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Genesis Plus 10

by Ron Ashe (ASWA Honorary Life Member)

 

[Here 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 it.

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 demonstrations there.

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 I mean.

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 Lunar studies.

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 sophisticated then.

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 University).

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 were made.

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 broadcast.

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 capacious pockets.

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 studios...

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 bent.

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' on board.

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 prevails today.

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 ?!

— Ron.

[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 — Ed.]

 

 

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.