History Parkes

stories, photos, anecdotes….. sharing the past

The Dish – Celebrating 60 years of the Parkes Radio Telescope

A collection of images of The Dish. On top left Jo McKeowan’s orginal photograph of her children – Donal (7 years old) & Lyn (5 years old) that Jesse Woods used as inspiration for her painting (see below); bottom left local farmers in 1965 – Maurice Puttock (left) and “Austie” Helm (right); bottom inset shows the control room during the Apollo 11 mission (from left to right) John Bolton, Robert Taylor (NASA) and Taffy Bowen; far right Phillipa O’Donnell won a prize to play cricket on The Dish as part of the 50th Anniversary celebrations; and centre a fantastic photograph of The Dish. Sources in reference list.
Fifteen-year old Jesse Woods painted this image from a photograph taken on the opening of The Dish on October 31, 1961.

To many people the highlight of the Parkes Radio Telescope (aka The Dish) will have been assisting NASA to televise the moon landing in 1969. The Parkes Radio Telescope, along with Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station, both played vital roles in bringing sound and vision of this historic moment into television sets around the world. While the moon landing may be the most well-known venture the Parkes Radio Telescope has played, it is far from being the only interesting story regarding The Dish. Indeed how the largest radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere came into being is itself a fascinating story. It is significant not only for the world of science, but also for Australia’s identity as a sovereign nation.

To read about the role The Dish played in the Moon Landing click here

As part of celebrating the 60th anniversary of the official opening of the Parkes Radio Telescope on 31st October 1961, historyparkes looks into the genesis of this important scientific instrument and the people who helped it come into fruition.

This table gives a brief explanation of the difference between a radio telescope (such as ‘The Dish’) and an optical telescope, which many people may have at home to view the night sky. Source: RF Wireless World website and NASA Science website

Indeed, for many people the telescope is the very symbol of Australian science. Peter Robertson


To fully appreciate the wonder of any radio telescope, it is important to understand how the science of radio astronomy came about. While today we view it as part of the science umbrella, this was not always the case. Indeed if not for the pioneering work of two Americans Karl Jansky and Grote Reber, radio astronomy may not have developed into a discipline of science at all. Prior to these two scientists, radio astronomy was not a thing. Astronomers and radio engineers worked separately and hadn’t even considered collaborating or combining their skillsets to achieve a mutual outcome.

Reproduction of table in Parkes: Thirty Years of Radio Astronomy Edited by D.E. Goddard & D.K. Milne (1994) CSIRO Publications: East Melbourne, Victoria p.7. While the Parkes Radio Telescope would not be as large as Jodrell Bank’s – the Parkes Radio Telescope is 64 metres/210 feet – it was a superior telescope once built.

While Karl Guthe Jansky is credited with the discovery of the new scientific phenomenon of radio astronomy, Robertson describes that he was not in fact the first to attempt to detect radio waves from space:

Unwittingly Jansky succeeded where others before him had failed. The first attempt to detect radio waves from space now goes back over one hundred years. In 1887 laboratory experiments by the German physicist Heinrich Hertz conclusively demonstrated the existence of radio waves, which had been predicted earlier by James Maxwell in his theory of electromagnetic radiation. These experiments by Hertz showed that radio waves are simply another type of electromagnetic radiation, differing from the ordinary light visible to our eyes only in that their characteristic wavelengths are very much longer.

Robertson (1992) p.8

Robertson also mentions others who explored whether radio waves could be detected including Thomas Edison, English physicist Oliver Lodge and French scientist Charles Nordmann – who was a contemporary of Guglielmo Marconi, successful in his historic demonstration of transmitting radio signals clear across the Atlantic – and Arthur Kennelly (Edison’s assistant) plus Englishmen Oliver Heaviside and Edward Appleton.

