Remembering our Explorers - Edward Kidson (1882 - 1939) Geophysicist and scientific explorer

Thursday, Oct 24, 2013 at 21:50


“Yeah mate, we’re just heading up to the Alice and then out the Gary Junction to the Canning. I reckon we’ll take the Kidson from there up to Broome”!

How many times in the lead up to the outback travel season do we get asked about conditions on this track or that, where can we pull water from, how much fuel will I need? We often travel outback roads and highways unaware of the rich history of the area or of the feats of the rare individuals after which some of our iconic roads and tracks are named. In many cases their feats of exploration, endeavour and endurance have faded with time. I for one reckon it’s important we remember their achievements.

2014 marks the centenary of an expedition through the Great Sandy Desert by a New Zealand Geophysicist Dr. Edward Kidson. Yes, that’s the same Kidson after whom the WAPET road was renamed to support the memory of his achievements in science and exploration. In May, 1914 Kidson set out with a group of camels and men from Wiluna on a scientific expedition. Over a period of three months he would measure the magnetic inclination across a vast swathe of the West Australian desert along the newly forged Canning Stock Route. Despite being completed by Alfred Canning in 1906, it was not until 1911 that Drover Tom Cole led the first cattle, a small mob of several hundred head, down the Canning. This was the only time the route had been used prior to Kidson’s expedition three years later. In fact only a handful of cattle drives had utilised the route by the time William Snell was tasked with refurbishing the route in 1929. This puts Kidson’s feat into perspective.

Dr. Edward Kidson belonged to a well-known Nelson and Christchurch family, but was born at Bilston, Staffordshire, on March 12, 1882. He received his school and university education in New Zealand, graduating at the University of New Zealand with first-class honours in physics in 1904. His first post was that of assistant observer at the Magnetic Observatory, Christchurch, which led to his joining the staff of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in 1908. Before the Great War he was engaged on magnetic surveys in South America, Newfoundland and Australia, and he spent six months as magnetic observer on the magnetic survey ship Carnegie belonging to the Carnegie Institution.

The following article “A geophysicist and some Camels” was written in 2005 by Doug Morrison. Mr Morrison's complete article is linked at the bottom of the blog page.

Kidson and his Camels

The camels names were Ben, Syd, Skipper, Lion, Scorcher, Niziam, Chunks, Chunky, Longlegs, Kangaroo, Lindsay and Goolam; and the geophysicist's name was Edward Kidson, The chief observer in Australia for the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (CIW/DTM). The date was 16th August 1914. The place was Flora Valley Station, near Halls Creek in the East Kimberley region of Western Australia, and when the weary Kidson and compatriots (Messrs Clarke, Cronin, Ryan and their exceptional aboriginal tracker "Nipper") halted they had just completed a journey by camel of almost two thousand kilometres that had started in Kalgoorlie some three months earlier (12th May 1914). They had traversed the Great Sandy Desert from Wiluna, along the remote, rarely travelled and potentially dangerous, Canning Stock Route. Little did the camels know they were about to turn around and make the return trip.

By early april, 1914, Edward Kidson had organised twelve Camels – three of which were riding camels from the water Supply Department of Western Australia and had hired camel drivers Messrs Clarke and Cronin who were already fitting out the team in Kalgoorlie. Later in the month, Kidson reoccupied the known Perth magnetic observatory to calibrate his newly arrived “Magnetometer – Earth Inductor No.24. This new invention was primarily designed for the measurement of Magnetic inclination (dip) and was a great boon to field operations as the measurements could be made quickly. The alternative method using dip circles took hours to set up, stabilize and read.

Kidson, with all of his equipment departed Perth by train on the 8th May 1914 and the following day, during a short stop over reoccupied a previously established mag station at Coolgardie. On the 20th May, along with Clarke and Cronin, twelve camels, a cook named Mr. Ryan, the experienced aboriginal tracker Nipper and a dog or two, Kidson departed Leonora ¬ firstly to Wiluna - observing inclination, declination and horizontal intensity along the way at Lawlers, Lake Miranda, Logan Well and Abercromby Well. Kidson, from the start, set procedures which were to be maintained throughout the expedition - his observations, for instance, were made at alternate camps and Sundays were always a day of rest for both men and camels.

