ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY OF SOUTHERN AFRICA
1927 - 1972
section is not relevant as the Observatory closed down in
1972. Since 1974, the building has been used as a theatre
for the City of Bloemfontein, known as the Theatre Observatory,
and is currently in the hands of the Performing Arts Council
of the Free State (PACOFS).
Bloemfontein Branch of ASSA has an historical workgroup, which
is very active. They research the histories of Boyden and
Lamont-Hussey Observatories and also try to find original
material. One of the methods is to identify possible missing
components and then during lectures the public is asked to
look out for the components. A few very interesting finds
have been made in the past. On one occasion the tube of the
27-inch telescope with its mounting were identified and moved
to a "safe haven", the Ehrlicpark (Mangaung) fire
station which has a Fire
It can now be called a fire station and astronomy museum.
In another find some telescope components were identified,
including a Warner and Swasey clock drive. Follow up research
by Dr. Patrick Seitzer (a very active collaborator of the
historical group and astronomer at the University of Michigan,
USA) showed this to be possibly the clock drive of a
6-inch Clark refractor, which is missing. [Penning; MNASSA
April 2004.] For more information see Look
All queries regarding the Lamont -Hussey Observatory
must please be sent to G. Penning firstname.lastname@example.org
and please send a carbon copy to CLdeC@absamail.co.za
housed the largest refracting telescope in the Southern Hemisphere.
and pioneering research in the cataloguing and measurement of double
stars in the Southern Hemisphere.
of the best Earth-based pictures ever taken of the planet Mars (for
the only Observatory situated in a game park.
Lamont-Hussey Observatory came into being due to a friendship.
Mr Lamont and Mr Hussey studied together and both had
their ambitions come true. Hussey became a Professor of Astronomy
and Lamont a wealthy industrialist. Lamont decided to set up
his old student friend with an Observatory of his own. The chosen
sight was at Naval Hill, Bloemfontein, with a telescope that would
be for the time the largest refracting telescope in the Southern Hemisphere.
Fate interfered, and Hussey died on his way to take up residence
at the Observatory. The Observatory was constructed in 1927
and continued operation until 1972.
The name of the Observatory refers to W.J. Hussey and a good
friend of his, R.P. Lamont. Hussey and Lamont were University
students in Engineering in Michigan, in the late 1880s. They were
ambitious: Hussey wanted to be a great and well-known astronomer,
Lamont wanted to be a rich and respected businessman. There
existed a strong friendship between them and it was maintained even
after they left university.
became a well known astronomer and did research at the Lick Observatory
in California, where he studied variable stars. His results meant
that he was awarded the Lalande Gold Medal of the Paris Academy
Mr. Lamont did become a wealthy businessman and decided in 1909
to provide funds for the construction of an observatory in
the Southern Hemisphere, so that Hussey could continue his
research in the field of double stars. By this time, Hussey was
a Professor in Astronomy at Michigan University.
In the 1910s, much research still needed to be done on the
mapping and cataloguing of double stars in the Southern Hemisphere.
Prof. W.J. Hussey from the University of Michigan, who would have
been the first director of the Observatory, was it not for his untimely
death, was well known for his work in double star research
in the Northern Hemisphere. With funds received from a very
good friend of his, Mr. R.P. Lamont, they decided to build
an observatory in the Southern Hemisphere for Hussey to continue
his research in the field of double stars.
Plans for the observatory began as early as 1910. After some delays,
Hussey heard in 1923 of a 271/4-inch lens and it was delivered
to him from Jena.
The first expedition to South Africa was slated for October 1926
and the telescope was also sent directly to South Africa. The party
consisted of Hussey and his wife, Rossiter and his wife and
their two children. They travelled via London. Just prior to their
departure, Hussey had an attack of pleurisy (inflammation of the
lungs). One night in London, during a meal with friends, he suddenly
sank in his chair and died instantly without any pain. It
meant the end of a wonderful dream for him, but Rossiter decided
he would continue with that dream and went to South Africa. He decided
on Naval Hill in Bloemfontein (a game reserve) as the location for
the construction of the building. The municipality met the project
with open arms and made generous capital service supplies.
of the Observatory commenced in 1927. In 1928 the telescope and
dome were installed and research began on 11 May of that year. The
first Director was Dr.
(also from the University of Michigan). He started an 8-year research
project in the mapping of double stars.
