Ron Ashe (ASWA
Honorary Life Member)
is the text of the presentation by Honorary Life Member, Ron
Ashe, on the occasion of the 412th Ordinary Meeting. Ron supplemented
his talk with a number of slides of those early days - but
you had to be there to see them! Ed.]
Perhaps this address should begin with an apology to those
present who also attended my previous presentation on this
subject a few years ago - if any of you wish to now have a
quiet sleep, I won't be offended. This is really for the benefit
of those Members who have joined the Society since that time.
It was never committed to paper, so I cannot guarantee that
the content will be exactly the same - only somewhere near
This is a story of the early days of our Society - the word
'Genesis' refers to the events leading up to the forming of
the Society, and "Plus 10" refers to the first ten years of
its life. I should perhaps stress that it is not, and does
not pretend to be, any kind of official history of all that
went on in the Society during that period. This is a personal
story - my own story of my involvement with the Society during
those early years. So if anybody feels that I'm getting a
bit self-centered, it's simply because I'm reminiscing about
happenings in which I was personally involved - second-hand
information is excluded completely.
My story begins in 1949, when I went to a Meeting of the B.A.A.
in London - I was a Member at that time. Several Members knew
that I was contemplating coming out to live permanently in
Australia, and it was put to me: "Why not try to form a B.A.A.
Branch out there?" Now you all know of the British Astronomical
Association - so it seemed to me a very good idea to attempt
such an operation with their blessing. They gave me the name
of the then Government Astronomer of W.A. - a Mr. H.S. Spigl.
We set sail from Southampton on the old "Largs Bay", but it
was certainly not 'plain sailing' - the ship caught fire in
the Red Sea, and ran for Aden. When they opened up Number-2
Hold - the seat of the fire - the conflagration exploded and
we were all hurriedly evacuated ashore. The ship was partially
sunk by the simple process of drilling two holes in the side
nearest the fire, thus flooding the hold. We spent three weeks
in Aden while the damage was partially repaired and eventually
resumed the trip to Fremantle - arriving in late 1949.
Most people travelled by sea in those days, for there was
only a minimal air service, and that was extremely expensive
- and very slow, by today's standards. Remember, this was
forty years ago, when things proceeded at a much slower pace
- there was no television, and only a poor radio service;
there was no Narrows Bridge, nor any Freeway; trams used to
trundle through central Hay and Murray Streets - invariably
with a quota of cream-coloured cane prams hanging off each
end. Life then was certainly lived at a much slower tempo
than it is today.
After finding somewhere to live in Perth - actually the old
Federal Hotel - one of the first things I did was to go round
to the Observatory, and see Mr. Spigl (Hymie, as we knew him
later). He was a very nice person - about my own age, but
long since passed on, I'm afraid. I put the proposition to
him regarding the forming of a B.A.A. Branch. Well, I was
very quickly slapped down - he said: "We don't want a B.A.A.
Branch here, we've got to have OUR OWN, a West Australian
society! A lot of other people have approached me with a view
to forming a society here, so we'll have to see what we can
do about it". It looked as though my dream of a B.A.A. Branch
was vanishing into limbo.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, a meeting of all the interested
parties was convened, and was held in the Government Astronomer's
Office in the Old Perth Observatory building, atop Mt. Eliza.
The building and the room survives to this day - the actual
room was the bay-window to the right of the main entrance
on the south-frontage of the Observatory. The normal furnishings
of the room comprised one desk, two chairs, a bookcase, and
an enormous old clock - of the 'grandfather' variety, but
twice the normal size.
The ten or so interested people crammed into this room, with
some difficulty - sitting anywhere we could find, most settling
for piles of old books. After some discussion, it was agreed
that we would form a West Australian society - not a B.A.A.
branch, but we would affiliate at an early date. I always
feel that this event can be termed the 'date of conception'
of A.S.W.A. - the actual 'birth' coming a little later.
The first thing we had to do was to find a figurehead - a
convener for an inaugural meeting. Professor A.D. Ross, who
some of the older Members here will have known before his
death, was asked to serve as the Convener - a man of his stature
gave a very good image to the proposed society, and he eventually
became its President for the first two years. He was also
the last-known surviving Member of the W.A. Astronomical Society
- which was founded, I think, sometime before 1920 and ran
through to the late 1920s before dissolving.
