Before the events that would spawn the original AAQ in 1969, the Astronomical Society of Queensland (ASQ) was the only major Queensland astronomical body in Queensland, having existed since 1927. Following the advent of the space age in late 1957, the membership of the ASQ had been growing quite rapidly with a burgeoning public interest in all things space related.
Included on the periphery of these new members were the dreamy and disconnected ‘flying saucer’ set who were the subject of some quiet amusement for some of the younger members such as my friend Peter Smith and myself. The political affiliations of these new members must have raised some concerns because several years later the longtime Secretary Bill Newell told me confidentially that one of our new members was an ASIO agent checking us out. He built a fine 6 inch telescope at night classes, but dropped out after a few years. (This 6 inch is in the 1961 TV photo with Bill Newell.)
I know that Arthur Page had been concerned whether the instrument maker Syd Hill had leftist leanings, but the whole affair (to us), was quite incongruous… We were talking astronomy, instruments, and the usual patter. However, seen in the context of the then recent Petrov affair, McCarthyism, ‘Reds Under the Bed’ and Prime Minister Menzies’ strong stands, the mood can be appreciated. Well, at least the ASQ was not a hotbed of communists and socialists!
The period 1959–1963 was in many ways a ‘golden age’. There was considerable public interest in space, kept alive by the ‘space race’, and ASQ membership reached around 250. There was usually something going on.
New member Werner Stege had made a fine 12 inch F5 reflector on a low equatorial driven mounting. (Behind Peter Hall in the 1961 Peter Hall TV image.) It was quite portable and exceptionally good despite being constructed from one inch thick glass, definitely contrary to the then conventional wisdom of a minimum of a 1:8 proportion. Its size and profile could be compared to a modern Dobsonian of the same aperture where the thickness to diameter ratio has been thrown out the window.
It was rumoured that Werner had been a U Boat Captain during the war. He told me much later that he was in charge of a 4 crew harbour patrol boat in Dunkirk harbour which does not quite have the same romance. However he had served as a photographer aboard a German destroyer as well. Werner’s major interest was photography and he acquired two 18 inch blanks of plate glass one and a half inches in thickness. With one, he proposed to make a short focus Wright camera – which he did and duly installed it in an observatory at his home in Hendra. There are two interesting points about this. The first is that the City Council was very wary of giving permission to build backyard sheds in Hendra because people might illegally keep racehorses, being so near the race track. The second is that the engineering was pretty ‘tight’ resulting in Werner having to shave a couple of the wall studs in key areas so the instrument could clear. Anyway, Werner was prepared to let the ASQ have the other disc at cost, which I believe was 10 pounds.
The ASQ then started their 18 inch telescope project in early 1963. The President Pat Kelly (front right in the 1961 X’mas dinner photo, )even wrote that this was in preparation for an intended 25” simply because the 18” blank had become available. There was quite an excitement in the Society. – The aim was the societies’ own telescope in an observatory on its own land! (In a quote from the Australian movie, ‘The Castle’, “Tell em they’re dreamin.”
In charge of grinding and polishing the 18” blank was Vic Matchett, a psychiatrist who shortly was to become an editor of the ASQ’s bi-monthly newsletter styled the ‘Astroquest’. Vic was an interesting person, and in retrospect, he was perhaps at times toying with our minds. On one occasion in particular, I remember him remarking to an informal group that it had been suggested that the Sun’s heat was merely derived from contraction, not internal nuclear reactions. He then stood back as the matter was debated, and from some quarters a very offended, affronted rebuttal was forthcoming. Vic just watched, smiling in the background. I think it was like tossing a hand grenade in through the window just to see what the reaction was!
The telescope was to be a medium focal length Newtonian, around F6 or F7. The plate glass was 1½ inches thick and so the disc was quite heavy. It was a huge instrument for those times. The initial off-centre grinding to gouge out and generate a rough curve was done using first a piston from an engine cylinder and then the one-inch thick 10 inch ‘tool’ left over from the construction of my telescope. The project did get to the polishing/ figuring stage but was nowhere near finished when it halted. It is pointed out that the larger the mirror the more zones and problems that are encountered. An 18” mirror is not likely to be quick and easy. Professionally, machines are used which provide very regular and adjustable strokes that produce even and quite predictable results. Special remedial corrections and finishing touches may be made by hand. Vic had done the lion’s share of the grinding and polishing work on the 18” and other members such as Peter Smith and myself had only helped out a few times.
Interest in the telescope project had soon evaporated when the practicalities of the push for a society observatory were investigated. As the prime mover working on the grinding and polishing of the huge mirror, I imagine Vic was rather peeved that the telescope and observatory project showed little progress. Also as the principal editor of the ‘Astroquest’, especially over the latter part of the period, he was in an influential position, and from a careful reading over the ‘Astroquests’ in following months it became increasingly obvious by his writings that all was not well.
Work on the mirror had stopped and John Van Vegchel, the next President of the ASQ, took charge of the unfinished blank with a view to finishing it, and this was approved with thanks at an ASQ general meeting on 14th February 1964. He subsequently performed polishing and figuring of the mirror, duly reported several times. The last direct reference I could find was its exhibition, still unfinished, as part of a display in May 1965.
As a footnote, in January 2020 John Van Vegchel’s son, also called John, solved the mystery of the subsequent history of the 18” mirror and advised: “When the project was halted, dad purchased the mirror from the ASQ and we finished it. I am still in possession of it.”
Certainly by then the focus was more on restoring and housing the historic Dudley Eglinton 12” telescope. More on this subject is covered in the article the formation of the AAQ Mark 1 in 1969.
And so by early 1964 pressures had built up within the ASQ. These principally came from the now disgruntled Vic Matchett and the Bundaberg group, with whom he had aligned, and who were country members of the ASQ. (I believe Greg Fielding their leader was a ‘Country Councillor’.) Country members paid a lesser subscription but had all other rights of membership. The principal complaint of the Bundaberg members was that they felt they should be able to borrow library books in bulk with the postage paid by the ASQ. Vic’s complaint concerned the restrictions now being imposed on his editorial position by the Secretary, Bill Newell. The Bundaberg members came down especially to a meeting, (normally you never saw them,) and the issues were addressed. They had fortified themselves at the hotel beforehand. Anyway it turned out to be a torrid affair until the four to six Bundaberg members attending and Vic Matchett got up and walked out en masse after being outvoted on a point.
So a separate Bundaberg Society was then formed. Soon we heard there were plans for a 19 inch reflector, slightly larger than the 18 inch ASQ project. This may not have been a mere co-incidence. This instrument was completed in 1968 and housed in an impressive observatory. Despite a long outage after cyclone damage, it is still operational today.
A new Brisbane club was then formed with Vic Matchett as its principal light, Don Eldridge his associate, and a relatively new member called Gregg Thompson. This club was called the Amateur Astronomical Club of Moreton Bay, later denigratingly referred to as ‘The Moreton Bay Bugs’ by Arthur Page. This small group sputtered along for perhaps a dozen years before disappearing.