Federation Stars: The Meanings of Popular Astronomy in Australia at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

In 1901 a new flag was chosen to represent a new nation, and the central emblem was a constellation of the southern sky. By this time, the symbolism of the Southern Cross had been entrenched; almost all previous Australian flag designs had included this device. The meanings of the Cross and the southern stars were, however, diverse and changing across the long nineteenth century. This talk will describe the genealogy of astronomical symbolism in colonial Australia and detail some of the performances and contexts that infused meaning into popular astronomy, with a focus on visual communication through lantern slides and related technologies.

Watch and listen on the player, or read the transcript below, as Martin Bush discusses the Federation Stars, in this recent talk for The Australian Centre, on 24 September 2020.

Dr Martin Bush is a cultural historian of popular science in SHAPS, undertaking metaresearch within the MetaMelb Lab. This work focuses on scientific reasoning practices and public trust in science, and draws on his expertise in the cultural history of popular science and professional experience within the museum sector. You can read more of Martin’s work in his recent Forum article, ‘Mary Proctor: A Forgotten Populariser of Astronomy’.

The Australian Centre hosts interdisciplinary discussions on research important to contemporary Australia, and Australia’s relations to the region and the world.


Note: the transcript is not a word-for-word representation of the audio/video above but contains the bulk of the presentation.

Good afternoon, and thanks to Amanda, Denise and Ken for hosting me. I’d like to start by acknowledging that I am giving this talk from the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and that sovereignty was never ceded. I choose to Pay the Rent for this talk.

This is going to be something of a hybrid talk. I will describe some of my previous research, some current work and then sketch out some of the ways that I plan to carry this work forward into the future. While I will talk about past work, I’m going to link them together in a way that I don’t often get to do.

The overall focus of the talk is on some of the meanings that popular astronomy held within Australian culture towards the end of the long nineteenth century, and hence across the early Federation period. I will proceed by a series of vignettes.

My overall thesis is that popular science engages social meaning, and that popularisers of science habitually if not typically connect science and society in just these ways. This may seem obvious to cultural historians, but it is a point that has not always been made with respect to popular science and certainly it goes against the self-representation of science communicators across much of the last two centuries, at least in ways that I will describe later.

My first example will tell a story about a widespread connection between lived experience and astronomical understanding, and the second will focus on explicit mobilisations by communicators. Both of these are based in the leadup to Federation, 1880s and ’90s (and, in the first case, even earlier).

My third and fourth examples are post Federation and exemplify some changes in the practices of popular astronomy that were occurring at that time. I conclude with some suggestions about how these changing practices might be understood.

To start with my first case study: how was it that the Southern Cross came to be such a powerful representation for colonial Australians?

In 1901 a new flag was chosen for a new nation. Clearly neither of these illustrations are of the Commonwealth flag, but a focus on the unchosen designs underscores just how central the Southern Cross was as an element then, as it remains today in suggested alternative designs for the current flag.

Stars are common on flags around the world. Almost always, as with the US flag, they are abstract symbols. Constellations are very rare on flags: Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and just a handful of others. I will argue that the southern cross began its symbolic life not as an abstract symbol, but as presenting very meaningful astronomical and social knowledge.

So, fast forward to 2017 and the film by Kaytetye director Warwick Thornton, We Don’t Need a Map. This excellent documentary is based around Thornton’s suggestion that “The Southern Cross is becoming the new Swastika” and explores contemporary iconography of the Cross, its connections with racism and Indigenous Australian understandings of the constellation.

Thornton traces the significance of the Southern Cross back to its use in the Eureka Flag. This does reflect the historical consciousness of twenty-first century Australians; I want to say that by the time of Eureka the symbolic use of the Cross already had a history. (Of course, knowledge of the Cross had a very long history, but all of the Indigenous Australian elders in Thornton’s doco describe, in different ways, stories about Crux, emphasising that it was in no way pre-eminent – it was one story within Indigenous Australian Knowledge traditions.)

By contrast, for European Australians, the Cross did achieve pre-eminence.

And it was used deliberately at Eureka in this way. An oath to the ‘Southern Cross’ – without the Union Jack – was one that Irish and US miners could swear alongside loyal British and Canadians in order to assert their collective claims. This symbolism matters.

I should emphasise that I make modest claims here. The iniquities faced by the Eureka miners were not rooted in astronomy just as the systematic racism faced by indigenous Australians today is not caused by tattoos of the Southern Cross. But in both cases, insofar as this symbolism inspires emotional responses, it contributes to action in the world.

