History of Carter Observatory of Wellington

By Briony Coote © 2010

Beginnings of New Zealand Astronomy

The history of Carter Observatory of Wellington begins with the history of astronomy itself in New Zealand.

Astronomy played a pivotal role in the foundation of New Zealand. Maori ancestors may have used astronomical navigations when they crossed the Pacific to settle in New Zealand. Astronomy became blended into Maori legend and folklore; the stars were believed to be the offspring of Rangi (the sky) and Papa (the earth). Tohunga Maori (wise men and women) spent much time studying the stars, using certain stars to mark seasonal cycles and which they even believed brought on the seasons and seasonal foods; the appearance of Matariki (the Pleiades) marked the beginning of the New Year and its disappearance the end of the year.

When white settlers came, astronomy took on a more scientific bent. Maori became involved in the science of astronomy while maintaining cultural traditions. In the settler days, astronomy in New Zealand was fuelled by:

  • ·         necessity to chart the Southern skies
  • ·         observation of astronomical phenomena in the Southern hemisphere
  • ·         need for navigational and time-keeping measurements
  • ·         urgent need for survey work during the colonising period
  • ·         abundance of amateur astronomy, which flourished in the lack of traditional professional astronomy
  • ·         the asset of clear, untarnished skies
  • ·         New Zealand’s colonising spirit.

For white settlers, astronomy was one of the key motivations for exploring New Zealand. Captain Cook made the first scientific astronomical observations of New Zealand; he was sent to the South Pacific by the Royal Society in 1769 to observe the transit of Venus across the sun. This was a rare event which had previously occurred in 1761 and was to reoccur in 1769. Cook observed the transit in Tahiti (although analysis of the data was not very successful) and then sailed on to New Zealand where he made further astronomical observations such as the transit of Mercury in the Coromandel (hence Mercury Bay).

The second and third expeditions continued astronomical observations for determining latitude and longitude. Cook and his astronomers made precise Kendall chronometers. Expeditions were organised for the observation of solar eclipses and other astronomical phenomena, and observing them from New Zealand have continued to promote astronomy in New Zealand. Furthermore, the mountainous, forested terrain of New Zealand itself demanded urgent surveys for development, for which astronomical observations and general mapping were essential.

Amateur astronomy

Professional astronomy has remained small in New Zealand; partly because New Zealand is not large enough to support a large scientific community and partly because it could not afford the facilities until the 1970s. This was reflected at Carter itself, as funding restraints limited staff to 2-3, but increases in funding allowed 11.5 full-time staff.

However, individuals such as Sir James Hector, Professor Alexander William Bickerton, Beatrice Tinsley, Murray Geddes, Francis Joyce, G. Hudson, Thomas King, A.C. Gifford, Charles Westland and J.T. Ward have made their names in astronomy. General interest in astronomy has led to the establishment of societies such as the Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand.

Because professional astronomy is so small in New Zealand, amateur astronomy has flourished and it has been estimated that New Zealand has had more amateur astronomical societies per head than any other, scattered across the nation.

Nonetheless, some amateur astronomers have become distinguished, such as John Grigg, an avid comet hunter who has three comets named after him and his telescope was donated to Carter Observatory in 1993, and Ronald McIntosh, a notable meteor observer. Retired shopkeeper Albert Jones of Nelson has become the leading living visual observer and his greatest achievement has been his co-discovery of the famous supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud in February 1987.


Amateur Astronomers and Carter Observatory

Because of the lack of professional astronomers in New Zealand, amateur astronomers have played a huge role in the running of Carter Observatory and its predecessors. For example, Carter’s first three directors were amateur astronomers: Murray Geddes (1941-1945), Ivan Thomsen (1945-1969) and Jack Fisher (1969-1973). Dr Murray Lewis (1973-1981) was the first professionally-trained director of Carter Observatory and he was from overseas.

Leading astronomers have conducted research at Carter as Honorary Research Associates of Carter Observatory, including Albert Jones of Nelson and Rodney Austin of New Plymouth, who, like John Grigg, made three comet discoveries. Carter Observatory in turn has made the use of private observatories, notably in Martinborough and Pukerua Bay.

Amateur astronomers, drawn from the Wellington Astronomical Society and now-defunct Wellington Planetarium Society have provided a huge pool in part-time staff for Carter Observatory.