Robertson quotes from another American pioneer of radio astronomy – Grote Reber – who stated that “…often a new field of science starts as a result of good fortune rather than theoretical insight, serendipity rather than design. (1992 p.9)

This was the case with Karl Jansky. Jansky grew up in a small university town in Wisconsin and was encouraged to develop his interest in radio science by his father who was a professor of electrical engineering. His initial work showed his creativity and resourcefulness:

After graduating in physics Jansky joined the Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1928 and was assigned the task of investigating any source of atmospheric static which might interfere with a new system of ship-to-shore and trans-Atlantic radio communication then under development at Bell. At Bell’s field station near Holmdel, New Jersey, Jansky constructed an aerial array 30 metres long and 4 metres high from timber and brass pipes. The array was mounted on four wheels taken from an old model T Ford, with a small motor and chain drive which could turn the array through one revolution every twenty minutes. The contraption earned the name ‘merry-go-round’.

Jansky was able to distinguish three distinct types of radio static. The first arose from the intermittent crashes of local thunderstorms and the second was a weaker, steadier static due to the combined effect of many storms far off in the atmosphere. The third type was composed of a very weak and steady hiss of unknown origin…. Initially Jansky thought that this weak hiss would be traced to some source of industrial interference, but then he noticed that the maximum strength of the signal came from a direction which moved around the sky each day and seemed to correspond roughly with the position of the sun.

Robertson (1992) pp.9-10
Two American pioneers of radio astronomy: Karl Jansky (left) and Grote Reber (right). Source: Robertson (1992) pages 11 & 15 respectively.

Over many months, Jansky realised that the direction of the static began to drift further and further away from the sun’s position. This meant that the sun could not be the source of the radio noise. Jansky recorded that the:

“…daily period of variation of the noise in fact turned out to be 23 hours and 56 minutes, four minutes less than the daily period of the sun. This is known as the sidereal day – the period of the earth’s rotation with respect to the stars – and so Jansky could conclude that the source of the noise must lie beyond the sun, and beyond the solar system as well.

When time permitted Jansky continued observations for another year or so, publishing his final paper on the subject in 1935. The distribution of the cosmic static across the sky was shown to be disc-like and to approximately coincide with the distribution of stars visible to us along the Milky Way. Because he had been unable to detect radio waves from the sun itself. Jansky ruled out the far more distant stars as the source of this cosmic radiation. Instead, he speculated that the source of this new radiation arose from charged particles in rapid motion through the vast stretches of interstellar space, an idea that is basically correct.

Roberston (1992) p.10

Janksy’s discovery captivated the media. The New York Times carried a front-page report and a local radio station held a special evening program where the ‘hiss of the universe’ was broadcast to a national audience. However the discovery didn’t seem to make much of an impact in the astronomical community. Robertson recalls:

Several astronomers got in touch with Jansky, a research paper was written on a theory of the cosmic static’s origin, but basically no one seemed to know what to do next. For radio engineers, Jansky’s discovery was peripheral and of interest only as far as the effect cosmic static might have on long-distance radio communication. For astronomers, it was of course an intriguing discovery but the radio techniques required to confirm and extend Jansky’s work were completely beyond their professional ken. At this stage, perhaps an enterprising physicist could have bridged the gap between the fields of astronomy and radio engineering but, by and large, most physicists were much too preoccupied with the startling pace of discovery in their own field. The year 1932 has been called the annus mirabilis of physics. In addition to the neutron… discoveries were made of the first particle of antimatter (the positron), the hydrogen isotope of mass accelerators for probing subatomic matter came into operation. All eyes focused on the new glamour field of nuclear physics.

Robertson (1992) p.12

Jansky made an amazing discovery – going further than Edison and other scientists before him. However, radio astronomy had not gelled as a scientific discipline and needed another important contribution – from Illinois’ Grote Reber – as Robertson recalls:

With the failure of any of the astronomical observatories to follow up Jansky’s discovery, the new science of radio astronomy might have fallen into limbo had it not been for the extraordinary initiative of Grote Reber, an engineer with a passion for all aspects of radio science. A the age of 15 Reber had built his own transmitter-receiver and, from his hometown in Wheaton, Illinois, communicated with fellow radio hams in over sixty countries. By the end of his student years, Reber had achieved his ambition of ‘working all continents’ and began looking for a fresh challenge. After reading Jansky’s research papers and realising their significance, Reber discussed the possibility of continuing these observations with a number of astronomers at the Yerkes Observatory in Chicago.