To the late nineteenth century – did usage of the Cross in the Eureka flag have immediate impact? As Anne … [Beggs-Sunter] describes, despite its prominence at the time, despite the reforms inspired by it, within a few years Eureka had largely faded from public consciousness. There was a first wave of Eureka revivalism just after Federation with the fiftieth anniversary, but it was not really until the 1920s and the seventy-fifth anniversary that the ALP embraced the legacy of Eureka and the event secured its place in Australian culture.

Of course, one way the Eureka and the goldrushes had an impact was through demographic change with the number of miners stuck in the southern hemisphere, having failed to make it rich and, for the first time in Australia’s history, a large generation of white children being born in the continent and growing up together.

Still, late nineteenth-century understandings of the Cross drew on the older traditions more than they did on Eureka. They are well expressed in this article from the Australasian Sketcher, a quarter century after Eureka. I’ve highlighted the key elements of this extract, and they are:

  1. The Southern Cross is the characteristic constellation of the South
  2. The Cross is explicitly contrasted with the Great Bear, or Ursa Major, which was regarded as the characteristic constellation of the North
  3. In regarding the Southern Cross for Australians as being the same as Ursa Major is regarded for Europeans, we understand Australia as an antipodal England

That is, the Southern Cross represented connection with England, not difference from it. And this understanding persisted late into the nineteenth century.

This earlier understanding – of the Cross as connection – can be seen powerfully in shipboard diaries of northern hemisphere migrants to Australia in the nineteenth century.

This image shows just one such reference – by architect Henry Hellyer en route to Tasmania – but references to the Southern Cross are extremely common in these documents. Roughly one-third of the diaries that I examined for my PhD research contained such descriptions. And the way the Cross is described is incredibly consistent – as these travellers cross the equator, from the northern hemisphere to the southern, Ursa Major sinks down to the horizon and the Pole Star disappears perhaps forever. Traveller after traveller identifies this with the parting from friends and family.

The emotional content of these passages is striking.

The third and fourth quotes here are not actually from travel diaries but are beautiful expression of the same idea that is found repeatedly within those documents.

While taking this in, I note briefly here the connection to the work of philosopher Richard Heersmink, who describes extended sense of self as operating through places as well as artefacts, and if cultural history is more to your taste the classic work by Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember, gives an analysis also consistent with this.

In any case, these colonials exchanged for Ursa Major, above the horizon directly opposite, the Southern Cross rising into view. One constellation – the principal one of the north – is exchanged for another – the principal constellation of the south. And, in this way, the Southern Cross became a repository of emotion, a social mnemonic of family, friends and place left behind. Through the Southern Cross, these people remembered Ursa Major and through Ursa Major they remembered people. This was the power of the Southern Cross for Europeans in Australia, and it lasted deep into the late nineteenth century, demographic changes notwithstanding.

So, when in 1901, a new – or old – flag was raised it had multiple meanings. Elizabeth Kwan, who has given the most comprehensive history of the Australian flag, stresses how the chosen flag was essentially the Victorian ensign, as opposed to the Federation flag preferred by New South Wales. And Kwan takes the story on from there – and I agree with it. The Southern Cross becomes solidified in the Commonwealth flag just at the time that the symbolism of the Cross starts to become abstract through demographic and industrial change.

My Vignette 1 is a story about how astronomical knowledge become invested with social significance, like the position of the Southern Cross on the celestial globe and its relationship with Ursa major. But admittedly these astronomical facts are fairly basic, their usages somewhat loose, and there’s a whole lot of other realities going on in this story.

Vignette 2 looks at focus on a more specific and deliberate use of astronomy to invoke social meanings, and that is the Secular religious debates of the late nineteenth century

In 1893, in Christchurch, Aotearoa, at the same time, less than one kilometre away from each other, two men would give lectures on astronomy, enrolling the same facts for radically different ends. For Freethought lecturer William Whitehouse Collins, the Universal Law of Gravitation showed that nature was supreme, and there was no need for a god. For Independent Methodist John Hosking, the Universal law revealed the power of a being able to control the entire cosmos.

Collins and Hosking had come closer than this in their disputes. In 1891 they debated on the same platform, over four nights. This was one of many organised debates around the world. It was possibly the one, anywhere, that was most concerned with interpreting science. On the first night, Collins suggested the infinite extension of the universe. On the second night, Hosking argued that the nebulae observed in the galaxy supported the biblical account of creation. The third night was bound up with argument about Darwinism and the fourth with philology, although astronomy made an appearance on each, the astronomical basis of Christmas being a point of dispute on the latter.