Physically Professor Ross was a small man, with a typical
Scottish outlook on life. He would number among the finest
men that I have ever met - as an academic he was second-to-none,
and he had a great sense of humour. He had a lecturing style
all his own - a broad Scots accent, with a 'whistling' delivery.
It was quite comical to hear him giving a lecture, perhaps
on Relativity or something like that - all the time he was
accompanied by this rather attractive whistle. He was the
only man I've ever known who could put Relativity over in
such a way that anyone could have understood it.
Arrangements for this first Meeting were made, and it was
advertised in the Press and on the radio (there was no television
then). We held the Meeting on the top floor of what was then
called "Shell House" - in a small theatre known generally
as the "Shell Theatrette". It was a room that could hold about
250 people; it had good projection equipment and facilities,
and was right in the heart of Perth. Well, the Meeting took
place, and we - the Organising Committee - were all primed
to do various jobs in an effort to make the show run smoothly;
and the Astronomical Society of Western Australia was born!
I always feel very proud that I was the one who was asked
to put from the floor the proposition that the Society be
formed. That has always stayed in my mind as one of the highlights
of my life, and to see the Society going ahead like it is
now makes me feel that it was very worthwhile indeed.
Attendance at the Meeting totalled around 300 people - all
of whom had to make the journey to the top floor of the Shell
building aboard a very decrepit and creaky elevator which
inevitably broke down. Remaining guests had then to make the
seven-floor climb via the emergency fire-stairs. The theatrette
was packed - it was a case of "standing in the aisles". After
the proposition for formation of the Society was passed, things
had to be put onto an official organisational basis - the
original group was formally appointed as a Steering Committee,
whose main job was to frame a draft Constitution.
For entertainment at that first Meeting, several films were
shown. The main one, I recall, was called "Stairway To The
Stars" - a documentary on the building of the 200-inch telescope.
It seemed to go down very well as few people then had the
remotest idea of what constituted a good astronomical telescope.
The Committee met frequently - at the Observatory but in a
back room on the other side of the entry hall. As I believe
Meetings, I sometimes feel like the last of the dinosaurs!
Each Committee Member was allocated a specific job within
the organization. As I previously mentioned, Professor Ross
was elected President of the Society and John Digby Leach
its Vice-President. The Government Astronomer, Hymie Spigl,
became Secretary, and Dr. S.E. Williams (a Doctor of Physics
at the University of W.A.) became Treasurer.
My own job in that first year was that of Editor, and I found
that I was practically writing the whole Journal by myself.
It was only about four sheets of foolscap, stapled together
in the top corner - nothing elaborate - but it was a labour
of blood; sweat and tears, mostly mine! I found that I was
having to write things myself but put them under different
names; and to copy stuff out of other journals (of course,
always acknowledging their origin).
This is a common complaint that goes on all the time with
Editors, and from that day to this, I have appreciated just
what a difficult job an Editor has - one NEVER has enough
copy. So if any of you want to do something really useful
for your Society, put pen to paper and write something for
your Editor - he's always waiting for it, and he'll never
knock you back, I can assure you. "Ask not what your Society
can do for you - ask rather what YOU can do for your Society
!" (Apologies to J.F.K.)
Many of the characters of those early days remain in my memory
but some stand out more than others. Some were self-appointed
to different tasks, and among these was "Mr. Carr" - nobody
ever knew his first name. He must have passed on by now, as
he was quite old even then. He was one-eyed (physically),
very tottery, with long grey hair, and he used to wander around
before each Meeting, welcoming visitors. But he never strayed
very far from the door and the Attendance Book; no person
could get past him without signing that book - he was like
a watchdog, like Cerberus at the gates of hell - he stayed
t here at his post, and made sure everybody signed!
There is another rather funny story about dear Mr. Carr. Sometime
after the Society was formed (I can't remember the exact year),
we'd been advised that there was going to be a comet visible
- supposedly early in the mornings. Apparently, one morning
Mr. Carr arose early and set out, still dressed in his striped
pyjamas, and with his binoculars tucked under one arm, towards
the Axon Street bridge in Leederville.
