It’s been 100 years since a photo taken on a Broome beach helped prove Einstein’s Theory of Relativity

As photographer Chloe Bartram lifts her camera to snap a picture of a sandy beach south of Broome, she almost mimics an activity that was performed on the same spot a century ago.

“I follow the locations of history and see where it’s gone and what has changed in the last 100 years,” said the Perth-based PhD student.

Ms Bartram says Wallal at 80 Mile Beach is “just an amazing place”.

“The literature describes it as desolate, in the middle of nowhere, inaccessible,” she said.

“You can see why they thought that a hundred years ago, but we now know that the desert is teeming with life.”

A dark haired woman holds a dark haired baby on the beach as they both look at a camera in the woman's hand
Photographer Chloe Bartram and her young son.(Delivered: Morganna Magee)

September 21 marks a century since photographers and astronomers gathered 300 kilometers south of Broome to record a total solar eclipse in 1922.

They had arrived in a lugger boat a few weeks earlier to build a giant telescope and camera to capture the phenomenon.

The eclipse itself was not as important as the stars that would be visible in the darkness.

David Blair at the Gravity Discovery Center
David Blair built a research facility to refine technologies used to detect gravitational waves, another of Einstein’s theories.(Scope of delivery: UWA)

“super important”

The starlight would prove Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity that space is curved.

“It was super important,” said University of WA (UWA) physics professor David Blair.

“It completely changed the scientific conception of space.”

It was his predecessor Alexander Ross who urged the UWA, which in the 1920s was just “a collection of tin shacks”, to head north for the eclipse.

It was an arduous undertaking, and the huge telescopes, which “looked like giant cannons pointing up into the sky”, were constructed of wood and canvas.

The scientists were assisted by 100 Nyangumarta people and five wives of the expedition members.

A sepia-toned photo of donkeys pulling a cart with a masted ship stranded behind
A logger, probably the Gwendoline, at low tide in Wallal while a team of donkeys helps unload gear.(Supplied: WA State Library)

“None of them have been mentioned in history or in the scientific record,” said Dr. Blair.

“But every photo is of everyone in there working together to build this camp.”

A container of hand sanitizer sits on a table in front of a mirror
The toilet of the Broome Bowling Club, September 2022, previously a darkroom, becomes a piece of urban art in the doctoral thesis.(Supplied: Chloe Bartram)

From the darkroom to the bathroom

The photographic glass plates could not be developed at Wallal and were shipped to Broome where a makeshift darkroom was set up at Coastal Radio Station.

This darkroom is now the bathroom at Broome Bowling Club.

An image of Albert Einstein's face sits on a monument against a blue sky
The Albert Einstein memorial in Wallal.(Supplied: Chloe Bartram)

dr Blair said the photos proved Einstein right.

“In the center of each plate is a large black circle representing the sun,” he said.

“You can see the flames emanating from the sun – the solar corona – and in those flames you can see some stars.

“They could see about 140 stars.

“They measured the position of these stars very, very accurately.

“From then on, we knew that space could curve.”

The UWA celebrates the scientific anniversary throughout September.

The Royal Australian Mint has issued a one dollar coin commemorating the Wallal Expedition

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