Robertson (1992) p.13

While Reber was excited at the possibilities, no one else in the scientific community was. Robertson states that some even thought that Jansky’s work was an error or even a hoax. For Reber to make further progress, he would need to make his own ‘radio telescope’. Deciding that a parabolic reflector or dish as these could be accurately pointed across the sky; Reber set about building his own radio telescope – in his backyard during his spare time!

On the left, Karl Jansky prepares his ‘merry-go-round’ in a cornfield; and right, Grote Reber’s first telescope that he built in his backyard. Source: National Radio Astronomy Observatory website

Why is radio astronomy so important?

As Robertson details, the establishment of radio astronomy as a scientific discipline opened up our potential knowledge base:

Janksy’s discovery opened up an entirely new approach to astronomy. Until 1932 almost our entire knowledge of the sun, the planets, the stars and the universe beyond had been gained because our eyes are sensitive to a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum – the optical region extending from the red through to the violet. Radiation from astronomical objects in this part of the spectrum penetrates the earth’s atmosphere without appreciable absorption, and so this part of the spectrum provides a ‘window’ through which we can look out into the universe. At wavelengths shorter than violet or longer than red light, electromagnetic radiation is absorbed by water vapour and other molecules in the earth’s atmosphere. From the laws of physics, astronomers had known that stars give out most of their energy in the visible part of the spectrum, and so this inability to study radiation from space beyond the red or the violet had never been considered too serious a limitation. With the continual improvement in the size and power of telescopes over many years, astronomers had been able to build up a remarkably detailed picture of the countless millions of stars and star systems and of the many astrophysical processes at work in space.

The new window opened up by Jansky provided an opportunity to observe the universe in a completely new ‘light’. The radio window is about a thousand times wider than its visible or optical counterpart, covering a range of wavelengths from roughly a centimetre in length up to several tens of metres.

Robertson (1992) pp.12-13

Without the efforts of Jansky and Reber, there would be no Parkes Radio Telescope – or radio telescope anywhere! Robertson explains just how indebted the world – not just the world of science – is to both of them:

While Jansky’s discovery laid the first foundations for the new science of radio astronomy, Grote Reber became its first real practitioner. For a lone-hand working in his spare time, his achievement was exceptional. The Wheaton radio maps of the sky were not improved upon until the work of Australian radio astronomers early in the 1950s. Reber can also claim credit for having built the first true radio telescope, his parabolic dish beginning a line of development of similar instruments which led directly to the Parkes telescope.

Robertson (1992) p.16

Edward ‘Taffy’ Bowen

Taffy Bowen in front of The Dish. Source: Wales Online website

No history of the Parkes Radio Telescope is complete without mentioning Edward George Bowen. While Jansky and Reber were instrumental in establishing the legitimacy of radio astronomy as a scientific discipline; ‘Taffy’ Bowen was instrumental in Australia’s burgeoning radio astronomy development. A proud Welshmen, Bowen was one of three men responsible for developing radar towers along the west and south coast of Britain during the Second World War. Bowen took the design a step further and developed a miniaturised version of radar equipment that could be fitted to the Royal Air Force’s planes. While his efforts saved countless lives during war-time, Bowen realised the potential for radio astronomy during peace time.

Video documentary of the life and legacy of Edward George “Taffy” Bowen. Source: YouTube

The Australian Dictionary of Biography highlights Bowen’s important war research:

During 1933 and 1934, Bowen had worked with a cathode-ray direction finder at the radio research station at Slough. While engaged in this work, he was noticed by (Sir) Robert Watson Watt, who in 1935 wrote a secret government memorandum on the possibility of detecting aircraft by means of radio waves. This was a turning point in Bowen’s life, for he joined Watson Watt’s team, working on experimental ground radar at Orford Ness, Suffolk. As a result of their experiments, a chain of radar stations was set up to provide warning of approaching enemy aircraft. When the group moved to the Bawdsey Manor research station in 1936, he was given the responsibility of building an airborne radar system. He created the first such system, which was successfully tested in September 1937. During 1938 his group worked on two major projects, the detection of ships (Air to Surface Vessels, or ASV) and the interception of aircraft (AI).