Harmless enough, you might think, but unfortunately this coincided
with a police alert for a dangerous patient who had escaped
from Claremont Mental Hospital. Police and Carr crossed paths
on the bridge, and they promptly "ran him in" - a free ride
to the Police Station. Of course, Carr protested his innocence,
and eventually, to verify his true identity he stated that
he was known to the Government Astronomer. Hymie was none
too pleased to be dragged out at 3 o'clock in the morning
to identify this pyjama-clad character at the local lock-up!
Our first regular Meetings were held at what I think were
called the "WVS rooms" - a little meeting-hall high up in
a set of offices in Howard Street, Perth. It was up on the
top floor (yet again !), and this time stairs were compulsory,
as there was no lift. We lasted there only a few months, until
finally the University of Western Australia came to the party
and allowed us to use the Physics Lecture Theatre - the old
one, not the present building. As you passed through the archway
of Winthrop Hall, there was a long sandstone building to the
right - which housed Chemistry at the far end, and Physics
at the near end. The Physics Lecture Theatre had practically
everything needed in the way of lecturing and demonstration
equipment, and I can remember putting on some really interesting
Around 1955, there was much talk in the popular press about
firing rockets into space - nothing had gone up at that stage.
The lay public was doubting that a rocket would work in the
vacuum of space, because "there's nothing for the rocket to
push against!" To dispel the fallacy of such doubt, I rigged
up a demonstration: in a large vacuum jar, I placed a cardboard
tube, open at one end. Within the tube I had placed a small
charge of gunpowder, with a short length of fuse-wire which
was connected to an external power-source.
After the jar had been evacuated of air, by a younger Member
energetically operating a manual pump, the gunpowder charge
was ignited by passing electricity through the fuse-wire.
It was real Julius Sumner Miller-type technology! Well, the
thing kicked like a horse, and nearly came through the glass
- but it showed everybody present that there was indeed a
reaction, even in a vacuum.
These kind of demonstrations were only made through the kindness
of Professor Ross and Dr. Williams: who made that particular
venue available. The theatre had a steeply-sloping bank of
seating such that everybody in the audience, seated with his/her
own desktop, had an unobstructed view of the front bench -
all thirty feet of it! The only thing that wasn't quite ideal
was that the plain wooden seats were a trifle hard on the
behind. But everything one needed in the way of projection
equipment was there, and we met there for quite a long while
- in fact for the whole of those first ten years.
I must mention another entertaining but illustrative demonstration
that we performed in the Physics Lecture Theatre - it became
known as the "Mars Experiment". It had been done before by
others, but there is nothing can compare with a personal experience.
Basically, I had made up a little disk of a 'fake' Mars -
similar to the planet, but not exactly like it. It was about
two inches across, and several 'typical' Martian markings
were featured on it - from dark smudges to vague streaks,
or 'canals'. It was Mars - but not Mars, if you know what
Everyone in the audience was given a pencil and a piece of
paper with a blanked out disk drawn on it - and the Mars disk
was placed, illuminated, on the front bench. The lights were
dimmed slightly and everyone was asked to sketch on their
paper exactly what they saw. It was very interesting to see
how the people near the front of the theatre drew an almost
exact replica of the 'fake' Mars disk; but those further away
from the front had put in 'canals' where none existed on the
'fake' disk - some had joined .up dark areas which were completely
separated on the original. Some people got the 'canals' right,
but the people right at the back of the theatre generally
recorded only a few dark shadings. This experiment showed
us how the whole illusion, as we now know it to be, of the
Martian "canals" was caused by the joining up of faint dark
shadings - due to the imperfection of the human eye.
This demonstration took place around 1955, when no close-up
pictures of Mars were available - although ground-based telescopes
had proven fairly conclusively that the 'canals' had no real
existence. I can remember standing up in front of an audience
one time, though I can't remember the exact circumstances,
and saying that "the theory of the Martian canals no longer
holds water". I didn't think, it just came out like that,
and when everybody started to laugh I was most disconcerted,
and wondered frantically if some disaster had struck - such
as the involuntary loss of my trousers, or something! Finally
it dawned on me that I had inadvertently made a 'funny' -
sometimes you find that these unintentional jokes go over
a lot better than the ones you pre-calculate, which then fall
flat on their face!
