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Biggs, Alfred Barrett (1825–1900)

by Martin George

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Alfred Barrett Biggs (1825-1900), teacher, bank officer, astronomer and inventor, was born on 10 April 1825 in London, eldest son of Abraham Biggs, carpenter, and his wife Eliza, née Coleman. In 1833 the family moved to Van Diemen's Land. Abraham's involvement in Methodism and eventually in the teaching profession was to have a strong influence on Alfred, who took up a tutoring position at Bothwell in 1845. Three years later he became a bank clerk in Hobart Town, but left for Melbourne in 1852, continuing in banking then returning to teaching. On 22 February 1855 at Melville Street Wesleyan Chapel, Hobart, Biggs married Harriet Burville. In 1858 he became headmaster of the Hoddle Street School, Melbourne. The family returned in 1864 to Tasmania, where Biggs again took a teaching post at Bothwell. In 1872 they moved to Campbell Town. There he taught in the public school and befriended Dr William Valentine. Both men were fascinated by astronomy and in 1874 a rare astronomical event occurred: the transit of Venus. Valentine had invited an American expedition to view the transit from his home. Biggs assisted with the observations and the Americans gave him a building they had used in making their observations.

In 1877 Biggs learned of the invention of the telephone. He then constructed a pair of telephones and had them connected between Launceston and Campbell Town, successfully transmitting sounds between the two locations. It has been claimed that this was the first telephone connection in Australia. About 1879 he moved to Launceston and took a position as accountant and ledger-keeper with the Launceston Bank for Savings. His continuing interest in astronomy led to the construction of an observatory in the western part of the city. Despite the small size of his telescopes—his instruments were then a 2-inch (51-mm) and a 3-inch (76-mm) refractor—Biggs was a diligent and pedantic observer, becoming known as Launceston's 'Astronomer Royal'. He contributed reports to the local newspaper and from 1884 papers to the Royal Society of Tasmania, of which he was that year elected a fellow. He made observations and measurements of comets, double stars, eclipses and transits of Mercury and Venus (another transit of Venus occurred in 1882). In 1885 he came into possession of an 8½ inch (216-mm) diameter reflecting telescope, originally owned by Valentine.

Biggs had a reputation as an inventor and instrument maker. He constructed a microscope—grinding the lenses himself—and both a vertical and a horizontal seismometer; his interest in seismology was likely to have been aroused by Launceston's small earth tremors about 1880. Other devices he made included an observatory clock driven by a float and micrometers to measure angular separations, such as the apparent distance between double stars, through the telescope. For the detection of counterfeit coins he invented a coin tester.

His devotion to religious activities was lifelong. At St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Launceston, Biggs played the organ and conducted the choir; he composed at least three hymns. He saw no conflict between religion and science. When he was a teacher, he had some difficult times with the Board of Education. However, his thin, bearded face was suggestive of a man with a sense of humour. A frequent writer of letters to the press, he was a committee member and sometime president and treasurer of the Launceston Mechanics' Institute. Predeceased by his wife, Biggs died on 19 December 1900 at his residence above the bank and was buried in the general cemetery. Six of his eight children survived him. A 1935 memorial to Biggs stands in Royal Park, Launceston, near the former site of his observatory.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Giordano, Watcher of the Skies (Launc, Tas, 1995)
  • Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Tasmania, 1933
  • Records of the Queen Victoria Museum Launceston, no 89, 1985
  • Examiner (Launceston), 29 Sept 1886, p 2, 20 Dec 1900, p 7
  • Biggs family papers (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • private information.

Citation details

Martin George, 'Biggs, Alfred Barrett (1825–1900)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 26 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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