ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY OF SOUTHERN AFRICA
Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope
referred to as the Cape Observatory
1820 - 1968
Establishing the Observatory
Developing the Observatory
World Class Establishment
The Current Information section is not relevant, as the
institution does not exist as the Cape Observatory anymore.
An amalgamation with the Republic
Observatories occurred to form the S.A.A.O.
This institution premise now houses the headquarters for the S.A.A.O.,
and some of its instruments were moved to Sutherland.
Latitude: 33degrees 56' 03.5" South
Longitude: 1h 13m 54.6s East
first permanent Astronomical Observatory in the Southern Hemisphere.
first permanent Scientific Institution in the Southern Hemisphere.
made extremely accurate deduction of the distance to Alpha Centauri.
[Laing, p. 10.]
made nearly ten thousand measurements of star positions. These constituted
the first large body of accurate fundamental positions in the Southern
Hemisphere. [Warner-Astronomers, p.32.]
of the Observatory pioneered astrophotography. [Gill]
Transit Circle [1st of its kind and model for all circles of this
type to follow. Designed by Gill.]
is some of the reasons of existence / achievements of the Observatory:
Published as part of Sesquicentennial (150 years) celebrations,
[Laing, pp. 3 -7.]
originally by the Admiralty to extend to the Southern Hemisphere
the astronomical and navigational work of the Royal Greenwich
Chairman of Science Research Council (RSA) - Prof. Sir Brian Flowers
amassed a wealth of information about the southern stars.
It is not too much to say that we should know very little about
the southern stars if it were not for the splendid labours of
this famous Observatory".
Astronomer Royal - Sir Richard Woolley
tradition of excellence ... beyond its immediate fields of
interest ... as is shown by the part played by a number of
its directors on the building up by professional scientific activities
and in the general advancement of science in South Africa in general."
President of CSIR (RSA) - Dr. S.M. Naude
recently it alone was responsible for producing the fundamental
data on southern stars, and due to its versatility has maintained
a continuous output of precise, and therefore useful, results."
President of International Astronomical Union - Prof. O Heckmann
successive directors of the Observatory were Fellows of the Royal
Society and the Society is proud of the part they played in
the extension of astronomical frontiers."
President Royal Society - Lord Blackett
was in 1908 that Sidney Hough became the first President of
our Society and since those early days there has been close
co-operation between our two bodies to our mutual benefit."
President Royal Society (RSA) - Dr. G.G. Campbell
David Gill, was the first President of our Association in 1903"
President S.A. Association for the Advancement of Science -
Prof. I.D. MacCrone
recall, inter alia, that Dr. R.H. Stoy, C.B.E., Her Majesty's
Astronomer at the Cape from 1950 - 1968, was Honorary Professor
at this University. Under his guidance and with the facilities
made available, U.C.T. has been able to offer the only full
time university training in Astronomy in Southern Africa."
Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town - Sir
Trigonometrical Survey Office of the Republic of South Africa
can be said to have had its origin in the Royal Observatory
at the Cape and is justly proud of this association."
Director of S.A. Trigonometrical Survey Office - Mr. W.v.B. Smith
the early days it was of primary importance that the chronometers
on the ships on Table Bay be set correctly. To assist navigators
in this way was really the reason for the establishment of the Observatory.
Today we cherish the Noon Day Gun!"
His Worship the Mayor of Cape Town - Dr. Jan Dommisse
the 19th century observations at the Cape Observatory were of paramount
interest to the sea surveyor, providing as they did an accurate
longitude of the Secondary Meridian on which were based the
charts of the whole of Africa south of the equator. ... did much
to further geodetic surveying in Southern Africa and the carrying
of longitude by ship borne chronometer traverses in the Indian
Hydrographer of the Royal Navy - Rear Admiral G.S. Ritchie
every working astronomer makes continuous use of the almanacs and
the reference catalogues of positions, proper motions, radial velocities,
spectral types, magnitudes, colours and parallaxes in which
most of the Cape work is incorporated."
Prof. R.H. Stoy - formerly Her Majesty's Astronomer at the Cape
to a request made by the British Admiralty the Royal Astronomical
Society of England decided in 1820 to establish an observatory at
the Cape of Good Hope.
Directors were called His / Her Majesty's Astronomer at the
Cape of Good Hope. This was to be the first permanent Astronomical
Observatory in the Southern Hemisphere.
Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope, existed between 1820 (1st
instrument installed in 1828) and 1968. Over the timespan
of 148 years there were nine directors (six were Cambridge
men) and all of them were men of great achievements, although
not all their great achievements were at the Cape.
is an International problem, and in the 1960's three of South Africa's
Observatories were badly affected by light pollution. They were
the Cape Observatory (Cape Town), Radcliffe
(Pretoria) and Republic
(Johannesburg). By an agreement between the South African CSIR and
the British Science Research Council (23 September 1970), a new
facility was created away from light pollution at Sutherland in
the Karoo. The main instruments from the Cape and Republic Observatories
were moved to the new sight, and the Cape Observatory grounds became
the headquarters for the new South African Observatories (today
the South African Astronomical Observatory S.A.A.O.)
Radcliffe Observatory closed down, and its 74-inch telescope was
bought and moved to Sutherland.
Thus the original Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope metamorphed
into a new entity, the S.A.A.O.,
which for reasons of convenience and space will be dealt with in
this website as a separate establishment.
Due to the amount of material available, the historical aspect for the
Cape Observatory has been moved to a separate page. Click here
to go to the historical page.
of Directors at the Cape of Good Hope:
Some confusion exists about the title for the Directors. Early documents
refer to the person in charge as the Astronomer Royal at the
Cape. By 1855 the title became His / Her Majesty's Astronomer at the
Cape of Good Hope. [Laing. p. 27.] For reasons of space the title
Director will be used.
(1821 - 1831) He chose the site, organised the building of
the facilities, and set up the first instruments. He died in 1831
(age 42) and was buried on the Observatory grounds.
(March 1832 - May 1833?) Henderson did not stay long. He detested
the Observatory and referred to it as the "dismal swamp".
Henderson made a very accurate deduction of the distance to
(1834 - 1870) He put the observatory on a firm scientific footing
by making lots of observations, but he did not interpret the
data. He also re-measured De La Cailles Arc of the meridian.
(1870 - 1879) He did a lot of reductions based on Maclears
(1879 - 1907) when Gill took over the Observatory was outdated.
Gill set out to modernise the facility, and when he retired the
Cape Observatory was one of the finest and best equipped observatories
in the world. He pioneered astrophotography, and did an incredible
amount of work towards establishing photographic catalogues
of the Southern Sky.
(1907 - 1923) Hough completed a lot of Gills programmes. "His
directorship was known not as a period of change, but one
of achievement" (Collins p.79.) World War One caused a lack
of funds to maintain equipment.
(1923 - 1933) He concentrated mostly on the proper motions of stars.
The greatest problem he faced was lack of money due to the great
depression, but he still managed to raise funds, completed some
of the projects that Gill started, and he also started new
projects. Spencer Jones also recruited astronomers locally.
(1933 - 1950) His period of directorship was hampered by World War
Two, but he still managed to do valuable work, especially
concerning Stellar Parallax.
(1950 - 1968) Stoy was the last director of the Royal Cape Observatory
(also the last to be called H.M. Astronomer to the Cape of
Good Hope) He was also one of the most effective and universally
popular directors. On retirement in 1968 some of the mayor projects
were almost complete, and there were no arrears in publications,
a state of affairs almost unknown in the 148 years of existence
of the Cape Observatory.
(1969 - 1973) Mr Harding was not a director, but "officer
in charge" during the change over period from Cape Observatory
to Combined South African Observatories (Sutherland). He became
deputy of S.A.A.O. under van der Riet Woolley.
[Lieutenant] (1831 - 1835):
was the first Assistant Director at the Observatory. Initially Fallows
as director started the Observatory with no Assistant Directors.
Fallows had assistants, but they did not however had the title of
Assistant Director. Their names were James Fayrer, Patrick Scully,
William Ronald and James Robertson, see Fallows: (Establishing the
Observatory). Meadows was appointed by the admiralty as Assistant
Director, and left England after Fallows died. In England they received
word that Fallows was very sick, and only when Meadows arrived in
Cape Town did he learn of Fallows death. On paper Meadows was assistant
to Fallows, Henderson and Maclear, but in reality he was assistant
only to Henderson and Maclear.
Note: According to Warner, that upon hearing of the death of Fallows
the senior officer at Simon's Town, Commodore Schomberg, put
his Chaplain, Reverend John Fry, in charge of the Observatory. [Warner
– Astronomers, p.30]
p. 18.] (I presume a name change occurred from Assistant Director
to Chief Assistant)
(1835 - 1845) Later Royal Astronomer for Scotland.
(1847 - 1872)
(1873 - 1897)
(1898 - 1907) Became director of Royal Observatory, Cape of Good
K. E. Halm
(1907 - 1927)
(1927 - 1935)
(1935 - 1950) Became director of Cape Observatory.
