Interesting Aspects about Astronomers

Interesting aspects concerning Southern African Astronomers

Return to Astronomers Main Page

This page is about outstanding astronomical achievements and discoveries made by Southern African Astronomers. Also listed are distinguished recognition received for Astronomical work, whether it is the election to a society / medals received, etc.
Furthermore Southern African Astronomers are also interesting people and do interesting things outside the subject of Astronomy. They not only talk about stars are / were dynamic persons who also partake in a variety of other activities:

Note: No sources are given on this page. References can be found on the page concerning the astronomer.

Academically / Astronomer Royal / Art / Committees & Societies / Discoveries and Achievements / Honorary Awards / Photography / Professions & Skills / Religion / Sport / Other aspects /


  • Childe was appointed in 1845 as second assistant at the Cape Observatory. He resigned in 1852 to become Professor of Mathematics at the South African College. (Later renamed the University of Cape Town.)
  • Due to the addition of the Magnetic Observatory to the Cape Observatory Smalley was appointed as third assistant, but he resigned in October 1851 to become Professor of Mathematics at the South African College (S.A. College later became the University of Cape Town.)
  • Evans left the Cape Observatory in 1968 to become Professor of Astronomy at the University of Texas.
  • Fallows was lecturer in Mathematics at the Corpus Christi College 1816 – 1818.
  • Henderson was appointed Professor in Astronomy at Edinburgh University.
  • Stoy was Professor of Astronomy at the University of Cape Town 1958 – ? . When he returned to Scotland he became Honorary Professor of Astronomy at Edinburgh University.Wranglers at University:
    ‘Wrangler is the name given in the University of Cambridge to those who have attained the first class in the public mathematical honours examination.  The word itself is derived from the public disputations in which candidates for degrees were, in former times, required to exhibit their powers.’
    Fallows – Third Wrangler at Cambridge in 1813.
    Finlay – 33rd Wrangler.
    Herschel – Senior (1st) Wrangler at Cambridge.
    Stone – Fifth Wrangler at Cambridge in 1859Mathematics Tripos:
    Evans received First Class at Mathematics Tripos (Cambridge University) in 1936, and a Distinction in 1937

Astronomer Royal:

South African Astronomers who became Astronomer Royal:

Spencer-Jones from 1933 to 1954
Wooley van der Riet  from 1956 to 1971.

Henderson  – First Astronomer Royal for Scotland from 1834 to 1844
Smythe from 1845 to ?


A few astronomers turned out to be great artist:

Thomas Bowler
Bowler came out to South Africa (1834) from the United Kingdom as footman to Thomas Maclear. He was taught to be handy around the Cape Observatory, and Maclear went on to employ Bowler as an assistant. After working for the Observatory for a year he was dismissed by Maclear for insolence. Bowler then found employment “in a gentleman’s family to teach the children drawing and the use of globes …”
Bowler went on to become one of the most important artists in the Cape Colony. He made twenty or more paintings of the Cape Observatory, and much of what we know of how the terrain looked at the time was due to him.

Charles Piazzi Smyth
Smyth was Assistant director to Maclear, and was later to become Astronomer Royal for Scotland. He was also an excellent artist and much of our visual knowledge of the Arc of the Meridian project comes from his paintings and caricature sketches.

William Mann
Mann was Second Assistant to Maclear. He was colour blind but was none the less a great artist. Mann and Smith both worked together at the Cape Observatory and were friends.

Committees and Societies:

Astronomical Society of Southern Africa.
Details not given on this page. To view list of:
Click here
Honorary Members:
Click here
Gill Medallist:
Click here

British Astronomical Association:
Spencer-Jones; President
Wooley van der Riet

Cape of Good Hope Horticultural Society:
Fallows; Vice President in 1827 – 29.

Commission of Standards for Weights and Measurements:

Committee of the Association for Exploring Central Africa:

Greek Academy:

Government Trigonometrical Survey:

Institute of Chemistry:

International Astronomical Union:
Evans; President of the Radial Velocity Commission
Evans; Secretary of the Galaxy Commission
Spencer-Jones was Chairman of Commission 34 tasked with observing the closest approach of minor planet Eros in 1930

Light House Commission of South Africa:

Owl Club:
Gill  – First President.

South African Association  for the Advancement of Science:

South African Education Board:
Herschel – one of the founding members

South African Infirmary Fund:

South African Library and Museum:

South African Literary and Scientific Institution:
Herschel – President

South African Meteorological Committee:
Maclear – Founder Member (assisted by Herschel)

South African Philosophical Society:

Royal Astronomical Society: (Member are elected)
Herschel  was co-founder and first President.
Evans on 14 May 1937.
Innes at the age of 17.
Menzies in 1938.
Nevill in 1873
Roberts AW in 1894.
Stone in 1868.

Royal Society of South Africa:
(Member are elected) (Initially known as South African Institution)
South African Institution
     Fallows: Vice President in 1847.
Royal Society of South Africa
Hough – First President after name change in 1908.

Royal Society of England: (Member are elected)
Roberts AW in 1898

Selenographical Society: (Moon)

University of Cape Town:
(originally known as the South African College)

Astronomers who were also members of Secret Societies:
Pyramid Cult:
Smythe (I am not sure if the Pyramid Cult would classify as a Secret Society. Definitely as a Mysterious Society: cdc)

The Stonemasons:
Maclear – Deputy Principal Grand Master

Discoveries and Achievements in the field of Astronomy

  • Cousins did photoelectric photometry, establishing UBV stellar standards in the E region of the southern celestial hemisphere.
  • Evans co-discovered the Barnes-Evans relation which connects the surface brightness of a star to its V-R colour. This enables the radii and distances of Cepheid pulsating variables to be determined from light, colour and radial velocity measurements around their pulsation cycles.
  • Finlay discovered the “Great comet of 1882”. (C/1882R1)
  • Finsen developed the Finsen Eyepiece Interferometer. He discovered 73 double stars and took 54 000 photographs of Mars.  These were considered to be the best photographs of Mars until the space probes became available.
  • Gill designed the Reversible Transit Circle.
  • Henderson measured the first stellar distance by parallax method to Alpha Centauri.
  • Herschel set up a catalogue of double stars, nebulae and clusters of the Southern Sky
  • Hertzsprung independently from Henry Norris Russel, around 1913, had first put forward the idea that later became known as the Hertzsprung – Russel Diagram.
  • Innes discovered Proxima Centauri, faint companion star to Alpha Centauri, in 1912.
  • Cyril Jackson discovered / co-discovered three comets and 72 asteroids.
  • John Jackson measured the stellar parallax of 1 600 southern stars with greatly improved accuracy.
  • Lacaille laid the foundations for Southern Hemisphere Astronomy with his star map (with 10 000 measured positions) and the creation of new constellations. He also did ground breaking Land Survey work with his measurement of the Arc of the Meridian.
  • Maclear for re-Measuring the Arc of the Meridian.
  • Nevill published the first book on the Moon in English in 1876.
  • Roberts AW – 250 000 measurements of 98 variable stars during 1891 to 1920.
  • Rossiter published the “Catalogue of Southern Double Stars” in 1955. He made 5 534 discoveries of double stars and 23 814 measurements.
  • Smythe was only 17 years old when he was appointed assistant astronomer at the Cape Observatory. He was recognised as a leading spectroscopist.
  • Spencer-Jones was Chairman of Commission 34 of the International Astronomical Union tasked with observing the closest approach of minor planet Eros in 1930.
  • Stoy did meticulous groundbreaking work to establish photometric standards in order to determine the true colours and brightness of stars.
  • Stone was appointed as the directing astronomer for the British Transit committee for the 1882 Transit of Venus. He also produced the Catalogue of Southern Hemisphere Stars and the Radcliffe Catalogue.
  • Van der Bos discovered a record amount of double stars and published a catalogue of double stars which was the standard for the time.
  • Wood was a famous comet, asteroid and minor planer hunter.
  • Zanstra‘s work became known as the Method of Nebular Astrophysics.

Honorary Awards

Knighthood from the British Empire:
Gill on 24 May 1900.
Maclear in 1860
Spencer-Jones  in 1933

Baronetcy in Britain:
Herschel – by Queen Victoria in approximately 1838

Knight of the Royal Hanoverian Guelphic Order:
Herschel  – 1831

Knight of the Order of Phoenix: (Greece)

Lalande Medal from the French Academie of Science:
Maclear – 1867 for re-Measuring the Arc of the Meridian.
Stone Catalogue of Southern Hemisphere Stars

Royal Chemical Society Medal:
Nevill in 1935

Royal Astronomical Society Gold Medal:
Stone – 1869 for work done on the Astronomical Unit.

Royal Society Gold Medal: (U.K.)
Herschel – 1826 for Double Star Observations.
Maclear – 1869 for re-Measuring the Arc of the Meridian.

South African Literary and Scientific Institution:
Herschel – Specially designed Gold medal.

Gill Medal from the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa:
This medal is the highest Astronomical award in South Africa and named after David Gill. To view list of Gill Medallist click here.


Very important pioneering work was made in the field of photography.

David Gill
Gill is considered as the pioneer of Astrophotography. In 1869 he took a photo of the Moon, one of the 1st persons ever to do so. His big breakthrough in Astrophotography came much later when in 1882 he took a photo of the “Great Comet”. The background showed stars very clearly and Gill realised that photography can be used as a tool to study stars. Due to his pioneering work a photographic survey of the sky named the Cape Photographic Durchmusterung was initiated. Later the Paris Observatory was interested in creating its own map of the sky, and enlisted the help of Gill. This project was known as Carte du Ciel.

John Herschel
Herschel was a pioneer of photography. He first described the use of sensitive paper, and used “hypo”, or hypo sulphite of soda, as a fixing agent. Herschel first used the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’, and he may have coined the term ‘photography’ (under dispute). Herschel took a series of photographs at the Cape with his camera Lucinda, and this forms a very useful record of Cape Town, Cape Observatory and his own Observatory called Feldhausen.

Charles Piazzi Smyth
He was in correspondence with Herschel. Smyth’s collotypes provide the earliest extant photographic illustrations of Cape scenes. They are kept at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, and at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Smyth also published the first book with stereoscopic pictures and constructed a remarkable miniature camera.

Professions & Skills

Government Chemist, Assayer and Pathologist:



Medical Doctor:

Cyril Jackson – Military Intelligence with South African Armed Forces during World War Two.
Nevill – French forces during Franco Prussian War.

Roberts AW – Senator representing the interests of Native Africans in South Africa.

Roberts AW  – Lovedale Missionary Institution

Gill was a qualified watchmaker.

Wine Merchant:



was ordained as a Minister in the Church of England (Anglican Church) in approximately 1818.


Gill is one of the founder members of Golf in South Africa and helped to establish the Royal Cape Golf Club, first Golf Club in the country

Nevill introduced lawn tennis to South Africa.
Woolley van der Riet was a good tennis player.

Wooley van der Riet was a good cricket player.

Other interesting aspects:

Stone worked on the methodology on how to measure the speed of sound, and made the first set of magnetic observations of Namaqualand.
Wood was a man of many interests. He even published an official document on South African earthquakes.