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While the name John Tebbutt is unfamiliar to many of us we may have inadvertently had the good fortune to have stowed him away in our wallets. His is the face that once featured on the Australian hundred-dollar note and today we celebrate 100 years since this world renowned, and somewhat reclusive, Sydney astronomer passed away on 29 November, 1916.
Tebbutt’s rise to fame began on the evening of May 13, 1861, while observing the stars from the clear skies above his home in the outer-western suburb of Windsor. Using his small telescope he noticed a wisp of illumination not visible on the previous evening. After re-calculating its position over the next few days he became convinced he was witnessing the a new comet passing earth. On 29 May he announced this discovery to the Sydney press and when finally the news finally reached England the scientists there were quick to acknowledge that a new "star" had risen in the astronomical sky. The comet was so large in fact that it filled the night-sky for a number of weeks and press from around the world followed the story. The scientific community also acknowledged the importance of Tebbutt's discovery and referred to it as the ‘Great Comet of 1861’.
While only 25 at the time of this discovery Tebutt was not fly-by-night astronomer. Over the next 55 years he established himself as one of Australia’s most patient and dedicated astronomers. In fact his records of the movement of the heavens were made with such care that Professor Auwers, of Berlin was able to claim that,
his observations are reliable, and prove the great care with which Mr. Tebbutt has worked. I cannot omit to point out that in my experience of this branch of research, there is no second series of observations approaching at all in extent to his, in which, as here, not a single observation can be regarded as faulty.
Tebbutt was simple in his habits and although widely read and well connected had little desire to travel. But rather than being seen as a hindrance it enabled him to make another major contribution to Australian science, an unbroken record of meteorological observations in Windsor from 1855 to 1915.
All of this work was done from his own purpose-built observatory which was filled with a very modest collection of scientific instruments, and which still stands on the site. First started in 1854 with a sextant, artificial horizon, 38.1 mm (1.5 inch) telescope and an eight-day clock by 1861 he was using these these to make his observations of the 'Great Comet'.
In 1917, a year after his death his son delivered John Tebbutt’s working library and manuscripts to the State Library of New South Wales. The ‘Tebbutt Memorial Collection’ consists of 3,676 printed volumes, 117 volumes of manuscripts and 235 pamphlets, all of which are stamped the ‘Tebbutt Collection’.
Geoffrey Barker, Research and Discovery, State Library of New South Wales, 2016
John Tebbutt, Daily Mail (Brisbane, Qld. : 1903 - 1926), Wednesday 6 December 1916, page 9
World's News (Sydney, NSW : 1901 - 1955), Wednesday 18 November 1936, page 18
History and description of mr. Tebbutt’s Observatory, Windsor New South Wales, John Tebbutt, Joseph Cook and Co., Sydney, 1887
John Tebbutt Memorial Collection, State Library of New South Wales