic computer.

Harris retained a passion for cricket and reading, and helped to produce plays for amateur dramatic groups. Survived by his wife, son and daughter, he died of a coronary occlusion on 23 December 1974 at his Kalamunda home and was cremated. At a time when other State observatories were being closed, his work had given the Perth Observatory a new direction and purpose that stemmed from a challenging programme of research.

Select Bibliography

  • Journal of the Astronomical Society of Western Australia, Dec 1974
  • Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 17, 1976, p 520
  • West Australian, 25 Dec 1974
  • correspondence files, Perth Observatory, Bickley, Western Australia.

Citation details

P. J. Jennings and Muriel Utting, 'Harris, Bertrand John (1925–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harris-bertrand-john-10433/text18497, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 18 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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