Monday, May 23, 2016

A Quiet Giant – Discovering Grote Reber

Listening to the Stars

While I was doing the Southern Wine Trail I was startled to come upon the incongruous sight of a large telescope perched at the end of one of the vineyards. Beneath it was a museum dedicated to one Grote Reber, the world’s first radio astronomer. Since we normally claim anyone who so much as spent five minutes here and went on to be successful or famous, I was very surprised that I had never heard of him. Alas, the museum was closed the day I visited, but I immediately went home to look him up. 

Indeed, although born in the USA, Grote Reber (1911 – 2002), inspired by the work of Karl Jansky who discovered faint radio emissions coming from the Milky Way, started building radio telescopes in 1937. In 1954 he moved to Tasmania where magnetic interference was minimal. He was not only a genius in this field but led the way in a number of others including radio carbon dating. When not listening to the stars, he studied the direction in which beans grew in various parts of the world, built himself a solar house in Bothwell and also developed an electric car.

As Martin George, former President and current Chair for International Relations of the International Planetarium Society who knew Reber well, writes,
"Grote Reber was indeed the world's first dedicated radio astronomer, having built the world's first radio 'dish' in 1937 in Illinois, USA.    After receiving data about the ionosphere over Tasmania, he made radio observations of the sky from Cambridge, near Hobart, beginning in 1955 in collaboration with Graeme Ellis.  The ionosphere over Tasmania was especially suitable for radio observaitons at low frequencies, which especially interested Reber. 
In 1956-57 he made measurements from Kempton and in the 1960s he built and operated a huge radio telescope array near Bothwell.  It was made up of wires forming dipoles. The result of this amazing effort was the first-ever map of the southern radio sky at a frequency of 2.085 megahertz."
Grote Reber at work - photo courtesy of the Estate of Grote Reber
 According to Martin George, Reber was recognised with an award for his energy efficient house but is otherwise little known beyond astronomy circles. This may be because he was somewhat outspoken and his beliefs about the origin of the universe ran counter to the prevailing “Big Bang” theory.  He died on the 20th of December 2002, two days before his 91st birthday  and his ashes are buried in Bothwell cemetery and at various observatories around the world.

Grote Reber in later life - photo used with kind permission from Martin George

 Perhaps we should have an annual Grote Reber Day, where we celebrate his achievements and possibly those of  other unsung ‘Tasmanians’ who have made notable contributions to science and technology.

The Museum will be having a free Open Day on August 7, 2016 (11.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m.) or if you can find nine friends they will open especially for you by contacting Karen Bradford (03) 6226 2439 or on Admission is $4 per person.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

A Time Capsule in Hampton Road - The Markree* House Museum, Hobart

What lies behind the gate and those two hundred year -old walls?

Easily overlooked among Hobart’s wealth of colonial buildings is the modest Markree House Museum.  I must have walked past its unprepossessing exterior hundreds of times without giving it a second glance, yet it is important for several reasons.

Not imposing perhaps, but important for other reasons 
Firstly, it marks the transition from the grand colonial mansion to the single family home which could be managed without live –in servants. Secondly, it reflects the life of an emerging affluent middle class of merchants and professionals, rather than the one consisting primarily of soldiers, landed gentry, convicts, servants and tradesmen, which preceded it. Thirdly, it embodies the principles of the Arts and Craft Movement which became popular in Europe and America in the mid C19th. This was both a revolt against the excesses of the Victorian Age and the shoddiness and soullessness of mass production.  Lastly, despite the European origin of these ideas, and in contrast to earlier generations which looked nostalgically back to Mother England for inspiration, this house reflects its place in the world both in its design and in its use of materials and decoration. 

Scent, romance and naturalistic planting are the hallmarks of an Arts and Craft style garden
While there are no doubt other houses from this era tucked away in Hobart, this one is remarkable in that with the exception of some minor modifications to the bathroom and kitchen, it has been in the same family and retained many of the artefacts which it had when it  was built  for  Ruth and Cecil Baldwin in 1926. We thus not only glimpse what family life was like at the time, but something of the personality of its owners.  The Baldwins were third generation Australians from a well -to -do family which strongly supported the abolition of transportation. The identical house built next door was occupied by Ruth’s two unmarried sisters. The garden, laid out by Cecil who trained at the Burnley Horticultural College where Australian icon Edna Walling also trained,  incorporates the design concepts of the Art and Craft Movement. These emphasised the integration of house and garden and naturalistic plantings with simple rock borders, and garden “rooms” rather than formal beds, and rigid geometric structures.

Hallway - simple, almost shaker style furnishings and finishes, but of high quality and using local timber
 The Arts and Craft Movement inspired by the writings of John Ruskin on art and architecture and 
applied by William Morris and his contemporaries, stressed not only a return to the fine craftsmanship which predated the industrial revolution, but also sought to ennoble the worker “by creating things of beauty which would bring pleasure to both the maker and the user. “ While not all of these aims were realised – Morris himself eventually had to resort to machine production to keep up with demand,   the movement spread like wildfire across Europe and the Atlantic. Even Tasmania had its own Art and Craft Society which began in 1903 and exhibited regularly until after World War I, when it was overtaken by other styles such as Art Nouveau and Art Deco.

Ergonomic Staircase in Tasmanian Oak
 It is not known whether the Baldwins were members of the Society, but the Markree House, designed by architect Bernard Ridley Walker reflects its design principles in its avoidance of unnecessary ornamentation, honest local materials – mostly Tasmanian Oak, superbly but subtly worked, and in its preference for form following function.