Earlier I mentioned that Professor Ross was our first President,
and he really carried the Society during its inaugural two
years. During that period it had been decided that the President
should serve no more than two consecutive years, so in 1952
he was followed by John Digby Leach. Not many of you would
have known Digby, but most of you have probably travelled
on his highway - the Leach Highway, which was named after
him, posthumously. He was the W.A. Commissioner of Main Roads
- and was my boss, since I was working as a humble cog in
the Design Section of the Main Roads Department at the time.
Digby was a mighty guy, a real gentleman.
Digby Leach did his two years as President, and then Dr. Sid
Williams, of U.W.A., filled the Chair - our third President.
His professional duties did not always allow him to attend
our Meetings, but he was a very good President when he was
there. As the then Vice-President, I often had to chair the
Meetings when Sid was called away at short notice, and at
the end of his two-year term it was almost automatic that
I succeeded him and became the fourth President. After my
two in the 'hot-seat', I handed over to Archie Strickland,
who saw out the remainder of our first decade. Archie will
be known to many of our present Members - he is fondly remembered
as a man of great enthusiasm, particularly in the field of
After my first year as Editor (a duty that I was pleased to
relinquish), I became involved in the formation of the embryonic
"Planetary Section", and since that was a fairly small affair,
I also took over handling publicity for the Society. I thoroughly
enjoyed organizing shop-window and exhibitions - at such events
as the annual Wildlife Show in the Perth Town Hall, which
was run by the Perth Naturalists Club, and the biennial Science
Show at the University of WA.
We used to have quite large displays (up to 20 x 36 feet)
at these Shows - with lots of telescopes, pictures, diagrams,
and models. Meteorites often figured largely, and I used to
borrow head-sized ones from the Museum - by courtesy of Dr.
Ryde - and supplement them with our own collection. Colin
Edwards (another Past President) and I spent some time with
a home-built apparatus designed to collect micrometeorites
from rainwater - we extracted them magnetically, and displayed
them under microscopes kindly loaned to us by U.W.A. They
aroused great public interest - to learn that many hundreds
of tons of iron falls out of the sky each day seemed to tickle
the imagination of the general public, and actually seeing
some of it under the microscope really made their day !
One year, augmenting our unusually large stand at the Wildlife
Exhibition in the Town Hall, we positioned a small reflecting
telescope, and invited the public to view 'Saturn' through
it. They queued expectantly and some were even puzzled at
how we had perfected such a 'clever' telescope - to view Saturn
in broad daylight, and right through the Town Hall ceiling!
Of course what they were actually seeing was a small, back-illuminated
drawing of Saturn, which I had suspended high in the rafters
at the other end of the hall...
Archie Strickland was our meteorite expert, and at one of
the Town Hall displays he was holding forth on a collection
of meteorites, surrounded by a bunch of wondering kids. He
was explaining the Widmanstatten pattern to one group, when
one of the kids asked: "Hey Mister, have you got any Kryptonite?"
(Superman was around at this time, in fact he was quite new).
Well, Archie, a really nice chap but an incorrigible clown,
said "Yes, this is Kryptonite!", and held up the nearest meteorite
chunk to hand. Well, the kid's eyes opened wide; "Cor..."
he said, and rushed away.
Shortly afterwards it was like bees swarming around a honey-pot
- hordes of kids from all quarters inundated Archie's side
of the stand. Archie didn't know quite what to make of it,
but we eventually found out what had happened when we caught
up with Harry Butler - the organizer of the Show. (He was
only, shall we say, an 'embryonic' Harry Butler then.) Harry
had to get up on the PA-system and announce: "Please note
- there is no such thing as Kryptonite. It was all a joke,
there is no such thing...". That was typical of our shows
in those days - they were fun occasions, always easy-going
but always very enjoyable.
Still on the subject of publicity, I must go back a bit in
time - to a few months after the Society was formed. To help
keep the wolf from the door, and also to give me access to
the Perth Observatory's fine 10-inch Astrographic Refractor,
I managed to get a 'moonlighting' job (no pun intended) at
the Observatory - promoting Astronomy to the public. On about
eight nights each month I would demonstrate the telescope
to parties of 20 to 25 at a time, taking them on a tour around
the sky - showing whatever happened to be visible at the time.
Starting usually with the Moon, if available, I would progress
deeper into space - with any available planets, followed by
the major stars. Splitting Alpha Centauri then Rigel was a
favourite; and we would work through the brighter clusters
like Kappa Crucis, finishing up on 47 Tucanae or Omega Centauri
- as a sort of curtain-closer. The groups included Church
and Social Clubs, office groups, senior school parties, or
just clusters of families - and most of the private schools
were regular 'customers'.
