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Tebbutt, John (1834–1916)

by Harley Wood

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

John Tebbutt, at the Peninsula Observatory, Windsor, 1915

John Tebbutt, at the Peninsula Observatory, Windsor, 1915

from Early Days of Windsor, by J. Steele, 1916

John Tebbutt (1834-1916), astronomer, was born on 25 May 1834 at Windsor, New South Wales, only son of John Tebbutt, farmer, and his wife Virginia, née Saunders, and grandson of John Tebbutt who had arrived free in the Nile in 1801 and settled in the Hawkesbury district. He was educated at the local Church of England parish school by Edward Quaife, a great lover of astronomy and to whom Tebbutt later acknowledged his debt. In 1843 he went to the Presbyterian school conducted by Rev. Matthew Adam and completed his education under Rev. H. T. Stiles in 1845-49. When he was 11 his father had bought a farm on land known as the Peninsula, on the Hawkesbury River, which he inherited in 1870 and improved from time to time; he also bought other land in the area.

Tebbutt bought his first instrument, a marine sextant, in 1853 and he had the use of a clock with a seconds pendulum which he regulated by celestial observation. He also had a small telescope with which he projected an image of the sun. From an early age he had taken an interest in mechanical objects and later developed his 'attention to celestial mechanism', gradually accumulating instruments and experience and winning international repute. In 1863 at the Peninsula he built with his own hands a small wooden observatory.

Tebbutt calculated the circumstances of the total eclipse of the sun of 26 March 1857 when conditions proved cloudy and made a series of measurements of the position of the comet Donati (1858 VI) for which he calculated the orbit. On 13 May 1861 he observed a faint nebulous object with his marine telescope; a few days of observation showed that it was in motion and he announced the notable discovery of the great comet of 1861 (1861 II), one of the finest comets on record — at one stage it had a tail which could be traced for over 100 degrees. The earth passed through the tail late in June. Acquiring a 3¼ -in. (8.3 cm) refracting telescope, in 1862 he made his first acquaintance with Encke's comet (1862 I). That year he refused the position of government astronomer for New South Wales after W. Scott's resignation.

Over the years Tebbutt kept up a remarkable series of patient, reliable observations on comets, occultations of stars by the moon, eclipses and transits of Jupiter's satellites, variable stars and double stars and the position of minor planets. He observed Encke's comet on seven of its returns and discovered the great comet of 1881. He also published extensive meteorological observations made between 1863 and 1896. In 1872 he bought a 4½ in. (11.4 cm) equatorial refractor with which he observed the transit of Venus in 1874. In 1879 he erected 'a substantial observatory of brick' a few metres south of the old observatory and in 1886 he bought an 8-in. (20 cm) equatorial refractor by Grubb. His observations of comets and minor planets, being among the relatively few made in the southern hemisphere and of proved reliability, were much in demand by orbit computers.

A member of the Philosophical (Royal) Society of New South Wales from 1862, Tebbutt won a silver medal at the 1867 Paris Universal Exhibition for his paper 'On the Progress and Present State of Astronomical Science in New South Wales', published in Sydney in 1871. In 1873 he became a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, London, and in 1905 was awarded its Hannah Jackson, née Gwilt, gift and bronze medal; in 1895 he was first president of the New South Wales branch of the British Astronomical Association. In his Astronomical Memoirs (Sydney, 1908) Tebbutt listed his 371 publications in various learned journals, including 120 in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society and 148 in the Astronomische Nachrichten. He never left Australia but he taught himself to read French and German, corresponded with international colleagues and acquired a large astronomical library. When the British Association for the Advancement of Science met in Sydney in 1914 the astronomers visited him at Windsor.

Although Tebbutt devoted most of his time to astronomy he was president of the Windsor branch of the British and Foreign Bible Society; in 1877 he asked Sir Henry Parkes for leniency towards settlers in paying their government land dues. He died of cerebral paralysis at Windsor on 29 November 1916 and was buried in the Anglican cemetery. Predeceased by his wife Jane, née Pendergast, whom he had married at St Matthew's Church, Windsor, on 8 September 1857, he was survived by a son and three of their six daughters. His estate was valued for probate at £69,364.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Steele, Early Days of Windsor (Syd, 1916)
  • Royal Astronomical Society, Monthly Notices, 33 (1873)
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 51 (1917)
  • Sydney Quarterly Magazine, June 1889
  • Lone Hand, Feb 1909
  • Tebbutt papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • printed catalogue (State Library of New South Wales)
  • family records (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Harley Wood, 'Tebbutt, John (1834–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tebbutt-john-4696/text7779, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

John Tebbutt, at the Peninsula Observatory, Windsor, 1915

John Tebbutt, at the Peninsula Observatory, Windsor, 1915

from Early Days of Windsor, by J. Steele, 1916