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Story: Hayes, Robert Cecil

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Hayes, Robert Cecil


Astronomer, seismologist, organist

This biography, written by Warwick D. Smith, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.

Robert Cecil Hayes was born in Wellington on 19 January 1900, the son of Robert Edward Hayes and his wife, Ellen (Nell) Thomas. His father worked as a clerk in the accounts branch of the Post and Telegraph Department and eventually became secretary to the Treasury. Cecil grew up in Karori and was educated first in Wellington, then at Christ’s College in Christchurch from 1914 to 1918. From his earliest years three interests developed which were to shape his later life: a passion for clocks, a keen interest in astronomy (Halley’s comet of 1910 left an indelible impression) and a natural talent for music. Guided by noted astronomer George Hudson, who also lived in Karori, he developed a widening interest in astronomy. In 1920 he joined the Hector Observatory in Kelburn, Wellington, to start a 40-year career there.

The observatory’s prime function was maintaining the New Zealand Government Time Service; clocks were kept accurate by astronomical observations. Hayes was trained in the detailed procedures by C. E. Adams, government astronomer and seismologist, and was able almost immediately to relieve Adams of some of the routine astronomical work. Adams scorned the idea of further formal studies for his trainee, claiming that the training he could give was superior to anything available at a university. Adams’s attitude hampered Hayes’s career, for although he was well equipped for the work of the observatory, the absence of formal qualifications left him with limited career prospects in the public service.

He built a small observatory at his home, installing the 4½-inch telescope which had belonged to Hudson, and set about cataloguing the southern hemisphere stars. He was a foundation member of the New Zealand Astronomical Society.

A system of rostering public service cadets saw Hayes sent to Apia, Western Samoa, in 1926. This two-year stay involved him in further routine observatory work, much of it in meteorology. While there he became a fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society.

Under Adams the Hector Observatory developed its seismological work. Although the astronomical observations were still needed for the Time Service, much of Hayes’s scientific work after his return to New Zealand in 1928 was in this field. Soon afterwards the most intense period of earthquakes in recorded New Zealand history occurred: in Murchison in 1929 and Hawke’s Bay in 1931, and in several other places within a five-year period. Seismologists worked hard to analyse the phenomenon. With Adams and another colleague, Hayes wrote the definitive paper on the 1931 earthquake.

On 1 December 1932, at Karori, Robert Hayes married Margaret Wyn Beere. They had two daughters. On Adams’s retirement in 1936, Hayes was appointed acting director of the observatory. (It had been renamed the Dominion Observatory 10 years earlier when it became part of the DSIR, and was subsequently to become the Seismological Observatory.) The ‘acting’ capacity was because of his lack of formal qualifications and his youth. It affected his salary and also those of his senior staff, none of whom could be paid more than Hayes, despite their qualifications. It was not until 1948 that he was appointed director.

The bulk of his scientific writing was in seismology, on which he contributed 30 papers. He was among the first to demonstrate that earthquakes can occur at great depths in the earth, and he modified Charles Richter’s scale of earthquake magnitude to apply to these deep shocks. His observations laid a firm foundation for many later developments, such as modern concepts of plate tectonics.

The International Geophysical Year of 1957–58 brought about his final astronomical work in an official capacity. The observatory operated a Danjon astrolabe for accurate measurement of latitude, and Hayes co-ordinated the operations: two-man shifts every night for 18 months, and a year’s analysis of the data. But the routine work of the observatory went on, and the effort left him so exhausted that he was glad to retire from Karori to Auckland in 1960, satisfied with this major achievement.

Mr Hayes to his colleagues, Bill to family and close friends, he was a shy, retiring man, never one to push his own views. However, to those who did not know him, his reserve, inarticulateness and dislike of small talk were taken as snobbery and aloofness. Music was his lifelong source of relaxation. He was organist at St Mary’s Church, Karori, for 35 years and composed three cantatas for the choir. His small honorarium was a valuable addition to his income.

In Auckland Hayes was frustrated at not being able to continue the interests of his working life. He played the organ occasionally, but not regularly. Practising astronomy was difficult because the skies were often cloudy. The high point of his retirement was the Royal Society of New Zealand’s presentation to him of the Hector Memorial Medal and Prize in 1975. Here at last was the recognition that had eluded him for so long. He died in Auckland on 3 September 1977, survived by his wife and daughters.

How to cite this page:

Warwick D. Smith. 'Hayes, Robert Cecil', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5h13/hayes-robert-cecil (accessed 13 July 2024)