Unlike many earlier homes whose plans came directly from England, Markree’s living rooms face north and have the kitchen in the cooler part of the house. The pantry can be accessed directly from the street via a separate door and the house has an attached garage, which would have been quite novel in 1926. Practicality is also front and centre in the layout of the lounge, kitchen and dining rooms. A servery connects the dining room almost directly to the kitchen sink, while the cutlery and the Spode china are in cupboards above and drawers below, both of which can be opened from either side. Both the size of the lounge and the large stove and double sink suggest that the Baldwins enjoyed entertaining. The recipe books are well thumbed. 

Practicalities -Guide, Phillipa demonstrates how the servery worked between the dining room and the kitchen 
A peek in the kitchen cupboard


 While Cecil worked with his brother as a landscape gardener, Ruth practised various crafts, especially woodwork. Her drop -leaf writing desk is particularly interesting because it features the Tasmanian blue gum, an Australian floral emblem, rather than a slavishly copied European one. Appreciation of Australian flora and the sense of an Australian identity were only starting to emerge at the time of Federation in 1901. Ruth also ‘repurposed’ long before it was fashionable. There are two charming cats made from a pair black stockingss among the toys and in the kitchen, there’s an apron made from a hessian sack but with a stylish cut and a trim of well -loved floral fabric.

The secretaire and mirror were made by Ruth Balwin ca. 1905

Blue gum motif on the desk reflects surging national pride in the wake of Federation and growing appreciation of native flora
Meanwhile, young Henry, their only child, contented himself with his Hornsby trainset, Meccano and tin toys, which are all intact and complete with their boxes. Collectors will drool.I suspect they may have played a role in his later career choices as a boat builder in Hobart and Williamstown, and later as railway engineer in Launceston. He returned to the house in the 1960’s and lived there until his death in 2007.  In his will he bequeathed both Markree House and the neighbouring house to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, which now runs tours by appointment.

Henry's bedroom - straight out of Boy's Own

The toys reflect  "a time of innovations in transport and other technologies"

However, the handmade toys created by his mother and aunts were also favourites

You do need to book 24 hours ahead by phoning the Museum (03) 62114177. Cost is $10 for adults, $8.00 Concession, $4 per child and there is a special price $16 for both when you book Narranya at the same time. Narrranya at Battery Point houses a fine colonial collection.

* The house is named after Markree Castle, County Sligo, Ireland, where Cecil's mother was born and where her father was a private astronomer

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

The Taste of Autumn – On the Southern Wine Trail Pt. 1

The last leaves of Autumn on the Wine Trail

Tasmania is famous for its cool climate wines, so much so that even French wine maker Moet et Chandon is beginning to use Tasmanian grapes in its Australian product and Tasmanian wines have been winning prizes since 1974.  In 2013 Tasmania had 230 vineyards and 1500 hectares planted to vines.
While most of it  is grown in the north of the state and there are other fine vineyards further south, in the Derwent Valley and in the east, there is a particularly high concentration of them in the Coal River Valley only about half an hour’s drive away, so I thought I would start there.  Of course if you are pressed for time, you can try them all at once at Clemens Hill in Richmond, or at the Gasworks,  in Hobart without ever having to leave town.

Frogmore Vineyard
It was a glorious day for a drive  – crisp, clear and sunny, with the last few leaves still clinging to the vines. Like the wines, each of the vineyards also has its own character and with the exception of one of the originals – the small Craigow Vineyard, most of them also serve food. Frogmore's restaurant won the Regional Division of the Australian Restaurant of the Year Awards last year and was well patronised when I called. At least two of them also cater for children. Riversdale Estate has its delightful Peter Rabbit Garden ($20 for adults, $10 for children), as well as a French bistro. Puddleduck has an outdoor picnic area where children can also feed the ducks. Their parent’s survival pack ($10) which includes juice, a frog biscuit, icy pole, colouring book and pencils along with duck food, is noted for future reference. They also have an interesting take on BYO . Instead of bringing the wine, you can bring the food and they will supply the wine.Unfortunately,due to our strict drink and drive laws, I  couldn't sample as much as I would have liked, nor am I the greatest wine buff - after a glass or two, they all taste good to me, but there are certainly worse ways to while away an afternoon.

Elegance - Frogmore
Casual at Riversdale
Intimate at Craigow
 There are no less than seven vineyards just on the short stretch of road from Cambridge to Richmond, plus several more along the Tea Tree Road on the other side and the Lark Distillery also has a presence here, so there is no shortage of places to  eat and drink.  Although I had planned to visit them all on this trip, I only managed four before closing time, but I look forward to reporting on the others in the near future.  The best way would be to take the bus or one of the many wine tours so there are no concerns about having to drive home afterwards. Maybe next time I'll take along a friend who doesn’t drink.

Family friendly Puddleduck  -they also have reverse BYO  where you can bring your food and buy the wine
What I missed out on in wine tasting, I made up for in cheeses – another area in which Tasmania shines. Both Coal River Farm and the prizewinning Wicked Cheese Factory are on this route and were also doing a roaring trade. At Coal River Farm you can pick your own berries when in season. They also have a great range of chocolate and chocolate products and a restaurant too.  At Wicked you can enjoy a variety of Goat or Cow’s milk cheeses, including excellent bries and camenberts as well as a range of cheddars and blues. I was especially taken by the yoghurt cheese today, though I also bought camenbert and fudge. They also have a licensed cafĂ© which serves local beers, ciders and wine.

Brie and Cambert gleam gold and silver in the fridges at Coal River Farm
Tasting at the Wicked Cheese Factory where you can often see cheese being made too

Afterglow -the sun is about to set as I head home