(1950 - 1968) Evans was chief assistant to Stoy. He also spends
a lot of time observing at Radcliffe Observatory due to an
agreement between Cape and Radcliffe Observatories.
who was destined to become the director of the Republic Observatory,
left a profitable wine merchant career in Australia to become
a low paid secretary - cum - librarian - cum - accountant at the
Cape Observatory during the time of the directorship of Gill.
(1903 - 2001) He joined the Observatory as an amateur astronomer,
and remained there the rest of his life, even after retirement.
(1926 - 1994):
(1905 - 1988): He started working for the Observatory fresh out
of school, as an "unestablished computer", and he remained
there for 44 years until his retirement.
Determination of stellar distances (or parallaxes)
was a traditional research method at the Cape, since most pre-photographic
measurements of the southern sky were made here. In the 1830's
the photographic determination of stellar distances by the direct
trigonometrical method were made at the Cape. Since 1925 until the
transformation of the Cape Observatory, when newer photographic
methods were introduced, more than 1 800 stellar distance determinations
were made. [Laing, p.30.]
Photographic maps were produced of the southern sky.
One of the reasons for creating the observatory was to help
with navigational problems. This meant the creation of a time service
to help ships determine their longitude. The time service was set
up before the observatory was built. Fallows,
the first director of the observatory initiated the first time service
from the property that he rented at the time, namely Zorg and Lust,
in Gardens, a property now occupied by the Ladies Christian Home.
Approximately in June 1823 Fallows shone an Argand lamp in the evening
and doused it at a pre-arranged time. [Warner - Astronomers, pp.9
- 10.] (Was the time service discontinued when Fallows moved
from Zorg and Lust to the Observatory grounds?)
Early in 1833 Henderson
started a new time service. He climbed onto the roof of the observatory
and at an advertised time fired a pistol. (black charge only, no
bullet in the barrel) The flash was bright enough for sailors to
observe with a telescope from the harbour. [Warner - Astronomers,
became director he improved on Henderson's pistol by firing a cannon
from Signal Hill (a hill overlooking Table Bay) at the advertised
time of 9 p.m. (21h00). Another addition was made when in September
1836 a time ball was taken into use. The principle of the time ball
is that a very large, visible (brightly painted) round object was
hoisted up a pole. At an advertised time the ball was dropped and
this was the signal for navigators and other interested persons
to set their chronometers (watches) to the correct time. This came
about because a new Admiral, Patrick Campbell, was appointed to
the Cape. His brother-in-law was Captain Robert Wauchope, the inventor
of the time ball. English Astronomer James Pond took up Wauchope's
idea and the first time ball in the world was erected at the Royal
Greenwich Observatory in 1833. Campbell persuaded Maclear to follow
suit but due to the reluctance of the Admiralty to spend money the
time ball was erected at the Cape only in 1836. [Warner - Astronomers,
By 1853 Cape Town has expanded so much that the ships in
the harbour could not see the time ball on the Observatory grounds
anymore. Two new time balls were added to the time service, one
at Signal Hill and the other at Simon's Town. By 1861 telegraph
lines were installed in the Cape Colony and the drop of the balls
were now done electrically from the Observatory. Batteries had to
be installed and were housed next to the Mertz building. In 1865
another time ball was added to the system, in Port Elizabeth, 500
miles (+/- 750 km) distant, in "a feat without parallel in the electric
work." [Warner - Astronomers, pp.63 - 65.]
1841 the Magnetic Observatory (and Meteorological Observatory: See
below.) was established on the grounds of the Cape Observatory.
The Royal Artillery ran it. Thus administratively it was totally
separate to the Astronomical Observatory but they shared the same
locality. Their commanding officer was Lieutenant Frederick Eardley-Wilmot.
They build cottages for accommodation, huts to house the instruments,
and a "Wind Tower" for the Meteorological section. In 1846 the Observatories
were transferred to the Admiralty and Maclear
had to continue their work. Maclear nevertheless bemoaned the time
the new responsibilities took away from his other duties. Less attention
was paid to the magnetic work after 1857 as Maclear steered the
resources more in the direction of Astronomical work. After Maclear's
retirement in 1869 no further magnetic work was carried out, but
meteorological observations continued. [Warner - Astronomers, pp.59
In approximately 1874 new magnetic equipment was send out
from England. Stone was then director of the Observatory and he
took the equipment along on an expedition to view the total solar
eclipse of 16 April 1874. He made the first magnetic observations
of Namaqualand. [Warner - Astronomers, p.76.]
