Political barometer unsteady! Temperature’s rising in parliament…
‘Barometer Read ‘Fair’ As Roof Leaked CANBERRA’
Perhaps it was a quiet news day when a leak in the roof of Parliament House made the news in the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate in 1947.
At the height of a storm over Canberra to-day attendants had to place tubs and buckets in King's Hall, Parliament House, to catch the water that seeped through the roof. Above one tub the Parliament House barometer read: ‘Fair to change.’
(Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate, 16 December 1947, p.1).
The barometer that made the news in 1947 on a stormy day over 65 years ago is still installed in the heart of Old Parliament House today. The barometer is part of a sophisticated weather station mounted attractively on a wooden console. Designed to measure temperature and atmospheric pressure, the console consists of a thermometer, barometer and barograph.
In a time before mobile devices and instantly accessible weather forecasts the parliamentarians, staff and visitors of Old Parliament House had this device to refer to as their weather station. Although we don’t know exactly when the weather station was acquired, a trawl through the National Archives of Australia reveals that a thermometer was requested for the Senate when Parliament moved from Melbourne to Canberra in 1927. Photographs from 1929 show the weather station installed in the corner of King’s Hall. From these records we can surmise that the weather station was installed during the first couple of years Parliament was in Canberra.
The weather station is a fantastically sophisticated device designed to perform functional tasks: to measure minimum and maximum temperature, show changes in air pressure, and to plot these on a spool of paper wound around the barrel post on the micro barograph.
Despite the functional purpose of the weather station, its placement in the heart of Parliament House has sparked some philosophical thought. By the late 1940s the instrument had made an impression on Warren Denning, a member of the Press Gallery, who wrote about the symbolic status of the barometer:
‘It is a symbol of the importance of rain in the Australian outlook. The rural members who wistfully stand before it from time to time unconsciously reveal how much the vitality of Australia depends on her rainfall’
(Inside Parliament, 1946, p. 81-82).
The connection between environmental conditions and life on the land is just as pertinent today as when Denning wrote. Concerns about weather are still relevant - think of recent parliamentary debates on carbon emissions and renewable energy resources - the weather station at the centre of Old Parliament House is both a practical and poetic reminder of this.
Take a closer look: the conservation process
The weather station is now part of the Museum’s Heritage Collection, and has recently been conserved. Expert horological and technological objects conservator Peter Bucke was recently engaged to clean and assess the condition of the instruments. Peter disassembled each component of the console, carefully took apart each instrument and meticulously cleaned the tiny wheels and gears. He removed the old adhesives, polish residues, lubricants, rust, dust and paint spots. Peter then applied a protective wax coating to surfaces, lubricated mechanisms and gears with non-corrosive fine synthetic watch oils, and reassembled each instrument.
Close examination of the weather station led to some interesting discoveries – such as a repair job on a break in the backing glass of the thermometer. The break had been joined using adhesive, and the indicator infill had been cleverly re-drawn by hand (see photograph). As part of the conservation treatment, Peter separated the glass sections at the point of the break, removed old adhesives, and then re-aligned and re-adhered the two backing pieces. The original hand written repair job on the indicator strip was left intact, preserving this part of the object’s story.
One question we had at the start of this conservation project was: do the instruments still work? And the much anticipated answer was: yes! While the components of the weather station are still functional, a qualified technician is required to wind the clock movement on the micro barograph and to calibrate the aneroid barometer. As part of his conservation treatment, Peter recommended that the weather station only be only be wound if a demonstration of operational components is requested for research or exhibition purposes. This conservation approach prevents unnecessary wear to the components, but ensures that the weather station is still functional if operation is required.
Still talking about the weather… using new technology
Today, the weather station in King’s Hall is not the only weather recording techno-gadget on site. As a living heritage building, we are uniquely placed to care for the heritage values of the site; and to also cater for our visitors, staff and tenants who use the building each day. A climate control system is essential to manage heating and cooling in the building to ensure our visitors are comfortable and the collection is protected. To assist with this, a very different weather station is installed on the roof of Old Parliament House.
Our contemporary weather station collects data about humidity, air pressure, rainfall and rain intensity, wind speed and direction, and temperature. This data is sent to the Building Management System so that our Facilities team can access weather information via their computers from the comfort of their desks. No more manual setting of the thermometer or winding the clock movement on the micro barograph in Old Parliament House!
Next time you check an instant weather report on your mobile device, spare a thought for the elegant original weather station at Old Parliament House. Although weather recording technology has advanced, the original instrument provides a rich connection to the past through its association with the process of government, and the administrative functions conducted within Old Parliament House between 1927 and 1988. If you can, visit us and take a look for yourself!