Toolangi Scientific Observatories
by Geoff Biggs
Toolangi has been an integral part of Australia’s scientific world for over 100 years. The Magnetic Resonance observatory was established in Toolangi in 1919. This was built to replace the Melbourne Magnetic Resonance observatory in the Flagstaff Gardens, where magnetic interference from trams and traffic in general was making data increasingly difficult to decipher.
The Toolangi station was situated near the intersection of Myers Creek Road and Chum Creek Road, next to the Biggs property. This scientific station operated until it burnt down, in the 1939 bushfires. In 1940 an underground vault was built on site, to house the new La Cair magnetograph. This instrument measured solar activity in the earth’s upper atmosphere, for example solar flares. These solar activities were responsible for variations of magnetic north. Data from the instrument enabled forecasts to be made for radio transmission for shipping and aircraft. This data was transferred onto photographic paper attached to a revolving drum. The recording of data operated on a 24-hour cycle. A new photosensitive sheet had to be put on the drum every day at zero Greenwich Time. This was necessary because all radio transmissions were attuned to zero Greenwich Time. These sheets of photographic paper were posted daily to the Melbourne office, to be developed and deciphered and the data shared around the world.
Len Smedley, a local from an early Toolangi family and manager of Evans Mill, undertook this job until 1950, when Ron Biggs became the operator. Ron had to perform this task seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year. In the many years that the station operated, a technical expert had to come from Melbourne once a week, to check the instruments for their accuracy.
This scientific station was also used to train scientists for their 12-month postings at the two bases Australia has in Antarctica. In the 1950s an above-ground building was constructed next to the vault for the use of the scientists and to undertake weekly observations. As Toolangi did not have electricity connected until 1963, the system was operated on a 12-volt battery. Ron Biggs’ cousin had a generator which Ron used to charge the battery on a weekly basis.
In 1979 a new Magnetic Resonance station was built in Canberra, ACT, to replace the Toolangi station. Today the underground vault and the above-ground building remain on the block now owned by the Biggs family.
The government department that operated the Magnetic observatory also had responsibility for seismic work, as well as geology and geophysics. It was called at that time the Bureau for Mineral Resources, Geology and Geophysics. In the 1950s the Seismic station in Melbourne, which was situated in the Domain Gardens near the Shrine of Remembrance, was also being impacted by increasing interference from tram and vehicle traffic and a more suitable site was sought. Ron Biggs’ father George was a bushman and farmer who had lived in Toolangi all his life. He suggested to department staff to check the suitability of a site accessed off the Myers Creek Road, at the end of a ridge known to Toolangi locals as Blue Mount (beyond the Potato Research Station). It was suggested as an ideal site, as it was solid granite rock.
After various testing was carried out, the site was found to be suitable. The new Seismic station was erected there and began operating in 1962. It still operates there today. It originally had an underground vault and an above-ground office and dark room. The station started operating with three seismometers and three months later another three were added. The first three seismometers measured seismic activity on the other side of the world and the latter three measure seismic activity in Asia and Australia.
The seismic recorders were mounted into a solid concrete bed, which sits on a concrete pillar sunk into the granite below. Shock waves from tremors and earthquakes travel through the earth’s rock. A large earthquake in Mexico some years ago took 20 minutes for the shock waves to travel through the earth and be recorded at the Toolangi station. The three Bentoff recorders and the three Sprengnether recorders were also drum recorders, using photographic paper on a 24-hour cycle, but they had a two-hour leeway for changing records, as they did not need to be changed at exactly 10am Greenwich time.
Ron Biggs was appointed operator at the seismic station from its inception. His task took about 1.5-2 hours each day to change the paper and develop the past 24 hours of sheets. These were also posted daily to the Melbourne office, in a cardboard cylinder, where the data was analysed and sent around the world. Over the years some smaller seismic stations have been built in different parts of Australia, but Toolangi remains the main Australian seismic station.
As technology improved, the recorders were changed to digital and the information is now transmitted remotely to the Canberra office. The head office is in Canberra and the department is now called Geoscience Australia. In 2007 the station was further upgraded, with new equipment installed in the underground vault. The Toolangi station is also part of Australia’s tsunami early warning system.
When the station went digital Ron Biggs continued in the role of caretaker and, in time, that role has passed to his son Geoff, so the Biggs family of Toolangi maintain a 70+ year involvement with the observatories.
Ron Biggs, personal communication