The mayor opened the Observatory on 28 April 1928 and research began
In the mid 1930s, there were fears that the observatory might
have to close down, after the death of Mr. Lamont and the fact that
the main research program was finished. The South African
Government and Bloemfontein Municipality saw the importance
of housing such an important centre and gave it a new lease
of life. Rossiter continued with his research in double stars
until his retirement in 1952. In this year, the University of Michigan
assumed full financial responsibility again.
The first research team consisted of Dr. Rossiter, Mr. H.F. Donner
and Mr. M.K. Jessup, all from University of Michigan. The first
double star project had a planned time span of 8 years and over
5 000 double stars were discovered by 1937. During Rossiter's
Directorship, double star research continued in earnest. Great skill
was needed when searching for uncharted double stars. The
observatory worked with the Union
Observatory during this time to catalogue these star pairs.
By 1947, a total of 7 200 double stars have been found and
25 000 measurements of double stars have been made. Rossiter remained
Director until 1952.
For a few years no official research was in done, but in 1956 noted
astronomer Earl. C. Slipher and an international team visited
the Observatory to take photos of Mars. Slipher also visited the
Observatory previously in 1939. The Observatory was in a sense reopened
in 1962 by its last Director, Professor Frank Holden. Not
much is known about the observatory during these last years,
until it closed in 1974.
1954, Mars was at a favourable opposition, and an International
Mars Committee was established at Lowell Observatory in the U.S.A.
to coordinate an intensive observing program, which was to include
photographing the planet as often as possible. As Mars was more
in the Southern Sky Lowell Observatory send an international team
of astronomers out to use the 27-inch telescope at Lamont-Hussey.
Two cameras were specially made for the survey and between May 12
and September 16 1954 between 17 000 and 20 000 exposures were made.
These were some of the best exposures ever made of Mars. [Mars fever
at Bloemfontein, MNASSA Oct 2003.]
Frank Holden was Director until 1971 when all observations ended.
In 1974 the observatory closed and in 1975, the telescope's
optics were removed and all astronomical research came to an end.
of Michigan gave the building and telescope away free of charge:
the telescope falling into the hands of the Municipality and the
building going to PACOFS. PACOFS took good care of the building
and is still maintaining it. The telescope met a more unfortunate
fate, though it is still salvageable. The telescope consisted
out of a tube (consisting of two segments), a counter weight and
a foot piece. These parts are currently residing in the Mangaung
Fireman Museum. The optics of the telescope went back to University
of Michigan where it is currently in safekeeping.
(1896 - 1977): He chose the name "Lamont-Hussey Observatory"
in honour of Prof. Hussey and the friendship between Hussey and
Lamont. He alone made 5 534 discoveries of double stars and 23
814 measurements. During his last two years of Directorship he composed
a "Catalogue of Southern Double Stars", which was published
in 1955, in memory of Prof. Hussey. He did not return to the
USA and died in Bloemfontein, after retirement in Natal. He was
director of Lamont-Hussey Observatory from 1928 to 1952 and
oversaw its construction as well.
Holden (1962 - 1973): He was the last astronomer-in-charge
and Director of the Lamont-Hussey Observatory.
Dr. H.F. Donner (1902 - 1991): He was a member of the first
observation team in 1928 and stayed in Bloemfontein for almost 6
years. He found 1 031 new double star pairs. In 1974 he visited
the observatory during its dismantlement.
M.K. Jessup ( - - -): Also part of the first three-member team
in 1928. Stayed a little shorter than Dr. Donner. Discovered 831
new double star pairs.
G. Henize: (1948 to 1951) A 101/2 inch photographic telescope
was used in a separate roll-off shelter by Karl Henize, then a graduate
student at the University of Michigan, to make a sky survey
of the Southern Milky Way region and for studies of hydrogen
clouds in the galaxy. He later became a NASA astronaut, also flying
on the Space Shuttle.
P., A Brief History of Astronomy in Southern Africa. (Unpublished)
P. & Collins, P., Astronomy in Southern Africa, pp130 - 131.
fever at Bloemfontein - 1954", MNASSA October 2003, Vol. 62
nos. 7 & 8, pp. 190 - 191.
G. Another exciting Lamont-Hussey find in Bloemfontein. MNASSA April
2004, Vol. 63 nos. 3 & 4, pp. 22 - 24.
of the American Expedition", Cape Times, 13 May 1926.
Patrick Seitzer, University of Michigan
Willie Koorts, SAAO
Bloemfontein History Group
Friend Newspaper, Bloemfontein
thanks to Gerrit Penning who drafted the page on Lamont- Hussey Observatory.