History

A cosmic solution: Hawera Observatory was built on an unused band rotunda.

Blame it on a book
Mr George Mortimer Townsend, born in 1895 in Lewisham, London, came to New Zealand with his parents in 1911 at the age of 16. The family settled in Hawera, where the father of young George, or Monty as he was known, set up a butchery business in High Street.

Monty always had an interest in astronomy, no doubt fired by a book he had found on his grandfather's bookshelf and read at the age of seven.

The book, Tales of the Sun by Peter Parley Works, had been written in 1838 and given to Monty's grandfather as a birthday present.

Monty devoured the book and when he attended the Dr Ames School for boys, found himself fortunate enough to meet a lecturer there who brought with him a closer understanding about the sky.

In Hawera, Monty teamed up with resident Mr P. O'Dea and Mr J.T. Ward of Wanganui, who had built the Ward Observatory in the early 1900s after buying a nine and a half inch (24.1cm) Cooke Telescope in 1903.

With the help of Mr Ward, Monty made a six inch (15.2cm) reflector telescope for his observatory, which he built on the family property at 15 Argyle Street.

The floor of the observatory measured 16ft by 16ft (4.8cm) and was fitted with a rotating dome and viewing slot. Monty mounted the reflector telescope with an equatorial mount on a concrete pedestal, to give it a solid foundation.

Monty's Observatory at 15 Argyle St, Hawera

All things astronomical
With Mr.Ware and Mr F.Morshead of New Plymouth, Monty was able to discuss all things astronomical. Soon he ground an eight inch (2.4cm) reflector and polished it to increase his viewing field. He mounted this, too, on the dome.

Later, he altered the mount to take a three inch (7.6cm) refractor telescope complete with equatorial mount he had Wood of London make, so he could make special observations.

Monty thought the three inch refractor was superb. It offered exceptionally good viewing in certain conditions, and because he liked to study the sun, he had a solar diagonal and filter fitted so he could view the sun directly.

The eight inch (2.4cm) telescope was eventually removed and a special cradle cast to fit on a steel base. He used this for open air viewing and removed the telescope when not in use.

Not content with the instruments he had, Monty built microscopes, a spectroscope and other pieces of equipment, including a micrometer with a powered eyepiece for better speed control. During his lifetime, he took exceptionally good photos of the moon.

A new society
Monty called a special meeting at his house and on 29th September, 1926, the Hawera Astronomical Society was born. It was his idea to share the knowledge he had.

The subscription was one guinea per year (£1.1s.00).

His notion to form a society was a popular one and there was no shortage of officers for election, with Dr.W.A.Thomson as President, Dr A.M.Young as Vice Present and 10 keen committee members. Monty himself took on the role of Director. Mr O'Dea, who also had his own telescope, was proclaimed Patron of the Society.

From then on, a meeting was held every week at Monty's observatory, with a programme drawn up to inform members of astronomical events, and to welcome in an assortment of guest speakers.

Monty's son, Ian, well remembers being allowed to stay up to watch his father work the equatorial clockwork and reset the weight every 45 minutes.

 "I could stay up for an hour and a half while he reset the weight twice," he once said.

He recalled how his father used real spider's web to make the cross-hairs for the eye piece of his micrometer. "He tried various spiders to get the finest web for the purpose and carefully glued it to the eyepiece."

Something big occurs!
Monty's work with variable stars put him in touch with Dr. Frank Bateson who, assisted by Mr E.J.Booth of Hawera, recorded the results of observations made in other parts of the country.

On 27 June, 1927, Comet Gale was logged in Norway and Sydney. But it was Monty's calculations of the position of the comet when it was first discovered that helped compute its course across the heavens.

His measurements allowed Mr.Gennesscat of Denmark and Dr Crommelin, the great authority on comets to precisely plot the comet's journey.

Recognition of this valuable contribution won Monty praise and recognition in the journal Nature and other astronomical journals.

Because of his observations of Comets Gale and Pons Winnecke and his wide and exception knowledge of the universe, Monty Townsend was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in London.

Monty also tracked the transit of Mercury in November 1940, reflecting its trajectory onto a screen for better viewing.

He was also involved in the first sighting of Comet Cunningham, which was discovered in 1941, along with the brighter Comet Paraskevopontos.

His sighting resolved some historic controversy over Cunningham's identity, because both comets were clearly visible at the same time.

What the papers had to say
From the Hawera Star, Tuesday 28 January, 1941:

CUNNINGHAM'S COMET OBSERVED LOCALLY
Discovery by Mr.J.M.Townsend, of Hawera
LARGER ONE ALSO PRESENT
Visible to the naked eye
Hawera residents energetic to rise as early as 3am, may see with the naked eye a large comet in the southern sky which was first discovered on Saturday last, but was not observed by Mr.G.M.Townsend, a well known Hawera Astronomical Observer through a cloud on Sunday evening.

Mr Townsend also saw the comet which is understood to be the brightest observed here since Halley's Comet in 1910, between 2.30 and 3.00am this morning.

A more important discovery, however, was his observation of the smaller Cunningham's Comet which is definitely located in its correct position.

Thus the suppositions that the larger comet was Cunningham's can no longer be valid in view of Mr.Townsend's observation this morning. Cunningham's Comet, which may be observed by watchers with a keen eye is located about 15 degrees from its larger companion, well down towards the horizon at a position of about 7 o'clock on the clock face.

For the purpose of gauging its position, it may be helpful to readers that the diameter of the moon measures about ½ degree and Cunningham's Comet will thus be found at 30 times the diameter of the moon from its more brilliant companion.

From now on, until it disappears, Mr Townsend anticipates that the larger comet will grow much brighter and its tail even lengthen.

This comet is an entirely new and unheralded one and its discovery at present seems to be to the credit of Mr R.A.McIntosh of Auckland. Cunningham's Comet should be observed in early evening low down in the south-west sky and in the morning down in the south-east sky.

Mr and Mrs M.J.Squire, of Hawera, are at present visiting Ohawe Beach and were up until a late hour last night sharing in the vigil for two persons swept out to sea on a raft. As there were retiring at about 2.45am, Mr and Mrs Squire saw through their window a brilliant object in the sky and went outside to investigate.

Dazzlingly brighter than the stars and with a long, straight, upright tail, the comet was easily discerned and watched for some time by Mr And Mrs Squire.

Neighbours at Ohawe also saw the comet on Saturday night, when conditions were not so good, though the lengthy luminous tail could be seen through the storm clouds.

From the Hawera Star, Thursday 30 January, 1941:
IMPOSING SPECTACLE COMET IN SOUTHERN SKY
The strange comet first noticed in New Zealand by an Aucklander last Saturday night was clearly visible fairly high up in the southern sky from Hawera last evening.

It could be faintly discovered shortly after 9 o'clock, but residents returning from the theatre were able to observe it much more clearly.

The sweeping luminous tail leading down to the comet itself provided an impressive spectacle. Some people who have observed the comet have confused it with Cunningham's Comet, a much smaller one observed by Mr.Townsend of Hawera.

Cunningham's Comet is located about 15 degrees below the larger companion and its position is about 15 degrees below the larger companion and its position well down towards the horizon at about 7 o'clock on the clock face.

Cunningham's Comet is the smaller comet by far and can only be seen by the persons with a keen eye at 3 o'clock on a clear morning. At that hour, the larger comet presents an imposing sight.

In tune with cosmic forces
Monty Townsend was a man in tune with the cosmic forces. He kept his feet on the ground and his head in the stars. A keen alpinist, he was an unofficial guide on the mountain, Taranaki, and worked closely with Mr J.P.Murphy of Dawson Falls.

He also painted in pastel and oil and taught art for a number of years. A room of his house was kept for his model railway and because of his artistic skills, the track surroundings looked very realistic.

His name appears in the early records of the Hawera Electric Light Company, as he served some time there as a station operator.

In 1953, a decision was made to revitalise the Hawera's Astronomical society, and an observatory was built on top of the band rotunda, a Jack Duffill designed building in Hawera's King Edward Park.

A five inch (12.7cm) Thos. Cooke refractor telescope, originally owned by Mr A.W.Burrell, was mounted on a specially added dome and the new observatory opened in 1953.

Monty Townsend lived long enough to see it but after a very active life, he died in 1954.

(From information supplied by Don Glass and Ian Townsend.)

Published 20 December, 2005

Steering by the Stars
Stars are good for many things - for wishing on, for studying and for steering with. Don Glass of Hawera became interested in the skies above more than 50 years ago.

"During the war, I was in the army first," he says, "and then I went into the Air Force in August 1943, and that was the start of it. We had to know the 25 stars in the northern and southern hemisphere for navigation."

So began a long fascination with astronomy.

"That's were it first started. I had to know the stars. There were charts for the stars and you could work out your latitude, proving you had the time right and good timekeepers. It was very accurate."

As President of the Hawera Astronomy Society for 21 years, he remained in the role until the year 2000. "I thought I'd done enough by then, and I was able to go and do other things," he grins.

Come in Halley's Comet

Hawera welcomes Halley's Comet: A poster from 1986

During the time of Halley's Comet in 1986, the society hosted northern hemisphere astronomers from the USA, Canada and England.

"That was an interesting time. Preparations began in 1984. I had contact with a yachting firm in Auckland who had a co-partner in Los Angeles and they asked could we host and billet astronomers and we said yes."

After approaching church groups and various organisations, Glass made 200 beds available in Hawera for visitors who needed them.