These nights became a prime publicity vehicle for the Society
- we always gave out lots of the specially-printed ASWA information
pamphlets and we attracted a great number of our early Members
by this means. And, after the public had gone home each night,
I had the use of the Astrograph telescope for my Saturn and
Mars drawings - at that time I belonged to both the Mars and
Saturn Observing Sections of the BAA.
In about 1955 the public pressure became so great that Colin
Edwards joined me, and we used to work two telescopes. I would
open up with the Astrograph as before, and Colin would open
up with a telescope called the 12.5-inch, out in the Observatory
grounds - what is now the middle of the Dumas House carpark.
We were able to double the numbers of people we could take,
sending half to each telescope and changing over at half-time.
Incidentally, that 12.5-inch is the very same telescope as
is now at our Kalamunda Observatory - although it wasn't as
Sometimes the Society held Field Nights at Perth Observatory,
at which Members would set up their own (portable) telescopes
between the two big telescopes. We did not charge admission
to our Field Nights then, they were simply a means of recruiting
new Members (perhaps that is why the Society was very poor
in those days).
Awaiting the arrival of a public group .one fine summer evening,
while Colin and I were standing m the Observatory porch, looking
south towards Kings Park, we saw our first 'flying saucer'!
I say 'first' because we've seen all sorts of saucers since,
although never one that was proven to be a REAL flying saucer
- much to my disappointment. Anyway, all of a sudden, a fore-shortened,
crescent-shaped object, quite large, shot across from our
right-hand side, heading towards the east. It passed straight
across our line-of-sight, behind a flagpole, and vanished
to our left into the glow of the city (it was only a glow
in those days). The thing was copper-coloured, rather like
a flattened orange-segment, as seen from near one end.
We both raced from the porch and looked out over the city,
but there was no further sign of the thing, so we rushed upstairs
to the Meteorological Department, where Bob Southern was on
duty. Bob informed us that there was an inversion layer, a
layer of mist a few hundred feet up. Investigating further,
particularly the surrounding lights, we learned that, at that
time, just down King's Park Road, there was a "Water-Follies"
show going on in a pool that had been set up at the Kings
Park Tennis Courts.
Apparently what had happened involved an amber spotlight that
had been following a swimmer down the pool. Its beam had bounced
off the water, and, remembering from science how the angle
of incidence equals the angle of reflection, the beam had
been reflected onto the underside of the layer of mist - giving
rise to the apparent movement of our 'saucer'! So, the next
time you see a flying saucer, don't go looking for little
green men - there's probably a perfectly rational explanation
for what you see!
Many other interesting happenings occurred at the public viewing.
nights at the Perth Observatory during the first ten years
of the Society. I remember one night shutting out a student
Surveyor on the roof of the dome building. Ron Fitzpatrick
was his name, and he was out on the flat roof adjoining the
dome. The only way of reaching that roof was byway of the
dome-slit, and he had been performing some task which had
been set for him by Hymie (who also taught Surveying at the
At the close of that evening's public viewing I had put the
Astrograph to bed, slammed the dome shut, locked the two access
doors, and proceeded off down the driveway to my car. Suddenly
a voice rang out from the heavens: "What about me?" I had
marooned poor old Ron up there, on his draughty perch, with
a thirty-foot drop as his only way home. He had to get out
through the slit of the dome and climb down off the back roof,
with all his equipment, and then I had to go back and open
everything up to let him out.
On another occasion I was myself trapped outside the building
after farewelling our public guests. I was standing on the
Tower porch, in shirt-sleeves as it was a rather hot night,
when a gust of wind slammed the door shut. My keys were in
the pocket of my jacket, which I had left up in the observing
room - and I was locked out. I had to call the Fire Brigade
to put me up onto the flat roof, from where I could climb
in through the dome-slit. And it meant that I had to open
everything up and do a 90-minute showing for the Firemen -
in appreciation of their getting me out of trouble.
