Better know a Canadian functionary: the Dominion Astronomer

To you and me, the most practical applications of astronomy are the production of cool posters and the continued employment of Neil DeGrasse Tyson. But astronomy is also very useful in the fields of surveying and accurate timekeeping. In order that Canada could survey its last best west better, in 1890 the Chief Inspector of Surveys, William Frederick King CMG, was appointed Dominion Astronomer and oversaw the Dominion Observatory, a division of the Department of the Interior. The Observatory was in a rickety building in Ottawa, near where the Supreme Court now stands. King oversaw the construction from 1902 to 1905 of a much better observatory at the north end of the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa.

King died in 1916. King’s successor as Dominion Astronomer, Otto Julius Klotz (1916-23), opened the much more powerful Dominion Astrophysical Observatory in Victoria, BC, in 1917. Under Klotz and his successors as Dominion Astronomer, Robert Meldrum Stewart (1923-46) and Carlyle Smith Beals (1946-64), the Observatory not only became a world player in astronomy but also took over most of the government’s geophysical research, including its seismology laboratories. It was also under Dr. Stewart that the Observatory was transferred to the Department of Mines and Resources when the Department of the Interior was dissolved in 1936.

When Dr. Beals retired in 1964, his powers were divided. Administration of the Observatory’s facilities were given to J.H. Hodgson, the new Director of Dominion Observatories, while astronomical research and the title of Dominion Astronomer was given to Robert Methven Petrie. Dr. Petrie died in 1966 and the government declined to appoint a new Dominion Astronomer. Dr. Hodgson took over its duties until 1970, when the Dominion Observatory was abolished and its resources transferred to the new Astronomical Division of the National Research Council.


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