ANU Hidden Gems – turning the clock back at Mt Stromlo

9 March 2018

It's well-known for its star gazing history, for falling victim to the 2003 Canberra bushfires and for having the graves of its founder Walter Duffield and his wife on the side of the hill, but did you know that from 1944 to 1968 Mount Stromlo was the official time keeping service of Australia?

Referred to as the Commonwealth Time Service, the site had a special telescope that recorded the exact moment a star went directly overhead (referred to as "Zenith", for the imaginary line pointing straight up from any point on Earth).

"The moment that star appeared in the telescope, a series of quartz crystal clocks were set, accurate to milliseconds.  This was Australia's official time," said Dr Brad Tucker, from the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

Short Synochrome clocks were then calibrated and used to provide the national time and relate it to Greenwich Mean Time.

"Older generations might remember having to call up and get the time, long before the era of GPS and mobile phones.  From 1944 to 1968, that time came from Mt Stromlo," Dr Tucker said.

In 1968, the Time Service was incorporated into the National Mapping Service which is now called the National Measurement Institute.

While most of the original telescope building was dismantled long ago and its remnants destroyed in the 2003 fires, the clocks still adorn the hallways of the buildings at Mt Stromlo.   

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