Early Observatories in Wellington

Wellington has had a succession of observatories, of which Carter Observatory is the fifth. Only three of the five observatories remain today. The first two observatories were for time-keeping purposes, as this was the reason for the New Zealand Government’s primary interest in astronomy. The development of shipping in New Zealand called for standardisation of time-keeping, so Parliament established NZ time as 11½ hours (now 12) ahead of Greenwich. The navigational demand for standardisation also meant a standard longitude for Wellington. It was for this purpose that a time observatory was built in Wellington in 1870. Prior to the advancement of radio or cable around 1914, longitudes were determined by chronometers, so astronomical observations were essential. For this reason longitude study became intense in Wellington.


The first observatory – The Colonial Observatory

The first observatory in Wellington was a time-keeping observatory down on the waterfront. Established in 1863 by the Wellington Provincial Government for time-keeping, meteorology and climatology purposes, it was followed by the Colonial Time-Service Observatory – Colonial Observatory for short – in 1868, and was run by Reverend Arthur Stock. The Colonial Observatory housed two clocks, a time-ball, which was dropped at noon precisely, and an observatory for a transit telescope but this was for time-keeping, not astronomical work.

Then in 1868 standard time was introduced to New Zealand. However, the New Telegraph Office had been built right across the meridian required for standard time, which meant Stock could not provide Mean Time. Moreover, city encroachment and tree growth were making the site unsuitable for astronomy. A new observatory had to be built and Stock chose the site he considered “the best in Wellington...for quiet security of never having the meridian posts hidden”.

And so the Colonial Observatory was moved to the Botanic Gardens in 1869. It was demolished in 1906 to make way for the Premier Richard Seddon memorial on Bolton Street.


The second observatory – Hector/Dominion Observatory

The second observatory was built in 1907. At first it was called Hector Observatory, after renowned geologist and explorer, Sir James Hector. It was renamed the Dominion Observatory in 1925 and became part of the Seismological Observatory. Like its predecessor, it was for time-keeping, meteorology and climatology, not astronomical observation. However its first director, CE Adams, was an amateur astronomer, and he and other amateur astronomers were permitted to make observations in the successive observatories on the site. Which brings us to:


The third observatory – Thomas King Observatory

The Thomas King Observatory was opened in 1917, and it was named after Thomas King (1858-1916), a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Philosophical Society, and Astronomical Observer for New Zealand 1887-1911 with his own private observatory which he used for amateur astronomy.

King Observatory was the first public observatory in Wellington. It came about because the Wellington Philosophical Society saw a serious deficiency in Wellington having no observational observatory where people could observe major astronomical events such as the advent of Halley’s Comet. So the Philosophical Society founded a branch committee called the Astronomical Section to raise funding, which it did with fund-raising events and government grant. Later it helped with the maintenance of King Observatory and its observations which centred on sunspots, variable stars, comets and planetary work. King Observatory was also used to make the first photoelectric photometry observations in New Zealand, although these were not very successful.

King housed two telescopes: The first, made by Grubb, Dublin in 1882, is a 12.5cm (5 inch) and until very recently has been used for public viewing of the sun. The telescope remains in good condition and was last refurbished in May 2001. The second was a 14 cm (5.5 inch) Thomas Cooke refractor.

At first public attendance was poor and it took major astronomical events such as the 1924 close-up of Mars to make the observatory popular. King Observatory became the headquarters for the Wellington Astronomical Society.

After World War II King Observatory declined in use because Carter Observatory, established in 1941, was now the main observatory. King fell into disrepair from the weather, time and vandalism, and its telescopes were moved to Carter. However, in 1995 the Wellington City Council provided funding for its conservation and it will likely be refurbished into Carter’s education and public astronomical programs.

The Astronomical Section

The Astronomical Section became the Astronomy and Geophysics Section (with emphasis on the geophysics) of the Royal Society of New Zealand after World War II, which separated into two sections in 1977. In 1973 the Wellington Astronomical Society was founded as a separate section, which merged with the Astronomical Section to maintain King.


The fourth observatory – The Tin Shed

The fourth observatory was the Wellington City Observatory, but everybody called it the “Tin Shed” because it was made of corrugated iron. The Tin Shed was built on the current site of Carter Observatory. The Tin Shed opened in 1924 and housed a 23 cm (9 ¾ inch) telescope which it acquired from the Marist Seminary in Meeanee, Napier at a princely sum of £2,000. This telescope is one of three to be in Carter Observatory today. The Tin Shed was demolished to make way for Carter Observatory on 20 December 1941.


