Wallal, Western Australia The most ideal place on Earth to confirm Einstein’s theory.

Article | Updated 1 month ago

In 1922, the world’s eyes were firmly fixed on a small outback station in Western Australia.

Wallal Downs Station, a remote station 300 kilometres south of Broome on Eighty Mile Beach, was deemed ‘the most ideal place on Earth to view a total eclipse of the Sun and prove Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

Three men stand around a telescope in the bush, Wallal Downs Station


Image courtesy of State Library of WA

Published in 1916, this theory explains that what we perceive as the force of gravity, in fact arises from the curvature of the space-time continuum. Einstein theorised that, as objects experience gravitational attraction to each other, space-time warps around the objects, causing it to become curved. This warping of space-time can explain how objects, including planets, behave as they move through space.

To prove his theory, Einstein needed to demonstrate that space-time was flexible. This could be done by measuring the effects of gravity on the straight beams of a light source. Einstein hypothesised that light from a distant star would bend as it passed through the Sun’s gravitational field. However, to prove this, scientists needed to photograph the light beams without the light of the Sun. A total solar eclipse was the perfect solution!

When the Moon passed in front of the Sun to create a solar eclipse, astronomers would be able to photograph and measure the effect of gravity on the light beams from distant stars.

It was determined that the next solar eclipse was in 1922 and it would be visible in a number of locations in the southern hemisphere. These included Wallal in Western Australia, Cordillo Downs in northeastern South Australia, Goondiwini, Stanthorpe and Coongoola in Queensland. A location on Christmas Island was also chosen by a party from the Greenwich observatory London and Bandidu on the Maldives Island was also considered.

Map of Australia showing the path of the solar eclipse 1922

 

Wallal – the place to be!

Wallal, meaning ‘sweet water’ after a local  Aboriginal fresh water source, was a tiny settlement that included one building for four or five telegraph operators and linesmen, and shelters for more than 100 local Aboriginal people.

It was here that a group of more than thirty people from the United States, Great Britain, India, New Zealand, Canada and Australia converged upon the shores of Eighty Mile Beach.

They included astronomers, photographers, naval staff and Aboriginal stockmen, who over three days, unloaded 35 tonnes of equipment from boats anchored at the beach, transferred the equipment onto donkey trains and transported it to the chosen observation point.   

After setting up camp on the loose grey sand, which “found its way into ‘the food and everything else”, the team prepared their equipment and awaited the eclipse. 

At three minutes past four o’clock, the large gong sounded warning to the observers that only ten minutes remained before the second contact, or totality. The onward march of the moon had already eaten a larger slice out of the brilliant disc, until now, a few minutes before totality, the great orb assumed the shape of a beautiful crescent resting on its pointed horns. Then the great moment arrived. The great shadow of the Moon seemed for an instant to be suspended below the western sky to sweep instantaneously outwards, enveloping the earth in its dark wings.

At the moment of totality, there appeared to be a flash, which denoted the changing of the black absorption lines of the spectrum into their bright colours at the edge of the Sun’s disc.  Cameras were snapped on the instant. Then the most superb spectacle, the culmination of the whole celestial pageant flashed out.


Friday 22 September 1922, The Argus newspaper, Melbourne

The photographic plates taken at Wallal were the most successful of all the expeditions, with weather conditions and the view of the eclipse described as excellent.

With the combined effort of experts from around the world, and the perfect location in Western Australia, Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity was confirmed.