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Bolton, John Gatenby (1922–1993)

by R. Bhathal

This article was published online in 2017

John Gatenby Bolton (1922–1993), radio astronomer, was born on 5 June 1922 at Sheffield, England, son of John Gatenby Bolton, schoolteacher, and his wife Ethel, née Kettlewell. He was educated at King Edward VII School, Sheffield, where he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge (BA Hons, 1943; MA, 1985). On 29 December 1943 he was commissioned in the Royal Naval Reserve. He served at the Telecommunications Research Establishment, Malvern, and aboard (1944–45) the aircraft-carrier HMS Unicorn in the Indian and Pacific oceans. After the war he migrated to Australia where, in 1947, he joined the radiophysics laboratory of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. The laboratory was researching the new field of radio astronomy. On 5 March 1948 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney, he married Letty Leslie, née Burke, a widow. In 1949 the CSIR became the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO).

While working at a former radar station at Dover Heights, Sydney, Bolton succeeded in picking up strong radio emissions from a small region in the constellation of Cygnus; it was later found to correspond to a very dim, distant galaxy. The discovery led to a realisation that the radio universe was very much larger than the optical universe. This was followed by discoveries of three extremely distant, very powerful radio emitters that had optical counterparts, thus providing the link between radio and optical astronomy, and opening up a new area of astronomical research. Having constructed a seventy-two-feet (22 m) diameter,  hole-in-the-ground radio telescope, Bolton identified Sagittarius A as the nucleus of the Milky Way galaxy.

In 1951 the Royal Society of New South Wales awarded Bolton the Edgeworth David medal. Two years later he joined the CSIRO’s cloud physics group, but in January 1955 he went to the California Institute of Technology to direct and establish the Owens Valley Radio Observatory. There he built an innovative interferometer that was a forerunner of later instruments. His leadership markedly advanced radio astronomy in the United States of America, and in 1960 he was involved with identification of the radio source 3C48 as a quasar (quasi-stellar object). This led to a new and highly fertile field of research.

Bolton returned to Australia in 1961 to oversee construction of the 210-feet (64 m) diameter radio telescope at Parkes, New South Wales, and to assume the directorship of the Australian National Radio Observatory (ANRAO). He was responsible for production of the Parkes catalogue that listed more than eight thousand radio sources, including several hundred quasars. The Parkes telescope became famous when it relayed Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon in July 1969.

A fellow of the Australian Academy of Science since 1969, he retired as director of ANRAO in 1971 and later moved to Queensland. In 1973 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and the Indian Academy of Sciences. Awarded the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1977, he was appointed CBE in 1982. He was also a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1972), foreign associate of America’s National Academy of Sciences (1980), and was awarded the Bruce medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (1988). Bolton was known for his determination, unshakeable resolve, and a phenomenal power of concentration. His views were uncompromising on a number of subjects but he ‘was a fair and friendly person, rather shy deep down, a person of great integrity and strength of character’ (Wild and Radhakrishnan 1995, 387). Survived by his wife and two sons, he died of pneumonia on 6 July 1993 at home at Buderim. He was cremated and his ashes placed beneath a commemorative sundial at Parkes. In November 2001 on the fortieth anniversary of the opening of the Parkes Observatory, the avenue of trees from the telescope to the Observers Quarters, was officially renamed ‘John Bolton Avenue.’

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. Annual Report. Melbourne, Vic.: CSIR, 1946–48
  • Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. Annual Report. Melbourne, Vic.: CSIRO, 1949–71
  • Robertson, Peter. ‘John Bolton and Australian Astronomy.’ Australian Physicist 21 (September 1984): 178–80
  • Wild, J. P., and V. R. Radhakrishnan. ‘John Gatenby Bolton 1922–1993.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 10, no. 4 (December 1995): 381–91

Citation details

R. Bhathal, 'Bolton, John Gatenby (1922–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 26 February 2021.

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