The fifth observatory – Carter Observatory

Carter Observatory owes its existence – and its name – to Charles Rooking Carter (1822-1896), a Wellington businessman, politician and Wairarapa farmer who also gave his name to Carterton.

Born in Kendall, Westmore , England, on 10 March 1822, Carter emigrated to New Zealand on 5 June 1850, three months after marrying Jane Robieson. They arrived at Wellington on 28 November. Carter immediately set up business as a builder; his notable projects included the House of Assembly and the Wellington Provincial Government offices. In 1851 Carter participated in establishing the first Building Society of New Zealand. In 1855 Carter was appointed to the Earthquake Commission, and in 1853 he was elected to the committee of the Wairarapa Small Farms Association, an organisation responsible for the settlement of Greytown and Masterton. Carter represented Wairarapa in both the Wellington Provincial Council (1857-64) and the General Assembly (1859-65). Carter was such a highly respected businessman and politician that on 26 July 1859 the Government approved “Carterville” (now Carterton) be named in his honour after a petition from the local community.

In the mid 1860s Carter spent three and a half years travelling in Europe. It was during these travels that Carter visited a museum dedicated to Galileo and expressed his first definite interest in astronomy:

“It is small but magnificent and was recently erected at a cost of £36,000. In it are paintings representing the important events in Galileo’s life, a part of one of his fingers in a glass bottle, and also the principal instruments with which he made his scientific discoveries – including his telescope.”

Carter had expressed deep concern about the scarcity of scientists in New Zealand – particularly for the lack of seismologists in an earthquake-prone country. Carter was also a man with innate curiosity and great foresight in regard to environmental matters and expressed concern about the future:

“A man does not live for himself alone; he has duties to perform to his fellow men. He does not live for the present, he must have a care for the future.” — Charles Rooking Carter, Life and Recollections of a New Zealand Colonist, London, 1876

Upon his return to New Zealand Carter continued to contribute to the cultural, political and business life of Wellington and Wairarapa until his death on 22 July 1896. In his will, Carter’s bequests included £2,500 for the Carter Home for “aged poor men”, a book and pamphlet collection to the New Zealand Institute — and £2,240 for the establishment of an astronomical observatory in Wellington for public use and benefit.


The Establishment of Carter Observatory

Carter’s £2,240 was not enough to set up the new observatory, so the money was invested in a trust with the Royal Society to accumulate interest. After many delays, the Carter Observatory project finally bore fruit when it was adopted as a New Zealand centennial project through the enthusiasm of the Royal Society of New Zealand and the Wellington City Council.

The Carter Observatory Act 1938 established the first Carter Observatory Board in 1939. During the Parliamentary debates over the Carter Bill two prominent overseas astronomers were cited:

“The proposed scheme, if approved, should prove very fruitful in contributions to astronomical knowledge” — Dr. Spencer Jones (Astronomer Royal, Greenwich).  

“I can think of no expenditure of an equal amount which could be made in a more efficient and effective way” — Dr W. S. Adams (Director, Mt Wilson Observatory, Pasadena).

The Carter Observatory Act was passed as a centennial project, and the Government also passed The Centennial Bill which would make the preparations for the centenary a co-ordinated, organised national effort. Hon. W. E. Parry (Min of Internal Affairs) said:

“If we are to celebrate the event in a manner worthy of the nation there should be some guiding principle and some national control of the celebrations. This Bill makes provision accordingly.” Mr Parry went on to say that the Government must not only lead but assist in organising the various celebrations … “‘isolated and sporadic celebrations’ were out of place. For 1940 marked not only the centenary of private effort or enterprise but of organised Government in New Zealand.”

Indeed, the Bill made provisions for the various localities of the Dominion to be adequately represented on the National Centennial Council (NCC) which would be an advisory, not executive, body. The NCC and Provisional Centennial Councils were given statutory recognition.

MP Mr W J Polson (National) said that the centennial celebrations had to be regarded from a ‘national point of view’, as he did not think that any other country could show such an extraordinary record of progress in 100 years as New Zealand. He also said that the hotel system be put into order as visitors would be accustomed to far better accommodation than the Dominion could currently provide.