Colin and I were not entirely dependant on the Observatory's
instruments however. In the mid-50s I had built a 12.5-inch
compound reflector telescope, especially for the very close
Mars Opposition of 1956. It was mounted, with a rather crude
roll-off roof, at my home in Como, and it served us admirably
for the special purpose of observing Mars. It had a percentage-corrected
primary and a spherical secondary, and with an equivalent
focal length of 52 feet, it was possible to obtain magnifications
of well over 400 times with long-focus eyepieces - my favourite
being a double-achromat of 2-inch focal length. It was a very
comfortable instrument to use - one could almost crawl into
the tube - and we also had it fitted with a battery of slip-in
colour filters, so that many interesting observational comparisons
For the benefit of the optically-minded I should perhaps mention
that it was of Dall-Kirkham configuration, and since it was
Cassegrain format, it had to have an open-ended tube. To reduce
air turbulence within the tube, it was fitted with a forced
draught - the air was drawn from outside by a small aircraft
blower, through a long tube and into the lower end of a 3-inch
diameter hollow polar axis. Travelling up this, the air then
transferred into the hollow declination axis, and thence into
the tube behind the mirror. Its effect on definition was remarkable.
One evening during testing, Colin and I had it trained on
a peaked Lunar crater, using a very high power. Initially,
without the blower, we had a rather blurred lunar ring - showing
not one, but three ill-defined central peaks. When the blower
was turned on, the strangest things began to happen - the
three peaks started to rotate slowly around the crater's centre;
then quickly speeded up to a rapid rate, drawing closer to
the centre; and then suddenly in a flash, all was crystal-clear,
with supreme definition. To us this was excellent proof of
the evils of tube currents.
Using this instrument, Colin and I made a large number of
drawings of the Martian surface during the August of 1956,
of which every day produced remarkably good seeing. Being
both Members of the B.A.A. Mars and Saturn Observing Sections
at the time, we naturally sent our observations to the U.K.,
where they figured prominently in that body's publication
of its Section Reports for that apparition of Mars.
Current Members may wonder why we bothered to spend so much
time making telescopes - well, the real truth is that it was
very hard to purchase a suitable instrument in those days.
Celestron and Meade optics and assemblies were not even a
twinkle in their fathers' eyes then. If you wanted a big telescope,
you had to set to and make it yourself - the one described
above was the third one I had made in the five years since
arriving in Australia.
I should also stress that making a telescope in those days
was not simply a matter of buying a set of optics and sticking
them in a tube: you had to grind and figure your own mirrors
- and ready-made mirrors could only be obtained with great
difficulty and enormous cost.
This brings me to mention another stalwart of the Society
at the time - one who never had, shall we say, a very 'visible'
seat, but a man who backed the Society tremendously. I refer
to Harry Brady, of the Brady Plasterworks - some of you may
remember the "Brady's For Ceilings" advertisements. Harry
made a large room in his West Perth factory (now demolished)
permanently available for use by the Society - many Members
were introduced to the art of optical manufacture in that
room, and went on to produce some very good telescopes.
Harry Brady was a great benefactor of the Society in another
way as well. For some time he had been on the lookout for
some new kind of show to put on the radio, to advertise his
plaster products - although he had no idea what he was specifically
looking for. It was with this in mind - albeit at the very
back of my mind - that I ran into a couple of characters in,
of all places, a "Tropical Fish" shop. They turned out to
be Harry Butler and Vincent Serventi, both Members of the
Perth Naturalists Club, and this chance meeting was to be
the start of a long relationship between A.S.W.A. and the
P.N.C. They were bemoaning the fact that they wanted to start
a radio show for the benefit of their Club, but could find
no interested sponsor. To cut a long story short, it was agreed
that the two groups would combine to broadcast a weekly half-hour
radio show, under the Brady banner, and thus the 6KY radio
program "Nature and the Universe" was born.
It was a 'talk-show' where listeners were invited to send
in questions related to either of the two sciences, which
were read out and answered by a panel on-air. The regular
panellists were Harry Butler Vincent Serventi, Dr. Ryde (from
the W.A. Museum), and myself - Harry fielded most of the reptile
questions, Vin took the broad wildlife subjects, and I took
care of matters astronomical. Occasionally a guest panellist
would be invited if we knew that a question on a specialised
field was coming up. Sometimes the questions were phrased
unclearly, and we had to sort that out first; but nevertheless,
the question and answer thing went fine. The main benefit
to A.S.WA. was that the final portion of each program was
reserved for each organization to announce details of its
coming meetings and activities - which gave us much valuable
public contact, since everybody listened to the radio (television
being as yet not around). The show was on in prime-time too,
from 6:30 to 7:00 every Friday evening just before the News
The programs did not go to air 'live', but were pre-recorded
every second Thursday - I was ever grateful to my boss, Digby
Leach, for permitting me to leave work early on those days.