It is not surprising that people can interpret the same facts in different ways, it is somewhat remarkable that science was so important to this debate. By contrast, the Bradlaugh – Brewin debates in the UK – probably the most famous in the genre – barely touched on science, sticking to moral philosophy questions like could someone be good if they had no master? And certainly, most British debates followed this pattern. North American debates, like Burgess-Underwood, were more inclined to consider the scientific verisimilitude of scripture, but not nearly to the extent of the Collins-Hosking debate.

Again, modest claims – astronomy was just one of hundreds of subjects addressed in the debate, and the extent to which even this was a feature of the audience, rather than the interests of the debaters is unclear. Nor was use of astronomy in these debates was not unique to Australia – it was, famously, a feature of both Draper’s and White’s polemics.

But astronomy had been a clear flashpoint for secularism in the antipodean colonies previously. On Sunday 5 September 1880, NSW Colonial Secretary, Henry Parkes forced the cancellation of astronomical lecture by Richard Proctor, the most famous populariser of his day.

Proctor had been on a massively successful lecture tour of Australia and New Zealand. He lectured in five colonies and received attention in all. Increasingly rankling the religious establishment across the course of his season, when he arrived in Sydney, he attempted to further the cause of Sunday lecturing

This brought him into direct conflict with the resurgent Sabbatarian movement. Henry Parkes was in the runup to an election and, having just annoyed the Protestant Churches with the Education Act, found it easy to placate them by cracking down on Proctor’s lecture. He used his authority over theatre licenses to bully the venue owner into cancelling, and after a stand-off that lasted for a few days, Proctor withdrew. The result was a major – and long-remembered controversy.

Nor was this the first such incident in Australia. Just the year before, John Henry Pepper – Professor Pepper of the London Polytechnic Institute and Peppers Ghost fame – had also run a Sunday secular sermon of Astronomy lectures and also had been shut down. Collins, Proctor, Pepper, all of them drew on knowledge of astronomy in order to contest the authority of organised religion in secular life. This association of astronomy with religion was very long established. I don’t have time to talk about it here, but it was very long established.

The heyday of religious-freethought debate was the 1890s in Australia and New Zealand but continued into the twentiethcentury, albeit in decline. Decline indicated by the fact that the McCabe-Argue debate never eventuated. But that freethought lecturers like McCabe were giving astronomy lectures in the 1910s and 1920s, and Christian evidence lecturers like Miller-Argue were also operating across the period still goes to the longevity of this cultural trope linking astronomy with religion.

It will be no surprise to students of political history or of rhetoric in general that public oratory rests on implicit meanings that are , but what is a little weird in history of popular science is just how persistently practitioners declaim, heart on hand, that they are just trying to bring dry facts to life when they are also trying to make them dance.

So, while my first vignette suggested that astronomical knowledge becomes infused with social significance, my second vignette shows that popularisers deliberately deployed this significance to particular ends. I will now switch track a little and jump ahead to the early twentieth century and describe some of the motivations and contexts in which these deployments were made.

And the first argument I want to make here is about the shift in institutional arrangements around Federation. The new Federal government was given authority over astronomy and meteorology but for a long time, it took up only thee science of weather. This position affected, in different ways both of the next two stories.

The third Vignette and the one I will pass over most swiftly – not least because he is the most written-about elsewhere – is Clement Wragge. Or In-Clement Wragge, as he was known as, referring both to his meteorological profession and his fiery disposition. As you may know, he was the Queensland meteorologist who annoyed the other colonial meteorologists by issuing forecasts, for all of Australia, and then asking the others to pass the forecast on. One of his boasts was that he was purely a meteorologist, while the others were astronomers with meteorology duties. He was devastated when Hunt was chosen as the first Commonwealth meteorologist in 1908.

Despite this professional stance, as soon as Wragge resigned from his post in the face of further funding cuts, he began commercial popular lectures in astronomy, and became probably the most prominent such in Australia in the 1910s. His ‘Grand Tour’ of the Universe, illustrated with lantern slides, would also preach the harmony of spirituality and knowledge.

So, Wragge represents a couple of trends here. Firstly, he very much fits in, as a Spiritualist, to the religious uses of astronomy I was talking about. And secondly, he’s an early example of someone moving from government employment to science communicatory entrepreneur, and so this informs an institutional history of popularisation in this period. His motivations were both religious and pecuniary.

My fourth and final Vignette also points to the issues of science communication history in an era of increasing professionalisation of institutions and media and tells a story in which both high-minded motivations and the more prosaic need to earn an income play their part.

But I will also be brief here. I spoke about Mary Proctor earlier this year.