The Act transferred land in the Botanical Gardens to the Carter Observatory Board, along with a 9in. telescope. The Royal Society bequeathed the Carter fund, which by this time had grown to £13,000. Two years before the Act was passed the City Council also pledged a £250 in addition to the Government’s annual grant of £750, thereby giving the observatory an annual income of £1000. Costs for setting up the observatory were estimated around £6,250 (for construction of buildings and cost of equipment). This enabled Carter’s money to be used for observatory. After another delay caused by World War II, Carter Observatory was opened on 20 December 1941 with Murray Geddes as its first director.

Carter Observatory has undergone three major innovations. The first was in the 1960s when the Ruth Crisp Bequest allowed construction of a two-storey building and office wing. Ruth Crisp also provided a third telescope. The second occurred in 1991 when Golden Bay Planetarium was incorporated into Carter Observatory to become its visitor centre, foyer area and theatre. The third is the one Carter Observatory is currently undergoing.

The Wellington City Council has spent $2.2 million on refurbishing and upgrading the observatory as a high-quality tourist attraction and education venue for national and international visitors. The renovations were started by the Carter Observatory Board in 2006 and are expected to be completed in 2010. These will include a multimedia exhibition on cosmology, a heritage backdrop on the southern sky exploring its cultural, scientific and historic standpoints, a nine-metre planetarium and upgrades to the building for better insulation and preservation of its heritage.


Carter Observatory becomes a National Observatory

The Carter Observatory Act underwent four amendments in 1972, 1977, 1981 and 1988 respectively. The first two amendments were the most distinguished.

The purpose of the 1972 amendment was to upgrade the Act, now seriously outdated in terms of business practice and too restricting. The amendment made little difference to the function of Carter Observatory; its purpose was to bring the Carter Observatory Board into current lines of business practice. For example, the Board was authorised to acquire and dispose of real and personal property, but the wording of the Act had been too restrictive to determine as to whether the Board had any such powers. The Act appointed members for fixed terms and ensured continuous representation of an employee until the appointment of a successor. New clauses were to take extraordinary vacancies into account; bring members into line with similar bodies in regard to fees and allowances; make provisions for board members to enter contracts; and upgrade facilities for cheques and payment. The final provisions would deal with the presentation of the Board’s reports to the House. The Act had hitherto required the annual report and statement of accounts be sent to the Minister within one month of the end of the financial year. This had been causing problems with the Audit Office so the Act was amended to ensure the report be tabled in same way as in similar Acts. Mr Norman Kirk, Leader of the Opposition, commented:

“We have no objection to the introduction of the Bill except to say that it is a piece of legislation that would not make much difference to the observatory or to New Zealand if it were never brought forward. There does not seem to be much in it for anyone except for auditors and those responsible for presenting the report…” Hansard, Vol 378, 7 June - 6July 1972, p20

The 1977 amendment made Carter Observatory the official national observatory of New Zealand. The reasons for this were the growth and expansion of the observatory (increase in funding, more staff and greater use of professional astronomers) and its importance to New Zealand. The amendment explicitly declared the Carter Observatory to be the national observatory and authorised the Board to establish observatory outstations at sites more favourable than Wellington. Black Birch and Mt. John were proposed as good sites, and the Board had already set up an observatory station at Black Birch. The amendment would give statutory recognition to the Black Birch site as a proper outstation of Carter.

The amendment also provided for further local body representations on the Board and giving it wider powers in respect to its funds (which came from substantial WCC grants and other local authorities in Wellington, Marlborough and others). There were concerns raised in Parliament about some clauses in the Bill which would give the Board the right to spend non-appropriated money, and whether they should make contributions from local authorities and donations tax deductible:

“The importance of a national observatory lies first in providing a source of reliable astronomical information which has, for example, practical use in time and tide calculations, navigation and surveying. A national observatory is also a focus for the encouragement of astronomy and is an important link in the international network of astronomical observations. Many problems of astronomy can be solved only by observations from widely scattered places throughout the world. Because of its isolated geographical position and high mountain peaks, New Zealand is specially favoured in this regard and scientific work in astronomy done in New Zealand is of worldwide importance.” Hon Leslie Walter Gandar, Minister of Science and Technology, 28 June 1977, Hansard Vol 41, 1977, pp973-975


Repeal of Carter Observatory Act

However, Carter Observatory’s shift from scientific research to public education has raised controversy as to whether it was fulfilling its functions as a national observatory and still warranted the title of National Observatory of New Zealand. This prompted a review commissioned by the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology and in February 2005 research astronomer Professor Michael S. Bessell submitted his findings. In his report Bessell concluded that ‘National Observatory’ was not an appropriate title for Carter Observatory, and it needed to be renamed with a title more appropriate to its present functions. Bessell listed several reasons for the proposed title change, the main reason being Carter’s shift away from active research towards educational and visitor-centred experiences. This made it more akin to a planetarium or science centre rather than the models of research-centred national observatories overseas. Bessell submitted that Mt John Observatory was more suited for the title because it fitted the role of a research observatory far more than Carter, and was widely accepted as the major NZ observatory in terms of national and international research.

To date, Carter Observatory is still known as the National Observatory of Wellington, but in 2009 Parliamentary readings were heard for the Carter Observatory Act Repeal Bill, which would terminate the responsibilities of the Crown over Carter Observatory and transfer them to the Wellington City Council, which has already been maintaining Carter Observatory since 2007. The Carter Observatory Board would be dissolved and its assets transferred to the Wellington City Council. Wellington City Council will be in charge of the future of Carter Observatory, with emphasis on public education and tourism.


Carter Observatory has three major telescopes. The first, made by Grubb, Dublin in 1882, is a 12.5cm (5 inch) telescope housed in the Thomas King Observatory and until very recently has been used for public viewing of the sun. The telescope remains in good condition and was last refurbished in May 2001. Its filter was transferred to the second telescope, the 9 ¾ inch Thomas Cooke Refractor acquired from the Marist Society in the main observatory building, and together with the third major telescope, the Ruth Crisp telescope, is used for public viewing.

The Ruth Crisp telescope is a research-grade 41cm (16 inch) reflecting telescope made by Boller and Chivens of the USA and was donated by NZ writer and philanthropist Ruth Crisp in the 1960s. The Ruth Crisp telescope was originally used by Carter Observatory’s outpost at Black Birch in the South Island.

In 2005 the observatory dome was motorised and secondary mirrors re-aluminised thanks to a Pub Charity grant.

Activities of Carter Observatory

The activities of Carter Observatory can be divided into four groups:

1.    Conduct original astronomical research

2.    Provide a national astronomy education service

3.    Provide a national public astronomy service

4.    Assist in preserving New Zealand’s astronomical heritage


Initially this centred on solar astronomy but after the appointment of professional research staff (and director) in the 1970s the focus shifted to international level research of comets, asteroids, variable stars and galaxies. Staff started publishing prolifically in local and international journals and participating in collaborative research with overseas colleagues. Carter also made use of two private observatories out at Martinborough and Pukerua Bay, Mt John Observatory and larger Australian telescopes.


Government funded education became more extensive when Golden Bay Planetarium was incorporated into Carter Observatory in 1991. Compulsory astronomy curriculums were introduced and Carter conducted seminars, workshops and courses for teachers, amateur astronomers and general public. Carter Observatory was involved in tertiary education at undergraduate and graduate levels, teaching undergraduate courses and supervising the thesis of Timothy Banks, the first student to graduate with a PhD in astronomy. Graduate students from VUW have been carrying out research programmes at Carter Observatory.

Carter’s “Overnight Extravaganzas” where children and adults were allowed sleepovers at the observatory to watch the night sky were introduced in 1993, and holiday programmes for children such as “Spaceship Mars” and “Journey to the Sun” were introduced in 1995.

Public Astronomy

Public viewing nights were a long-term mainstay and became more popular when Golden Bay Planetarium was incorporated. The incorporation brought a new visitor centre in 1992, which meant changing exhibitions, thematic planetarium shows and an improved shopping counter which became a major enterprise and service in public relations and education. The shopping counter enabled Carter to generate more of its own revenue as a major supplement to funding from WCC and Regional Grants Committee.

Carter Observatory actively promotes astronomic spectaculars such as Halley’s Comet and a Mars close-up. Ad hoc lectures were formalised and target local and national audiences, including the scattered astronomical groups and societies across New Zealand.

For years Carter has provided astronomical information to newspapers, television and radio and since 1993 it has produced an information sheet series as a supplement to its long-running newspaper column “The Night Sky.”


Carter Observatory has been the national repository for astronomical heritage as neither the National Archives nor Te Papa collect in this field. So it has developed an active acquisition policy in seeking items of significant heritage, research data, and has one of the best astronomical libraries in the Southern Hemisphere. Enhancing Carter’s facilities as a heritage repository is one of the goals of its recent refurbishment.



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