Environmental Exchanges: Katrin Kleemann

An image of waves breaking at sea

Ocean History between Germany and Australia: Georg Neumayer, the Flagstaff Observatory in Melbourne and the German Maritime Observatory in Hamburg

Dr Katrin Kleemann, German Maritime Museum - Leibniz Institute for Maritime History

This presentation by Dr Katrin Kleemann is part of Environmental Exchanges, a seminar series organised by the Centre for Environmental History to showcase innovative new research that engages with key themes in environmental history. Throughout 2022, the Centre will be hosting seminars that engage with this year's theme of Oceans in original and compelling ways. Please note that this seminar will be held online only via Zoom. To receive a link for the Zoom meeting please register here.



The Flagstaff Observatory for Geophysics, Magnetism and Nautical Science existed on Flagstaff Hill, in what is today Flagstaff Gardens, in Melbourne from 1857 to 1863. In 1862, it was moved to the Kings Domain and became part of the newly established Melbourne Observatory. The German Maritime Observatory existed from 1875 to 1945. Its purpose was to study maritime meteorology and oceanography in order to make international sea travel quicker and safer. So what do these two observatories have in common? The answer is that both were founded by the same man, the German geophysicist and polar researcher Georg (von) Neumayer.

After his university studies in Munich in geophysics and hydrography, Neumayer sought to gain practical experience as a seafarer, which brought him to Australia in the early 1850s. Upon his arrival, he was stranded in Victoria as most of the crew deserted upon learning of the recent discovery of gold. Thereafter, Neumayer studied magnetism, meteorology, and nautical science in Victoria. On a trip back to Europe, he raised the seed capital for the Flagstaff Observatory, which became operational in 1858. With help from a small team of assistants, he regularly recorded the data gleaned from his instruments and copied and analyzed incoming ships' log books to recommend better routes between Australia and Europe.

In 1864, Neumayer returned to Europe with the idea of establishing a similar institution at home. The political landscape, however, proved too great a hurdle for this idea as Prussia was at war with Denmark, Austria, and France. This changed when the German Empire was founded in 1871. In 1875, the state-funded German Maritime Observatory became operational. It existed until 1945, when it was destroyed in an air raid. The observatory operated weather stations at home and abroad, mainly in the German colonies, including the South Pacific, and supplemented its findings with observations from navy and marine merchant ships.

This paper will compare these two observatories and analyze what knowledge existed about the ocean, navigation, and maritime meteorology.


About the Speaker:

Dr Katrin Kleemann is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the German Maritime Museum - Leibniz Institute for Maritime History, Bremerhaven, Germany. She is an historian working on environmental history, maritime history, the history of science, and geology, mostly concentrating on the early modern and modern periods. Her first book, A Mist Connection. An Environmental History of the Laki Eruption of 1783 and Its Legacy, will appear with De Gruyter's Historical Catastrophe Studies series in November 2022.



Image by Ant Rozetsky via Unsplash

Date & time

Thu 06 Oct 2022, 6–7.30pm


Online via Zoom


Dr Katrin Kleemann


Centre for Environmental History


Dr Rohan Howitt


Updated:  7 October 2022/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications