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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Hidden Treasure, Observation Hill, Sydney, Australia

Situated just east of the Sydney Harbor Bridge in the Rocks section of town is an often overlooked Sydney treasure -- Observation Hill, the location of the Sydney Observatory.  Opened in 1858, the Observatory was originally established to calculate the correct time from the movement of the stars.  Ships in Sydney Harbor needed a way to adjust and calibrate their chronometers.  An Astronomer observed the sun by day and stars at night to calculate the celestial time and convey it to the mariners in port in order to aid them in determining longitude while at sea.  This service is still provided to this day by the traditional dropping of the Time Ball at exactly 1 p.m. everyday.  Up to 1942 the dropping of the Time Ball was accompanied by the firing of a cannon, for an audible signal to complement the visual signal of the ball drop.  Three minutes before 1 p.m. the ball starts to rise up its supporting shaft and is dropped promptly at one o’clock. 

The Time Ball is one of several fascinating features to Observation Hill.  The hill, the highest natural point
overlooking Sydney Harbor, was also the location of the harbor’s signal station.  From the hill messages were sent to ships in the harbor and to the town’s port authority via flags flown from a signal flagstaff.  Signal flags announced the arrival of ships into the harbor as well as informing port authorities of the names, origin and cargo of new arrivals. Ships in the harbor received weather, directives and other information via the signal flags.

Hand-in-hand with the timekeeping function, the Observatory also recorded astronomical data.  It has two domes which house telescopes; the south dome contains Australia’s oldest telescope installed in 1874 to observe the Transit of Venus and the north dome, added in 1878, has a state-of-the-arts reflecting telescope.  Beginning in 1887 the Observatory took part in an international project to photograph and map the entire sky.  It took almost 80 years for the Observatory to document the zone of the southern sky it had been allocated.

Additionally, in the early years of Sydney’s growth Observation Hill was also used as a meteorology center where the weather was recorded and forecast, as well as the point from which all official surveying of the town was conducted.

Today, Observation Hill provides a perfect location to gaze upon both Sydney and Darling Harbor, the views of Sydney Harbor Bridge are outstanding.  The grounds are perfect for a picnic and many people go there to exercise.  The hill is also home to a statue of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen and a war memorial to those who served in the Boer War in what is today South Africa.  Above all, the Observatory is home to a museum that displays many artifacts from an earlier era of Sydney's time of tall ships and and says when long frock coats were fashionable. 


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