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Stories Behind The Faces (Part 2) – John Tebbutt

Sir Douglas Mawson, our great Antarctic explorer. Commemorated with the honor of featuring on the obverse side of our first Australian $100 bank note. If you were not already familiar with his achievements you will be now if you have been following our series. His legendary story of courage, bravery and survival has sparked an almost hero worship following in some circles. Considering his remarkable will to survive and succeed in the adverse conditions he undertook to pursue his research this is no doubt justifiable. From the remote and barren regions of Antarctica we now flip our $100 dollar banknote and look skyward with one of our more quiet achievers.

tebbuttThough their discoveries are equally important it seems at times they do not receive quite the general public’s acclaim as those who fight the physical odds and succeed. For these quieter achievers it is heartening to see one of Australia’s greatest pioneers in astronomy, John Tebbutt, also having the honor of gracing our first $100 note. Tebbutt’s invaluable contribution and utmost dedication to astronomical knowledge earned him worldwide recognition, and earned his place in Australian history.

Along with a portrait of John Tebbutt, which is thought to have been taken from a photograph not long before his death in 1916, the note features reproductions of two of his three observatories that were built in Windsor NSW. The small wooden observatory on the left he built himself in1863, and is no longer in existence. The second was built in 1879, and was followed by a more substantial observatory in 1896 which is shown to the right of Tebbutt’s portrait. These two observatories are still intact and are still owned by the Tebbutt family. The design of this note also bears a fundamental change to the design of our currency. It was the first note to have the serial number printed on the reverse side, unlike all previous lower denominations which always featured the serial number on the obverse.
teb100A descendant of free settlers who arrived in Australia in 1801, John Tebbutt was born in May 1834 and grew up on his father’s farming property in Windsor where he first discovered the joy of studying the night skies.

At the age of 19 Tebbutt bought his first instrument, a marine sextant in 1853 and assisted by a clock with a seconds pendulum which he regulated by celestial observation, began to record his findings. His first work was published in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1854.

Tebbutt’s most widely known achievement followed soon after when in 1861 he discovered a major new comet, now known as Tebbutt’s Comet. In his lifetime he went on to discover several more comets, including another of significance in 1881.

Tebbutt©s comet discoveries are actually portrayed on the note, through its very clever and subtle usage of pattern and colour. If you look carefully to the left of the design of the note you will see that it encompasses a pattern symbolic of a comet passing through the sky. This is a fabulous example of an earlier subject of this series where we looked at the intensity of design behind of our ever changing bank notes. They are truly an artwork in themselves.

Tebbutt went on to have his work published in Europe and America, and in 1867 was awarded the silver medal at the Paris Universal Exhibition for his work entitled On the present progress and present state of astronomical science in New South Wales, which was published in Australia 1871. In 1873 he received the due recognition of being accepted as a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, London. For an amateur astronomer from the new country “Australia” this was a major credit to his work. Further distinction to his dedication and knowledge was to follow when his observatory was placed on the list of principal of working observatories among the major players of that era, Great Britain, the United Sates, France and Germany.

He was awarded the Hannah Jackson Gift and Medal by the Royal Astronomical Society of London in 1905. In testament to his dedication to further the knowledge of astronomy he donated the gift of 25 pounds, certainly a substantial amount in that day, to the New South Wales Branch of the British Astronomical Society, of which he was president.

During his lifetime over 350 of his articles on astronomical research were published in various scientific journals and magazines.

Image Courtesy: Steve Massey

Like so many Australians who dedicate their lives to the advancement of the sciences, Tebbut too was a quiet achiever and made a huge contribution to furthering our knowledge in that which what lies beyond. His meticulous observations and discoveries are reognised worldwide. His unwavering dedication is not only recognised on our first issue $100 note, but also on the Moon! A 32 kilometer impact crater was named after Tebbutt as a memorial to his life and his work in astronomy by the International Astronomical union who (among other things) preside over modern day nomenclature of lunar geological features. While his crater may not be as large or geologically striking as many other features on the moon, his name stands alongside numerous other famous individuals throughout history such as Plato, Copernicus, Pythagoras and Tycho to name a few.

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  1. Pingback: Australian Astronomy in 1871 – Toomanyflower's Travels

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