And it is indeed fortunate that they weren't 'live', as we
had some rather interesting happenings there. I can remember
one day sitting at the long felt-covered table, with the other
panellists in front of two old-fashioned "coffin-shaped" microphones.
Harry Butler often used to come to the recording-sessions
wearing an old boiler suit with his old 'bush-hat' never far
away - and you never knew what he was going to have in his
On this particular occasion, I was responding to some quite
elementary question related to the International Dateline
- the film "Around the World in Eighty Days" had just hit
the screens, and some kids couldn't understand the Dateline
and the loss of a day. I was trying to give an explanation
that would make sense to a youngster at school, when Harry
suddenly produced from his pocket, a huge brown gecko-lizard.
He put the thing down on the table-top and It made a measured
tour around the panel, having a good look at everybody in
turn. I suppose it was because I was talking at the time,
that this lizard stopped right in front of me; and then climbed
up the microphone - and sat there, staring at me with its
big brown eyes, looking most intelligent as if it were taking
in every word. It was extremely difficult to keep a straight
face and not break!
And it wasn't only lizards that Harry would produce from those
deep pockets - he brought in all manner of creatures, even
snakes on some occasions. But we all enjoyed those shows very
much, as did the audience, judging by the way it ran so successfully
for so many years. And we even enjoyed the after-show get-togethers
- at the little pub around the corner from the James Street
Now I come to a rather more serious part of our Society's
history - one that had A.S.W.A. figuring almost daily in the
press and radio news. In the first half of 1957, the Americans
were making much of their plans to launch their first artificial
satellite. Through "Sky & Telescope" they asked people throughout
the world to form observing-teams to help track these satellites.
I thought it would be a good idea to have a team in Perth,
so I wrote to Dr. Alan Hynek, who was involved in the initial
American organization. He and Dr. Whipple were most enthusiastic,
and put me in touch with Dr. Martyn of the C.S.I.R.O. - who
was organizing the Australian connection.
At the same time as this correspondence was taking place,
one of the leading satellite operatives in the U.S: had contacted
Hymie Spigl at the Observatory, asking if it would be feasible
to-have tracking-station in Perth. Finally we a sorted out
the crossing letters and got our act together. The proposal
was put to the Council of A.S.W.A. and it was agreed that
the Society would form a Satellite Observing Section to assist
in the tracking exercise. And Council accepted my offer of
a large, fairly dark (at least it was then) area on my block
in Como - Lot 137, Swan Locality 42, for those with an historical
A working group of A.S.W.A. Members set to and built a tracking-station,
to a design that I had based on one of several alternatives
suggested by the U.S. controlling group - the Smithsonian
Astrophysical Observatory. It centered around a table some
18 feet long, built of very heavy, seasoned jarrah, and mounted
on six legs which were cemented into deep foundations. Six
instruments were mounted on each side of the table, and radio-timing
was installed at one end. The instruments were 20mm aperture,
and had a rather low magnification; and through an Erfle eyepiece
each gave a field of 12 degrees. But they were so aligned
that by joining the fields together at 8-degree centres, we
were able to put up an optical 'fence' of 96 degrees - length-aligned
on the meridian.
Unfortunately, the Russians 'jumped the gun' on us and put
their 'Sputnik' up before the station was completed, and we
had to do something about that. So we 'begged, borrowed or
stole' a total of six surveyor's theodolites and mounted them
on the site. They had the disadvantage of having to be very
carefully set up for each session - to do so we used as our
azimuth reference the red light mounted on the high pylon
atop Wireless Hill in Applecross - but we were able to make
a considerable number of measurements of 'Sputnik-l', and
subsequently of the next one - which carried the dog 'Laika'
Wally Coxon, of pioneer 6WF radio station fame, managed our
timekeeping, using the signals from JJY or WWV, and he also
produced an excellent photograph of the rocket-casing of Sputnik-l
as it passed over Perth. Our feelings at that time were of
sheer wonderment, because nothing man-made had ever gone into
orbit before. We would go outside, measure a passage, then
retreat to a warm loungeroom to vet our measurements over
a coffee. A little over an hour later we would go out again
and take another set of measures. It was incredible: while
we had been inside sharing a coffee, the thing had, gone completely
around the world! It really flabbergasted us. Now of course
it's all "old hat" - nobody Is much awe-inspired by satellites,
or probes to Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, and Neptune; most people
are completely blase about landings on the Moon - but in those
days the reaction was one of sheer amazement!