Though overseas astronomers didn't arrive in quite the numbers expected, many took the opportunity to observe Halley's Comet from Hawera.

"We got to know the astronomers as they came through," Glass says. "They travelled down through the Waikato, did a loop through Hawera and then went up through the centre of the island back to Auckland. They thoroughly enjoyed our dark skies."

Don Glass: Presenting the stars

Taking it to the kids
The Hawera Astronomical Society, formed in 1926, went off in new directions after that. "The children got involved. The schools were very keen."

Glass and his colleagues took astronomy into the schools, chatting with the teachers and offering tuition in the classrooms. Pupils were then invited out to the observatory - something Glass remembers as a pleasure.

"Yes. I enjoyed that. We used to have about 450 children in small groups through in a year."

The Hawera Astronomical Society became a great place to study the heavens and nurture an interest in realms beyond earth, particularly with such notable men as Monty Townsend and Newt Burrell in attendance.

"We'd have a monthly meeting and go out to somewhere where there was an observatory. We used to go out to Cape Egmont but of course, Des Whelan has since died."

Newt Burrell owned the telescope that resides in the Hawera Observatory - one that originally belonged to his father, A.W.Burrell.

In 1986, Glass helped organise a reunion for those who were involved in the initial building of the Hawera Observatory, which marked 60 years of star-gazing.

Later, he joined the Taranaki Active Astronomers group headed by Rod Austin.

Seeing stars
Because the earth rotates, the sky appears differently each night, with a different group of stars visible throughout the year. At the beginning of each new year, the sky goes back to the start again.

"When you look through a powerful telescope, you see far more than you can through binoculars or the naked eye. You can divide little objects out, not only the planets, but the nebula and clusters of stars. There are all sorts of things you can see."

According to Glass, the most exciting astronomical event he witnessed was in 1997, when he located and viewed an exploded star.

"Albert Jones of Richmond, near Nelson, was the co-founder of that one. He saw it directly and it was visible for some months, but is now a telescopic object.

"It's something in our lifetime to have a star explode. There have been bigger novas, like the one the Chinese saw 900 years ago, but it was in daylight so it was much bigger than ours."

Right around the world
Glass's astronomical bent has taken him all around the world, from Kid Peak, Arizona, to Mount Davis in Texas, which he says has a remarkable telescope with a laser beam to measure the distance to the moon.

Glass has visited universities in Minneapolis and Vancouver. "We motored from Orlando up to Washington DC, so I've been to the big telescope in Washington. Also, I've seen the one that they sighted the planet Pluto through. It's got an hydraulic floor so the floor comes up wherever the telescope is pointing. You can bring the floor up. You don't need a ladder."

And of course, he's been to Houston and Cape Canaveral. "No, I didn't see the shuttle take off because it was in transit at the time."

Burrell's telescope: The caption reads - This telescope and equatorial was originally the property of a pioneer astronomer of Taranaki, the late A.W.Burrell of Stratford. They are a gift to the Borough of Hawera from his son N.R.Burrell

A telescope out the back
With the Hawera Astronomical Society in decline and down to around 5 members, due to new trends and Taranaki's shifting population, Glass is no longer the active member he once was. These days he is content to view the night sky through a telescope on his back lawn.

Unlike others in the society, he never felt the urge to build one of his own. "No, I wasn't tempted to build one with a dome because I've always had access to them.

"A chap in Wanganui, Ray Lee, about my age, built his own with a dome and motorised it, and I could generally go down there once a month. That's a nine and half inch (24.1cms) telescope. It gives quite a good view," he says.

As Glass explains, the bigger the objective lens, the better the image. Today, there are reflector telescopes which allow the viewer to get a clearer view of clusters and nebula. 

"They become alive," he says, "when compared to an ordinary telescope, but we use the others for looking at planets because they have a tracking device."

When you wish…
So, do astronomers wish upon stars? "No," Glass says. "And we don't call them shooting stars because they're meteors and they're not very big.

"There was one quite recently and they reckon it was about the size of a basketball but, of course, when it hits our atmosphere and breaks up, it tends to spray out bigger than it is."

He gently points out, too, that there is a cosmic world of difference between astronomers and astrologers, though the two were once linked together, which might account for any confusion.

"We're not astrologers. We don't predict by stars. That's an old custom. They used to linked together but astronomers don't accept astrologers completely now, because they're a step out. I think that's it…people get trapped into a way of thinking…they buy a book…and some of the things you read…"

Lastly, does he believe in Heaven or aliens from outer space? The answer is yes, maybe, to both. "We're guided by a higher power, we're not animals," Glass says.

And while man has explored his own solar system for life and not found it, that doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't exist in an undiscovered galaxy.

Published 28 December, 2005

Source: Southern Stars, Volume 42, number 4. December 2003. Pp 17 – 19