Mary – the daughter of Richard Proctor, and thus a rare science communicator raised in a family tradition – made a tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1912–14 to promote the Solar Observatory project that would eventually be realised as the Mt Stromlo Observatory. Mary came at the request of Walter Duffield, who would go on to be the first Director of Mt Stromlo. Although there’d been vague promises made, and the Mt Stromlo site was due to be surveyed, progress was slow, and some extra persuasion would be useful.

Mary was disheartened by the situation in Australia, and particularly by the attitude of the Federal government, and moved on to New Zealand to promote the project. She felt that her mission had reaped success when the wealthy Thomas Cawthron offered to fund an Observatory in Nelson, New Zealand, citing the lectures of her father Richard as an inspiration. Mary arranged for John Evershed, Director of the Solar Observatory in India, to assess the site, and he determined it suitable. Mary Proctor returned to Britain, assured of her success.

But the Cawthron Observatory would not be built. Thomas Cawthron was more cautious with giving money than promising it, and died before the deed of trust was signed, delayed first by the outbreak of war and second, by the rezoning of a road. The entire estate went to the Cawthron Institute, with no Observatory, which became a major agricultural research centre from 1917.

The Commonwealth Solar Observatory project was finally funded in Australia by the Bruce government in 1923. Mary Proctor’s tour was a significant strategy for Duffield and came within a whisker of funding a telescope in New Zealand, but, for different reasons, is nearly absent in the histories of both.

Mary operated as an entrepreneurial populariser, in the service of the institutions of astronomy. In her journalism too, she was a transitional figure. She was the first columnist for the influential New York Times editor Carr van Anda, who promoted science through the newspaper in a way that had rarely if ever been done before. Although science journalism wouldn’t be identified as such until the ’20s, and the norms of this specialisation wouldn’t be talked about until the ’50s, Mary Proctor was an early example of both.

This speaks to another major change of this period, the rise of the New Journalism and the way that it reshaped newspapers and magazines. So, I argue at least tentatively – that at the same time that media is professionalising, and developing dedicated science reporters, the interests of astronomical popularisers are increasingly becoming aligned around institutional arrangements.

So now we get to the future plans – and this is the point at which I am happy to crowdsource suggestions, either now or if anyone feels like talking about this work afterwards.

My provisional hypothesis is that popular science in the early twentieth century responded to the changes in institutional imperatives and media practices. Clement Wragge and Mary Proctor were examples of this in somewhat different ways.

Moreover, in Australia the kinds of everyday connections to astronomical knowledge described in my first vignette were receding. This includes both the understanding of the Southern Cross, which I talked about, and its use as a practical object for telling the time, which I didn’t. Under the influence of demographic trends, and the rise of the nationalist Australian tradition in the 1880s and ’90s, this astronomical symbolism becomes increasingly abstracted. (Yet mostly without the deep cultural knowledge about the whole sky found in Indigenous Australian traditions.)

I suspect that in this period the focus starts to shift towards more academic forms of astronomy, with the celebrity accorded to the eclipse expeditions of 1922 as a test of Einstein’s Relativity being an example here. Note that this doesn’t mean that popularisation became disconnected from social meanings – there is a wealth of material on the various contexts in which Relativity was interpreted and understood – but it does mean the nexus of those connections shifted.

My next steps, I hope, are to do a deeper examination of the role of the Observatories’ public activities over this period and compare them with the continuing activities of community based lecturers like Wragge. A note on the trajectory of lantern slide lecturing is perhaps in order here – although the rise of film did eclipse the lantern slide as a form of public entertainment early in the twentieth century, this process was actually slower than might be thought, and the ‘instructive’ lantern lecture continued to mid-century.

A related trend is the rise in prominence of the amateur astronomers. Amateurs had always been involved in community lecturing of course, John Tebbutt was a fierce letter writer if not so much of a speaker, and amateurs had driven in the formation of the astronomical societies from the 1890s. There was a complicated relationship between amateur and government astronomers but, in any case, with the slow decline of the state observatories, amateurs became even more prominent.

And all of these trends, of course, need to be read against the broader social and cultural changes of the period.

So, in conclusion, the ideas and practices of popular astronomy in Australia were in flux in the Federation period. But through all of this change those ideas, for the public retained connection with social meanings and the idea of Australia as a land beneath the southern stars remained strong. Thank you.

Feature image: Adapted from Martin Bush’s Powerpoint, L: Proposed Australian Flag, 17 December 1900. Designer: Alfred Campbell. National Archives Australia, A6, 1901/1160, 262; R: Badge for the referendum on Federation, 2 September 1899. Lithographers: Turner & Henderson. State Library New South Wales, R 767