We made a large number of measurements with the rather limited
equipment of that first station; managing to achieve the top
Smithsonian classification - known as "Prime A" status. The
S.A.O. did not hand out this grading lightly, and, among other
things, it made us eligible to borrow much more powerful optical
equipment. They loaned us ten large elbow-telescopes of 120mm
aperture, with a magnification of 21.5 and a field of some
2.5 degrees (albeit on rather crude mountings). We remounted
them on two swinging booms, made of 6-mch RSJ, so that each
group of five could be set to any azimuth, like a single unit.
Each instrument could be set to any altitude, and the net
result was the ability to establish an optical 'fence' in
any quarter of the sky, and at any azimuth.
The station operated from 1957 through to 1961, and during
that time we produced a total of 902 measurements on 84 satellite
passages. That represented an awful lot of travelling by many
very dedicated Members - they really were a dedicated lot
then - some coming from as far as Scarborough, Daglish and
Nedlands (and via the Causeway of course - the Narrows was
still a thing of the future).
I could not possibly remember all their names, but a few stand
out in my memory. Colin Edwards and Brian Kostic were present
at almost every session - right from the theodolite era -
and were both very experienced users of the instrument. Also
invariably present were Cec and Doris Walton, Betty Pinnock,
Frank Leroux, Archie Strickland, Owen Middleton, and Mr. and
Mrs. Levitzke. Others who often helped in these sessions included
Malcolm Miller (now at Mt. Stromlo), Peter Arriens and Don
Edwards. Trojan service was also given by my wife, who tolerated
the invasion well, in addition to helping to man the 'fence'
and sort out the observations after each satellite passage.
Much of our success was due to the remarkably clear W.A. skies
- Como skies were really dark in those days - there was no
Freeway, very few mercury vapour lights in the city, and absolutely
none of those Sodium horrors. Everything could be seen on
a deep, dark background - not the horrible orange glow that
No vestige of the tracking-station remains today; in 1971
I sold the house and block, which was promptly subdivided
by the developers, and four home-units now sit on it. The
site of the very first station is now covered by the building
known as 94A Mary Street; the second, improved station lies
partly under the building at 94B and partly in their swimming-pool.
And the now-demolished house where once we used to gather
is covered by 9A and 9B Leonora Street - "Sic Transit Gloria"
Rather beyond the period covered by this discourse, there
occurred the final connection with space of Como Station No.
601-122-296 (or No. 603 as the Russians knew it). During the
first manned American orbit, we had rigged up two 2000-watt
electric globes, and surrounded them with every large household
mirror that could be found - placed so as to give a skyward-facing,
roughly parabolic mirror. We believe that it was OUR light
which was seen by John Glenn as he passed over Perth. His
words: "I can see the lights of a city, and JUST TO THE SOUTH
A VERY BRIGHT LIGHT" almost certainly referred to the A.S.WA.
tracking-station light - it did not seem to be worthwhile
at the time to enlighten the Press, who had immediately jumped
to the conclusion that it had been the Kwinana flare that
John Glenn had seen...
So, this would seem a good place to terminate these reminiscences
- a 'cameo' sketch of one person's view of the early days,
the first ten years of A.S.W.A. Incidentally, if you should
happen to look up any of the surviving; written records of
the Society of that time, you will find absolutely no mention
of any character called 'Ron Ashe' - the explanation is that
in 1975 we changed from our former surname of 'Boggis' to
my mother's maiden name, Ashe - simple isn't it ?!
[A full and detailed coverage of the activities and methods
employed by the A.S.W.A. Satellite-Tracking Station, including
four pictures, can be found in the 1961 'Journal' of the British
Astronomical Association - Volume 71, No. 3, page 120
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ron Ashe is a founding member of the Astronomical Society
of Western Australia. In 1986 he was made an Honorary Life
Member of the Society.