The Canning Stock Route - some concerns

Kidson's narrative reports, observation tables, cashiers i.e., field notebooks and thirty or so photographs taken during his expedition have survived in the archives of the CIW/DTM-Geophysical Laboratory Library in Washington DC. A biography written and published in 1941 by Kidson's widow also includes snippets from a private diary he kept during his travels; so we are quite lucky that his field operations can be described in some
detail and in some cases viewed as well. Some of Kidson's private diary entries show he was anxious for the safety of the expedition, for instance, he mentioned he had received “urgent advice" at Wiluna to be careful of the desert aborigines “ as they were both treacherous and unreliable”. This somewhat uncomfortable observation (to us) probably originated from the police at Wiluna, although Kidson does not expand.

The Wiluna police had travelled up the stock route a few years earlier investigating the murders of two drovers, Shoesmith and Thomson, near Well No. 37 ¬ and the track had not been travelled since. Kidson certainly took the advice very seriously, for a number of times he noted in his diary that they were being followed by small groups of aborigines and that he had warned them off.

Scenery and Well No.37

Kidson was very impressed with the abilities of aboriginal tracker Nipper. Nipper had made three journeys along the route with Alfred Canning during the well construction and despite the track not being used for over three years he was able to follow the camel pads made by Canning's construction expeditions with ease.

The scenery at a number of the watering places also impressed Kidson ¬ he was particularly attracted to Killagurra Springs (No. 17 Water), as are most visitors, apparently. Kidson recorded the waterholes there were teeming with life including fish and large freshwater crayfish. It was at this camp that Kidson walked across the hills to the nearby Durba Spring and according to his diary he travelled alone "with gun and barometer"!

As the expedition approached Well No. 37 Kidson took extra precautions for, in his correspondence, he says that at Wanda (Well No. 36) he fortified his camp, he made an enclosure of the boxes, saddles and water tanks and they all slept inside the enclosure with a tarpaulin spread over. The camels were tied near to the camp rather than being hobbled. Kidson may have had some grounds to be careful as he says the dog Nellie growled throughout the night ¬ we will never know the reason.Well No. 37 has gained a notorious history. In 1922 there was another murder there when the prospector Jock McLernon was clubbed to death.

Hall's Creek to Wyndham

On reaching Flora Valley Station, Kidson "received hearty greetings" from the owners, the Gordon brothers and the explorer/cattleman Gordon Buchanan. Kidson then travelled to the (old) Halls Creek telegraph station to send his telegrams, collect his mail and purchase a horse and dray.
Following a week or so of rest for his men and, especially, the camels, the crew said their goodbyes to Kidson and commenced their long haul back to Leonora ¬ arriving there on the 23rd November.

On the 29th August, Gordon Buchanan, with business to be done in Wyndham, joined Kidson in the horse and buggy from Halls Creek (with Buchanan doing the driving apparently). Kidson was to observe eight stations on this journey to Wyndham, arriving there on the 20th September and then embarking (conveniently) the following day on the "Kwinana" for Perth. From the time of his departure from Leonora in late May, Kidson had observed and accurately positioned magnetic inclination, declination and horizontal intensity measurements at 48 sites.

The memory of Kidson as both an explorer and pioneer geophysicist has faded, but his reports, field notes and photographs from this and other expeditions have survived in the CIW/DTM-GL Library in Washington. It is also good to know that he is remembered by some topographical features near the Canning Stock Route Well Nos. 33 and 35; firstly by Kidson Bluff and then by Kidson Track, the old WAPET access road to the capped and
aptly named KIDSON oil well.

Sir Douglas Mawson named a site in Antarctica after Kidson, but that, and Kidson’s significant influence in meteorology is another story.

This was by no means the only expedition of scientific exploration led by Kidson and Mr Morrison has written further of his exploits. This information can be seen on the WWW here;Full article on Dr. Edward Kidson - By Mr. Doug Morrison

Magnetic Inclination What it is;

Earth has a magnetic field which is as if a large bar magnet is placed inside the earth with its north and south poles near the geographic South and North poles (respectively) of the earth.

The lines of force due to this magnet ( a tangent drawn to a line of force ) gives the direction of the total intensity of the magnetic field at the point. At the equator it is almost parallel to the earth surface and at the poles its almost normal to the earth surface. So the direction of the total intensity varies from place to place and is generally inclined to the horizontal.

At given place this total intensity is resolved into two components one parallel to the earth surface and another perpendicular to it or horizontal and vertical components.

The angle made by the earths total intensity with the horizontal (component) at the place is called the magnetic dip at the place.

Dip at a place can be found using a small instrument called "Dip circle"
''We knew from the experience of well-known travelers that the
trip would doubtless be attended with much hardship.''
Richard Maurice - 1903
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