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Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



Navigators and Surveyors

With the absence of any form of national observatory in the true sense of the word, the history of astronomy in New Zealand is largely that of amateur endeavour. Many personalities have appeared on the scene; some have been prominent in a colourful manner while others have given long and serious devotion to an absorbing hobby. Among the general public there has always been an atmosphere of interest in astronomy, and at present it is probably as high as anywhere else in the world. Lack of national support, however, has meant that New Zealand has not been able to make any major contributions to the science of astronomy, which on present international standards is completely undeveloped.

Early maritime explorers appear to have been versed to an astonishing degree in astronomical knowledge as applied to the art of navigation. They could well be considered as our first astronomers. Judging from the small piece of coastline charted by Abel Tasman in 1642–43, the latitudes of recognisable features are surprisingly accurate, considering the equipment and conditions under which he worked. So accurate was the work of Captain James Cook on his expeditions in 1769 and 1772 that many of his charts are still the basis for some of our modern ones.

The first astronomical observatories were established by Cook's expeditions at Motuara Island in Queen Charlotte Sound, and at Astronomer Point, Pickersgill Harbour, in Dusky Sound. At these places, every known method then in use for determining latitude and longitude was pressed into service. Even that of timing the phenomena of Jupiter's satellites was used. For many years, the location of the Dusky Sound observatory provided the prime meridian and origin of surveys for New Zealand.

In a mountainous, heavily forested virgin country requiring urgent detailed surveys for development, astronomical observations for positions and general mapping were essential. Like the marine hydrographer, the land surveyor became an adept at astronomical practice. The early records of the Lands and Survey Department clearly show that these men were not only skilful in applying astronomical knowledge for the immediate practical purpose in hand, but were also captivated by the general interest of the subject. Observations are recorded of transits of Venus and an eclipse of the sun. Contributions were made to the theory and practice of the adjustment of observations, methods of observation, astronomical refraction, and other subjects. These were our first real astronomers. In addition to the many contributions by the officers of the Lands and Survey Department, every Surveyor-General has either made learned studies or has influenced work along these directions.

This phase of work in the survey of New Zealand has now been completed, and accurate astronomical observations for position are made only occasionally by the Hydrographic Department of the Royal New Zealand Navy on Pacific islands.


Ivan Leslie Thomsen, F.R.A.S.(LOND.), Director, Carter Observatory, Wellington.

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