Australian Dictionary of Biography website

Bowen had a brilliant scientific brain but he also possessed the people skills to develop strong networks and be able to persuade organisations to fund his projects. So strong were the networks that Bowen had developed, that at one stage it looked like he would become the director of a new observatory built in America; with John Bolton agreeing to sign on as his second-in-command. While the Americans were slow to join the British and Australian radio astronomy race; they were determined to catch up and even leap ahead. Robertson records that, if not for the observant Fred White, both Bowen and Bolton would have left Australia:

Fred White kept an eye on these developments from Melbourne, careful on the one hand not to stand in the way of Bowen pursuing his career overseas. On the other hand, after having already fended off the challenge from Mt Stromlo, White did not welcome this American raid on the most successful of Australia’s postwar research programs. The ‘brain-drain’ of Australian scientific talent was developing into an issue of national concern. White counselled Bowen to be patient and to explore other avenues before abandoning hope that a giant radio telescope could be built in Australia. One interesting possibility had arisen earlier in 1952 when the Nuffield Foundation, one of Britain’s main philanthropic organisations, had agreed to fund half the cost of the Jodrell Bank telescope. Nuffield might be persuaded to fund a similar telescope in the southern hemisphere, especially if this was presented in the context of strengthening scientific ties within the British Commonwealth.

Robertson (1992) p.118

White’s intervention meant that Bowen wrote to his former mentor Henry Tizard, who had just retired as scientific adviser to the British Ministry of Defence. Tizard doubted that the Nuffield Foundation would find a second large telescope, especially one not on British soil. Tizard suggested Bowen contact the British Dominion and Colonies Fund which was part of the giant Carnegie Corporation in New York. The Carnegie Fund was established by Andrew Carnegie and his aim was to systematically give away one of the world’s great personal fortunes. Carnegie’s philantropic legacy was received by over 2,500 public libraries in the United States as well as the establishing of the Carnegie Institute (Washington) and the Carnegie Corporation (New York).

Taking Tizard’s advice Bowen wrote in August 1952 to Vannevar Bush, president of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, to ask whether in addition to the Caltech instrument Carnegie would consider granting further funds for a similar dish in the southern hemisphere. Both radio astronomy centres would benefit as the design of the telescope could be a collaborative effort and the costs shared. Bush responded that he was very much in favour of the idea. Although the Carnegie Corporation had for several years been redirecting its support to the social services, mainly in reaction to the massive support give to the physical sciences by postwar governments, for the British Dominion and Colonies Fund it was a different story. Grants had been suspended during the war years and with interest steadily accruing on the original $US12 million endowment from the parent Carnegie Corporation, the Fund was flush with money. In 1951 nearly $1 million had been released to support individual study awards and to fund research projects, a substantial proportion going to Australian cultural and educational institutions. In Bush’s view, the timing of an approach to the Fund for a substantial grant in the physical sciences could not have been better.

Robertson (1992) pp.119-120

Bowen was successful. The Carnegie Corporation formally approved the sum of $US250,000 towards a giant radio telescope in Australia on May 21, 1954. However this was not enough on its own. Robertson states that “…Initial estimates at Radiophysics put the cost of a telescope, at least as large as the one under construction at Jodrell Bank, to be in the region of $US1 million…. about four times the amount promised by Carnegie.” (Robertson 1992 p.121) According to Robertson, Bowen used his networks to marshal support:

Part of the strategy [to find more funding] consisted of enlisting the backing of two of the most prestigious organisations in astronomy. The International Astronomical Union sent a statement of support in July [1954] signed by its president Otto Struve and its general secretary Pieter Oosterhoff. A second statement came from the Royal Astronomical Society in London, drafted by Bernard Lovell and signed by twenty leading British astronomers.

