Today’s post is about something very local, a clock that has been in Sydney for a long time, but about which not everyone may be aware – a Breguet regulator clock that sits quietly right in the centre of the city.
Part of the collection of the Sydney Observatory, which is situated about ten minutes walk from the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the clock itself dates back to sometime between 1815 and 1820, but it arrived in Australia in 1821 with the then Governor of New South Wales, Thomas Brisbane.
The clock was purchased by the then Lieutenant-General Thomas Brisbane, in 1818. It had originally been made for the French Bureau des Longitudes, but bought by Brisbane for 2,500 Francs to use in his observatory at the family seat in Largs, Ayrshire, Scotland. The Brisbane observatory may have been small and private, but it was also historically important, and its remains are the oldest surviving astronomical observatory in Scotland. Brisbane House, on whose grounds it stood, was demolished.
According to the Sydney Observatory’s entry for this Breguet clock, it is a precision pendulum clock for showing mean time and has a mercurial compensation pendulum, Graham escapement and a second indicator in the upper part of the arched plate.
When Thomas Brisbane arrived in Australia in 1821, the clock and astronomical instruments came with him, and was used at Australia’s first permanent observatory at Parramatta, New South Wales. The Brisbane observatory at Largs was one of the first in Scotland, and the prototype for the one at Parramatta, also built by Sir Thomas Brisbane. It arrived along with the three other clocks and one of these, H9889 made by Hardy, was also used in the observatory and is still in the collection. As it was completely financed by Brisbane, from its construction to its instruments, clocks and operations, it was not a government institution and thus operated independently of the Astronomer Royal and any relevant government regulations.
Upon Brisbane’s departure from New South Wales in 1825, the government of New South Wales bought all of them, and they were used by Carl Rümker, Australia’s first Government Astronomer. Rümker had, along with James Dunlop (astronomer) and James Robertson (keeper of clocks and instruments), originally accompanied Brisbane (at his own expense) to Australia. In 1829 Rumker left for England to purchase new instruments but ended up losing his position after a dispute with Brisbane during the trip. Dunlop replaced him. In 1846 the Lords of the Treasury requested then Governor Sir George Gipps for an update on the state of the observatory, whereupon a report was completed by Captain P.P.King. It closed in 1847 and everything was put in storage until the completion of the Sydney Observatory at its current location, in 1858, whereupon many of the Brisbane clocks and instruments were taken out for use again.
This Breguet clock found itself keeping official time once more, and did so for another seven decades until 1912, after which more modern instruments came into use.
Entry to the Sydney Observatory is free, so if you find yourself in the area, pay it a visit. The Breguet clock may no longer be in its original state, but it is of local historical importance, and the museum is still worth visiting.
Brisbane was a major patron of astronomy during his time in Australia, and this was acknowledged when he was presented with the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828. He published the Brisbane Catalogue of 7,385 stars of the Southern Hemisphere in 1835. Oxford and Cambridge Universities gave him the honorary degree of DCL, and he was elected a fellow of the Royal Societies of both London and Edinburgh. He also received the Keith Prize in 1848 and was elected president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1833, where he also founded a gold medal award to encourage scientific research. He was created KCB in 1814 and GCB in 1837.