H.M.S. Challenger was on the first major oceanographic expedition
around the world and the second in command of the vessel was Jack
Maclear, son of Thomas Maclear. In 1874 the vessel arrived at the
Cape and Jack was granted permission to use the magnetic observatory
to make measurements. [Warner - Astronomers, pp.76 - 77.]
initially part of the Magnetic Observatory. See above. A "Wind Tower"
was built to house an anemometer. In time these observatories were
incorporated into the astronomical observatory, the magnetic observatory
was neglected and by 1869 ceased to exist, but meteorological work
continued. [Warner - Astronomers, pp.59 - 60.]
/ Lithograph / Engravings:
acquisition. no. 1101
London News 21/3/1857 (Museum Africa MA 834)
London News 17/6/1865 (Museum Africa MA 835)
London News 27/8/1892 (Museum Africa MA N/A) (11 illustrations
of staff / instruments / buildings)
T.W. (Museum Africa MA 3101) -Lester O. (Museum Africa MA 50/1401)
P. & Moore, P.; Astronomy in Southern Africa, p.77. Sketches
at the Cape Observatory, from The Graphic Aug 27 1892 (Africana
T.W. (Museum Africa MA 832)
T.W. (Museum Africa MA 49/1343)
T.W. (Museum Africa MA 53/75)
Haverfield (Museum Africa MA 60/1425 [pencil sketch on reverse side])
Camp E.W. (Museum Africa MA 62/1181)
(Museum Africa MA 58/730)
(Museum Africa MA 69/2494)
(Museum Africa MA 72/3)
P. & Moore, P.; Astronomy in Southern Africa, p.68. Observatory
1865 (Africana Museum)
T.W. (Museum Africa MA 66/2221)
Africa computer keyword search of Cape Archive / Library of Parliament
/ S.A. Library. 4 photo's, one of which is staff photo with D.Gill,
J. Hunt and S.S. Hough.
Moore, P. & Collins, P., Astronomy in Southern Africa,
p.46. "Henderson's Dismal Swamp 1911" (Africana
Laing, J.D. (ed.), The Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good
Hope 1820 - 1970 Sesquicentennial Offerings. pp.3 - 44.
P. & Collins, P., Astronomy in Southern Africa, pp. 43 - 91.
P., A Brief History of Astronomy in Southern Africa. (Unpublished)
Anniversary of Electricity at R O Cape, MNASSA, Vol. 47, Nos. 11
& 12, 1988, December.
Vol. 48, Nos. 5 & 6, 1989, June, p. 59.
B., Astronomers at the Royal Observatory Cape of Good Hope.
AFRICAN ARCHIVES, ROELAND STREET, CAPE TOWN [JHA8, p. 220]
This is the principal depository for all the early Government records
and thus contains official correspondence concerning the visits of
Kolbe and Lacaille. The records of the Colonial Office and of Government
House also contain correspondence connected with the establishment
of the Royal Observatory.
THE SOUTH AFRICAN ASTRONOMICAL OBSERVATORY (S.A.A.O.) (FORMERLY
THE ROYAL OBSERVATORY, CAPE TOWN) [JHA8, pp. 221 - 222.]
Almost all documents relating to the business of the Royal Observatory
prior to Gill's arrival in 1879 have been sent to the Archives at
the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Exceptions are...
-The complete correspondence, finances, etc., of the Observatory during
the period 1879-1929 are bound in 56 volumes in chronological
order and separated into subjects. Extensive collections of documents
from 1929 to date are extant but are not conveniently ordered or
-All of the original observing books back to 1834 are stored.
CAPE OF GOOD HOPE ROYAL OBSERVATORY PAPERS IN THE ARCHIVES OF THE
ROYAL GREENWICH OBSERVATORY [JHA 9 pp.74 - 75]
Material relevant to the Cape Observatory is shelved separately
in the Archives of the Royal Greenwich Observatory and contains some
112 bound volumes and 32 boxes. These papers derive from three
(a) material sent home contemporaneously from the Cape,
(b) correspondence and papers of the Astronomers Royal (Airy and Christie),
(c) material transferred from the Cape c. 1960.
(a) and (b) are in general bound volumes taken from the Collection
at the RGO and have classification numbers (c4, vols. 1-33) assigned
by Airy, or boxes NI-N5 of the Christie papers. The bulk of the
material is, however, uncatalogued and unclassified.
-Miscellaneous notes, including printed diary (astronomical notes)
notes for a history of the Cape Observatory (principally of Henderson's
own work) and an inventory.
-Official correspondence: Simon's Town (1850-69), Admiralty (1853-70),
Colonial Government (1861-72), General (1844-69), II vols. Weekly
registers (reports of work done), 1849-60.
-Christie papers (1879-1909): correspondence with Cape Observatory
(6 boxes) on Appointments, Instruments, Surveys and Publications.