Roberston (1992) p121
Fred White (CEO of CSIRO), Richard Casey (Minister for CSIRO) and Taffy Bowen in January 1958 working on raising funds. Source: Robertson (1992) p.124

The second part of the strategy was to appeal for government funding. Ian Clunies Ross (CSIRO chairman) wrote to Richard Casey (CSIRO minister); who then took the matter to the prime minister, Robert Menzies. While Menzies was pleased about the project, he wanted government funding to be given on a pound-for-pound basis and only after one-half of the project’s money has been sourced from private investors. This meant Bowen still needed to find another benefactor to match Carnegie’s sum. While White and Casey formed the Radio Astronomy Trust to raise funds; Bowen went back to America looking for more philanthropists. Highlighting the perseverance of ‘Taffy’ Bowen, his experience went as follows:

‘Taffy’ Bowen’s perseverance pays off. Source: Robertson (1992) p.123

Bowen’s efforts proved more bountiful than those of the Radio Astronomy Trust. While White and Casey worked hard, there wasn’t the same level of philanthropy in Australia as existed in the United States. Only 37 companies and individuals contributed, with Robertson reporting that one individual – Andrew Reid – donated £10,000 towards the final total of £27,000.

When reporters asked Bowen what the value of a giant telescope would be, Bowen answered eloquently:

Source: Roberston (1992) p.126
Funding table based on information from Parkes: Thirty Years of Radio Astronomy Edited by D.E. Goddard & D.K. Milne (1994) CSIRO Publications: East Melbourne, Victoria p.8

John Gatenby Bolton

Photograph of John Gatenby Bolton. Source: Cambridge Core In Memoriam

The second part of the dynamic duo for Parkes Radio Telescope was John Gatenby Bolton. Bolton was born in Sheffield, England. A proud Yorkshireman, he was educated at King Edward VII School in Sheffield (affectionately known as ‘King Ted’s’) and was awarded a scholarship to Trinity College at Cambridge University. During the Second World War he joined the Royal Navy.

After the war he migrated to Australia where, in 1947, he joined the radiophysics laboratory of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. The laboratory was researching the new field of radio astronomy. On 5 March 1948 at the registrar general’s office, Sydney, he married Letty Leslie, née Burke, a widow. In 1949 the CSIR became the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO).

While working at a former radar station at Dover Heights, Sydney, Bolton succeeded in picking up strong radio emissions from a small region in the constellation of Cygnus; it was later found to correspond to a very dim, distant galaxy. The discovery led to a realisation that the radio universe was very much larger than the optical universe. This was followed by discoveries of three extremely distant, very powerful radio emitters that had optical counterparts, thus providing the link between radio and optical astronomy, and opening up a new area of astronomical research. Having constructed a seventy-two-feet (22 m) diameter,  hole-in-the-ground radio telescope, Bolton identified Sagittarius A as the nucleus of the Milky Way galaxy.

In 1951 the Royal Society of New South Wales awarded Bolton the Edgeworth David medal. Two years later he joined the CSIRO’s cloud physics group, but in January 1955 he went to the California Institute of Technology to direct and establish the Owens Valley Radio Observatory. There he built an innovative interferometer that was a forerunner of later instruments. His leadership markedly advanced radio astronomy in the United States of America, and in 1960 he was involved with identification of the radio source 3C48 as a quasar (quasi-stellar object). This led to a new and highly fertile field of research.

Australian Dictionary of Biography website

John Bolton’s first interest in astronomy was stimulated during his time at Cambridge University during the Second World War. With Britain preparing for the imminent invasion by German forces, Cambridge University set up an observation post on the tower of St John’s Chapel – the tallest building in Cambridge. As Robertson recalls:

John spent one night a week on watch, often on bitterly cold winter nights at a time when heating fuel was tightly rationed. With the town blacked out, the occasional clear night helped to spark his interest in astronomy.

