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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Neumayer, Georg Balthasar von (1826–1909)

by R. A. Swan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Georg Balthasar von Neumayer (1826-1909), by Frederick Frith

Georg Balthasar von Neumayer (1826-1909), by Frederick Frith

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H3850

Georg Balthasar von Neumayer (1826-1909), scientist, magnetician, hydrographer, oceanographer and meteorologist, was born on 21 June 1826 in Kircheimbolanden, Bavarian Palatinate. Devoted to science, he studied at Munich University (Ph.D., 1849) and specialized thereafter as a magnetician, hydrographer, oceanographer and meteorologist, and became a disciple of the great American oceanographer, M. F. Maury.

The 1830s and 1840s had seen a great upsurge of activity in the investigation of the problems of terrestrial magnetism, and through this Neumayer became aware of the importance of polar exploration and was specially impressed by the work of Captain James Clark Ross. Realizing the need for field experience, he sailed before the mast to South America and acquired a mate's certificate. He then returned to Europe, obtained a chair in physics at Hamburg and later helped to carry out a magnetic survey of Bavaria under the direction of King Maximilian II.

Neumayer next decided to investigate the possibilities for field work and research in the southern hemisphere. Sailing before the mast again, he went to Sydney in 1852. For two years he worked as a miner at Bendigo, as a sailor on coastal ships and carrying out research at the Hobart Magnetic Observatory set up in 1840 by Captain Ross and J. H. Kay. Neumayer's observations and experiences convinced him that Australia provided valuable opportunities for scientific research, and in 1854 he returned to Germany determined to enlist support for organized work in his chosen subjects.

Backed by the scientist and geographer, Baron Friedrich Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt, Neumayer enlisted the interest and support of King Maximilian in his plan to set up a physical observatory in Melbourne to study terrestrial magnetic and related phenomena. Other support came from experts in the British Association and the Royal Society, and with £2000 worth of instruments and equipment from Maximilian, he sailed for Melbourne, arriving on 27 January 1857.

After gaining the interest and support of the press, the commercial community and local scientists, the government was approached on 15 June with a definite plan to set up the observatory on a site in the Botanic Gardens. The setting up of an astronomical observatory was then causing much agitation and a committee of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria, in a memorial to the government on 24 November, recommended that the two projects be set up together on a site at Royal Park. But Neumayer showed that this site was unsatisfactory for his purposes and, being denied the site in the Botanic Gardens, settled for one on Flagstaff Hill, using the existing Signal Station buildings. The government agreed on condition that he also carried out meteorological work. Unfortunately, it would not grant him all the needed funds but the German community helped him with a donation of £500.

By May 1858 both magnetic and meteorological observations were under way, and in time he was able to employ assistants and to set up a uniform system for meteorological work in the colony. In 1859 he received an increased government grant and took over control of all government meteorological stations. He also collected ships' logs, and provided advice to shipmasters on navigational problems. His most spectacular achievement, however, was the completion of a thorough magnetic survey of Victoria, carried out almost single-handed in 1858-64, travelling some 11,000 miles (17,702 km) on foot or by pack-horse, and setting up 230 magnetic stations from sea-level to an altitude of 7200 feet (2195 m). His report on this survey, published in 1869, gives an enlightening account of his travels and observations, including information on the development of the colony and on the pioneering personalities he met. As the Flagstaff Hill location became untenable due to near-by building developments, he was allowed in 1862 by the government to shift to the Botanic Gardens site, though only in conjunction with the establishment of the astronomical observatory then operating at Williamstown. By September the transfer was completed and he remained there until he returned to Germany in 1864 when his work was taken over by the government astronomer.

Neumayer's work in Victoria was facilitated by the growth of interest in scientific investigations that accompanied the rapid development of the colony during and after the gold discoveries of the mid-century. Curiously enough, he encountered a certain amount of prejudiced opposition, even in the colonial legislature. As a dedicated scientist, he was not discouraged by such pettiness, and entered whole-heartedly into the scientific life of the colony, to such effect that he was elected a councillor of the Royal Society of Victoria in 1859, a vice-president in 1860 and a life member in 1864. One important result of his work was the preparation of a register of icebergs reported in high latitudes along the great circle sailing routes between Europe and Australia, together with a route and average track chart for the guidance of mariners. He was also greatly interested in the exploration of the interior of Australia, particularly in the work and fate of Ludwig Leichhardt, and in 1868 tried without success to organize a proper scientific expedition into the interior.

On returning to Germany Neumayer had such repute that in 1872 he was appointed hydrographer to the German Admiralty and from 1876 to 1903 was director of the Hamburg Oceanic Observatory. He never lost interest in the scientific exploration of the Antarctic region, reading papers on the subject to international geographical congresses and trying to organize expeditions. His efforts bore fruit when, as a result of growing international interest in the region, a German expedition worked there from 1901 to 1903.

Neumayer died at Neustadt on 24 May 1909 knowing that he had helped to stimulate the great revival of scientific interest in Antarctic exploration ushered in by the twentieth century. He was a fine example of the dedicated and many-sided scientist peculiar to the nineteenth century, and Victoria was fortunate to have had the benefit of his enthusiasm and talents when the first organized moves were being made to shape the community's cultural life.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 1 (Melb, 1888)
  • R. A. Swan, Australia in the Antarctic (Melb, 1961)
  • M. E. Hoare, ‘Learned societies in Australia: the foundation years in Victoria, 1850-1860’, Australian Academy of Science, Records, 1 (1967), no 2.

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Citation details

R. A. Swan, 'Neumayer, Georg Balthasar von (1826–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 11 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

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