The observatory was established in 1924, and until WWII specialised in solar and atmospheric observations. During the war the workshops contributed to the war effort by producing gun sights and other optical equipment. After the war, the observatory shifted direction to stellar and galactic astronomy and was renamed The Commonwealth Observatory. A formal amalgamation with the ANU took place in 1957.
On 18 January 2003 the devastating Canberra firestorm hit Mount Stromlo (which was surrounded by a plantation pine forest) destroying five telescopes, workshops, seven homes and the heritage listed administration building. The only telescope to escape the fires was the 15-centimetre Farnham telescope. Relics from the fire are now preserved in the collection of the National Museum of Australia. They include a melted telescope mirror and a piece of melted optical glass. The latter has pieces of charcoal and wire fused into it from the fierce heat of the fire.
One of the larger telescopes remains a burnt-out ruin as of October 2013. Although repainted externally, the interior remains a blackened reminder of 2003.
The Mount Stromlo Observatory Precinct with its expansive mountain top views, remaining dome structures and remnant 1926 architecture, has high aesthetic value. My love of astronomy started here when as a small boy, my Dad took me to see the telescope …. Probably about 50 years ago. Whenever in Canberra I always try to drive up and just walk around – the Cafe has good espresso, and the panorama looking into the hazy distance never ceases to amaze me.