Robertson (2017) p.27

The Academy of Australian Science website states the legacy of John Bolton:

Bolton’s contribution to astronomy was not only through his own work but also through his influence on others. Many of his numerous students went on to do great things. To mention a few: Ken Kellerman was the moving spirit behind the Very Long Baseline Array with antennas spread out over thousands of miles across the USA; he also served as a Director of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn. Barry Clark was the system designer of the most complex radio astronomy instrument in the world – the Very Large Array in New Mexico; Ron Ekers became the first Director of the VLA and later returned to his homeland to direct the Australia Telescope; Jasper Wall became Head of the Royal Greenwich Observatory; Marc Price became Director of the ANRAO at Parkes; Al Moffat became Director of the Owens Valley Observatory; and Bob Wilson won the Nobel Prize as co-discoverer of the 3º cosmic background.

No-one who came in contact with Bolton would have failed to notice that determination was his main characteristic. This came through in sports even more quickly than it did in other areas. Whether at cricket, table tennis, snooker or golf, once he had decided that he would win, it did his opponent little good being a much better player in other circumstances. Bolton’s power of concentration was phenomenal and his resolve unshakeable.

Australian Academy of Science website
John Bolton was the first director of the Parkes Radio Telescope. Source: CSIRO Archives found at Parkes Champion Post website

Taffy Bowen worked alongside John Bolton, recommending Bolton be his second in command. In 1954 Bowen wrote this glowing praise about John Bolton to Lee Alvin DuBridge, then president of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech):

Bolton began with us at the bottom of the Research Officer range and in less than ten years he has progressed to the highest bracket. A year ago he became the youngest officer ever to be appointed to the rank of Principal Research Officer in CSIRO. He is a man with an exceptionally clear physical insight into the problems he faces, is expert in the design of experiments and attacks his problems, be they of a practical or an interpretative nature, with almost diabolical energy. In every way he is eminently suitable for taking charge of a research program and he gets on exceedingly well with all those who work for and with him.

Robertson (2017) pp.148-149

Taffy Bowen was not the only one to recognise Bolton’s brilliance. DuBridge appointed Bolton as the professor of radio astronomy in February 1958, and believed that Bolton would eventually become the director of the Owens Valley Radio Observatory in California. However DuBridge was shocked when Bolton announced in June 1960 that he would be returning to Australia to take charge of the Parkes Radio Telescope. DuBridge’s response to this bombshell has been recorded:

‘Your decision to return to Australia comes as a great surprise, a great shock and a great disappointment to me. You have done such a wonderful job here with the radio astronomy work that we had been looking forward to your continued leadership of this enterprise for many years to come. I know the strong attractions which make you want to return to Australia, and I am really sorry that our climate and smog here have turned out to be such discouraging factors for you and your family… I am writing to express my sorrow and regret.’

Roberston (2017) p.200

Robertson has recorded the correspondence from Bolton to Taffy Bowen after announcing he would leave the US to head to Parkes:

‘I dropped my bomb at Caltech a week ago – it went off with a good deal more noise than I expected. Lee DuBridge wrote a very nice letter in reply accepting the inevitable but tried very hard the following day to change my mind, offering practically anything I wanted. I have more or less agreed to come back for three months every two years but made no commitment.’

Robertson (2017) p.200

Robertson (2017) states that the “…period 1946 to 1960 is remembered as the golden age of Australian radio astronomy.” (p230) Indeed, Australia was at the forefront of radio astronomy – ahead of Great Britain, Europe and the United States of America. However the 1960s saw progressive change which challenged Australia’s ability to remain ahead of the pack:

During the 1960s radio astronomy became progressively international in the way it was practised, with astronomers travelling more frequently, visiting each other’s institutions, attending conferences, sharing ideas and techniques and, to an increasing degree, seeking observing time on the telescope best suited to their own research interests. The internationalisation of radio astronomy began to smooth out the differences between these groups [about 100 centres and observatories in 20 different countries] which, until 1960, had worked in relative isolation. The completion of the Parkes telescope undoubtedly gave the Radiophysics group a head start but, as the 1960s progressed, the group’s ability to remain at the forefront of radio astronomy would depend more on its intellectual resources than on the technical superiority of the new instrument.

Robertson (2017) p.231

Bolton was peerless in his intellect and leadership skills:

[Bolton’s supervision] he did, not from the ground but from up on the structure. He also surveyed and reset every one of the more than one thousand panels over an acre of surface. The telescope was commissioned in late 1961 and Bolton took charge as Director of the Australian National Radio Astronomy Observatory (ANRAO) to begin a third and equally spectacular phase of his career. Parkes attracted astronomers from all over the world including several who had worked with Bolton in California. Major contributions were made in almost every branch of radio astronomy of which there were now a large number. Bolton’s lifelong interest in the discovery, classification and identification of radio sources found his greatest reward in these years. The Parkes Catalogue, in the making of which Bolton was the leading light, lists more than 8,000 sources including several hundred quasars. He published more than 60 papers in this field.

More than anyone else, Bolton brought radio and optical astronomy together, through constant interaction with the best optical astronomers of his time, through the use of optical telescopes himself for identification purposes, and through efforts to set up major facilities like the Anglo-Australian Telescope and the UK Schmidt Telescope. He was among the earliest to recognise the unity of astronomy across all wavelengths.

Australian Academy of Science website


…prominent radio astronomer Chris Christiansen once remarked that after the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House, the Parkes telescope was one of the most publicised structures in Australia. Robertson (2017) p.1

Peter Robertson – writing as Science Reporter for the ABC – recalls the pioneering endeavour that designing and building the Parkes Radio Telescope would be:

Large radio telescopes in the 1950s were an engineering no-man’s land. The British dish planned for Jodrell Bank struck serious design problems that delayed the project and led to a major cost blowout. Proceeding cautiously, Bowen sought the advice of Barnes Wallis, Britain’s leading inventor and engineer.

Wallis had spent his early career designing dirigibles for the Admiralty. Large, rigid, light-weight structures were his specialty. He suggested a geodetic structure for the dish, one that is able to withstand the distortions of gravity and keep its perfect parabolic shape, regardless of the angle of tilt. Wallis also solved the difficult problem of how such a massive structure can track astronomical objects across the sky with pinpoint accuracy.

Wallis’ ideas were fleshed out by Freeman Fox, a London firm known in Australia for its design of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The detailed design and engineering studies took over four years to complete, but it was time well spent. Fabrication of most of the telescope took place in the German factories of the MAN company. The parts were shipped to Australia where construction began at the site in September 1959. The telescope was completed on schedule and only slightly over budget, a rare occurrence for a project entering completely new territory.

Robertson (2010) ABC Science website
Four alternative designs recommended to be the Parkes Radio Telescope. Source: Robertson (1992) p.135
At one stage the Parkes Radio Telescope could have been designed by famous British scientist and inventor, Sir Barnes Wallis (who invented the bouncing bomb as portrayed in the 1955 film The Dam Busters). Source: Deane (1985) p.40

Obtaining the funding was the easy part – the design and building of the Parkes radio telescope was a whole new ball game. Fortunately Australia was able to learn from the experience the British had in building the telescope at Jodrell Bank – which overran budget by a considerable amount. More time was spent on designs, although not everything occurred slowly:

Sir Henry Tizard, well known from radar days, suggested that Barnes Wallis should be approached. Wallis had designed the R100 airship, the Wellington bomber and the “dambuster” bombs. In 1954 he was Chief Engineer of Vickers and showed immediate enthusiasm. Wallis provided a basic feasibility study and design. He also invented the master equatorial control system over lunch with Bowen and immediately patented it.

Three firms were approached for detailed engineering design; Freeman Fox (who had designed the Sydney Harbour Bridge), Head Wrightson and Sir William Halcrow and Partners. The contract was let to Freeman Fox in 1956. H.C. Minnett was sent to Britain to supervise the design and to work on the drive and control system.

The site was selected in 1958 to be near Parkes, NSW in a broad rural valley sheltered from most electrical interference.

The design was completed in April 1959 and world-wide tenders invited for construction. The best bid was from Maschinenfabrik Augsburg Nürnberg A.G. of West Germany. Metropolitan-Vickers of Manchester subcontracted to provide the drive and servo-control systems and Askania-Werke of West Berlin provided the master equatorial unit, error detector and control desk. Concrete Constructions Ltd of Sydney built the foundations and concrete supporting tower.

