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George Robarts Smalley (1822–1870)

by Harley Wood

This article was published:

George Robarts Smalley (1822-1870), astronomer, was born in Banbury, Oxfordshire, and baptized on 18 April 1822, son of Rev. George Smalley and his wife Frances Jane, née Hay. Educated at St John's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1845), on 25 April 1846 he married Elizabeth Trigge and on 8 September took up his duties as third assistant at the Cape Observatory, South Africa, where he was in charge of magnetic observations under Sir Thomas Maclear. In October 1851 he became professor of mathematics at the South African College (later the University of Capetown). In 1854-62 he taught mathematics in King's College, London.

Appointed government astronomer at the Sydney Observatory on the recommendation of the astronomer royal, Smalley arrived in Sydney on 7 January 1864 in the Blackwall. He decided to begin magnetic work and systematic tidal observations and advised a trigonometrical survey. With the equatorial telescope he observed the positions of comet 1 in 1864 and of comet Encke in 1865. With the transit instrument he observed only clock stars and stars required for latitude and longitude or as reference stars in the work with the equatorial. In 1864 Smalley recommended a magnetic survey in order 'to construct a magnetic chart of this country comparable with those of most countries'. Smalley carried out this work on several inland journeys and at the observatory in 1866 erected an iron-free building in which to make periodical determination of the magnetic elements.

By August 1866 on Fort Denison Smalley had organized automatic recording of harbour tides. He extended the work in meteorology and arranged for daily telegraphic data. In 1869 he had volunteer observers to record rainfall, evaporation, maximum and minimum temperatures and a wind observation at 9 a.m. each day. Forty-three additional stations were listed in March 1870.

Smalley became an active member of the Philosophical Society of New South Wales and his suggestions led to it becoming the Royal Society of New South Wales in 1866; next year he became its vice-president. With (Sir) Charles Todd he fixed the boundary between South Australia and New South Wales, and in May 1867 telegraphic exchange of time signals took place between a station on that boundary and Sydney and Melbourne.

In 1865 Smalley successfully advocated for geodetic survey a network of astronomical stations and an arc of the meridian. About 1866 a base line at Lake George was proposed, but because of various problems Smalley could not complete the project and the line had to be moved to a higher level and later measured under the direction of the surveyor-general to whom the work was transferred.

Survived by three sons and a daughter, Smalley died from heart disease on 11 July 1870 and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. His goods were valued for probate at £400. He was succeeded by H. C. Russell.

Select Bibliography

  • H. W. Wood, Sydney Observatory, 1858 to 1958 (Syd, 1958)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1866, 5, 796
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Proceedings, 4 (1871), 5 (1872)
  • Sydney Observatory records.

Citation details

Harley Wood, 'Smalley, George Robarts (1822–1870)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Banbury, Oxfordshire, England


11 July, 1870 (aged ~ 48)
New South Wales, Australia

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