Deane (1985) p.41
Photographs of the site and building progress of Parkes Radio Telescope. The site near Parkes in 1959 (top left); Dish foundations, September 1959 (top right); and concrete construction during 1959 (bottom). Source: Dean (1985) p.42
Video footage of construction of Parkes Radio Telescope. *** PLEASE NOTE: There is no sound on this video *** Source: YouTube

One of the ironies for Parkes Radio Telescope’s efforts to transmit the moon landing data was that on the day in question, ferocious winds interfered with The Dish. This was depicted in the film The Dish and it was a true account (although other creative liberties were taken for dramatic effect). The irony being that the site was chosen because of its favourable weather conditions. However Robertson records that the inauguration day for Parkes Radio Telescope also experienced inclement weather:

The weather conditions could hardly have been worse. The temperature climbed into the mid-thirties and gale-force winds gusting as high as 80km per hour lashed the site, whipping up thick clouds of red dust and drowning out the sound from the public address system. Ironically, one reason for selecting the Parkes site had been its excellent record of low wind speeds!

Robertson (1992) p.3

However the weather was not going to ruin this auspicious occasion in the history of Australian science. The event attracted large crowds and dominated the national news. Robertson describes how science was dominating the headlines in the news of the day:

On a local level, the Parkes Champion Post [sic] understandably made the most of the occasion with a four-page spread which reported the text of most of the speeches and gave a detailed account of the day’s events… On a national level, several newspapers featured the inauguration with stories and photos. In the Sydney Morning Herald only one item received more coverage. The main story brought news that the Soviet Union had exploded a 30 megaton hydrogen bomb, only a day after a similar report on the explosion of a 50 megton device.

For the public at large these two stories perhaps summed up all that was good, all that was bad about science. On the one hand, the H-bomb was the most powerful expression of the destructive forces science could unleash, forces that threatened the future of humanity; on the other, the Parkes telescope symbolised the opposite, the search for fundamental truths about the universe, truths that would enrich and uplift the spirit of all humanity.

Robertson (1992) p.7
To build a mega-structure requires a mega-crane! Source: George Day found at Parkes Champion Post website

Not often in the history of science in Australia are we as highly privileged as we are today in being present at the commissioning of this magnificent scientific instrument – an instrument which is destined to extend our vision and understanding of the mysteries of outer space. ‘Taffy’ Bowen’s opening sentence at the official opening of the Parkes Radio Telescope, October 31, 1961.

The Dish tilts for the first time in October 1961. Unfortunately ferocious winds prevented The Dish from tilting on its inauguration day on October 31, 1961. Source: pdf of Celebrating Fifty Years of Radio Astronomy: Planning and Construction of the Dish by Peter Robertson, Parkes Symposium, 31 October 2011

Parkes Shire Library would like to thank the following people and organisations for their assistance in making this post possible:

  • Peter Robertson;
  • Trove;
  • Parkes Champion Post;
  • Phillipa O’Donnell for sharing her personal photograph;
  • Jesse Woods and her mother Sharon Woods for her sharing Jesse’s painting;
  • Jo McKeowan for sharing her personal photograph as inspiration for Jesse Woods’ painting;
  • the many members of the Facebook page Parkes In Photos of Years Gone Past
  • staff and volunteers at Parkes Shire Library


Spotted a mistake? Maybe you have something to add.

If you have stories, photographs and/or memories of The Dish that you are willing to share, please contact Parkes Shire Library via dan.fredericks@parkes.nsw.gov.au

Your stories are part of the history of the Parkes Shire, allow us to preserve them for posterity and share them on this blog. Alternatively you may leave comments on this page.


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This entry was posted on October 28, 2021 by in 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, A Brief History of Radio Astronomy, Alectown, Building The Dish, Designing & Building The Dish, famous people of Parkes Shire, General history, John Bolton, Kennedy county, Legacy of Alfred Fox, Opening of 'The Dish', Parkes, Parkes Library Family & Local History Resources, Taffy Bowen, the county of Kennedy, The Dish, The Dish & Pop Culture References, The Dish & the Moon Landing, The Dish - Connecting Parkes & the World to the Moon, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .
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