Steavenson W.H.


Visiting Amateur Astronomer

In brief :
Famous for:

  • President of the Royal Astronomical Society.
  • President of the British Astronomy Association. (also director of  the Mars Section, Instruments and Observation Method Section.)
  • Carried  out surveys which selected Pretoria as the site for the Radcliffe Observatory.
  • Gave his 30 inch Reflector as a gift to the Cape Observatory.

Steavenson was not a South African astronomer. He was a British Amateur Astronomer of considerable influence who visited South Africa and left his mark on South African Astronomical History.

Historical background :
“Steavenson  was a remarkable man. His doctorate was a medical one, and he always ranked himself as an amateur in astronomy; nevertheless, he rose to become President of the Royal Astronomical Society, and it was generally agreed that his knowledge of optics and of observational techniques was second to none. (His unmatched skill as an observer was all the more  remarkable because almost all his life he was blind in one eye.) It was he who carried out the surveys which led to the selection of Pretoria as a site for the
Radcliffe Observatory, and  the decision was perfectly correct at the time; neither Steavenson  nor anyone else could forsee how the spread of Pretoria itself  would interfere with the seeing conditions in later years. Steavenson was intimately connected with the British Astronomical Association,  which was (and is) largely amateur but which has strong professional connections – together with an observational record which is probably  unrivalled. Steavenson served a term as President – so, for that matter, did Spencer Jones – and was at various times Director  of its Mars Section and its Instruments and Observing Methods  Section. He was also closely associated with Cambridge, and it was there that he set up a 30-inch reflector of fine quality. When he grew older, and realized that his career as an  active observer was coming to an end, he arranged for the transfer of the telescope to Cape Town so that it could continue  to be used to its maximum capacity. This was typical of Steavenson,  whose generosity and kindliness were without limit”.  [Copied from Moore p. 83.]
Following is an excerpt from Patrick Moore (The last sentence of the previous  quotation), with the footnote: This was typical of Steavenson,  whose generosity and kindliness were without limit.*
* l have good reason to know this. When I was a boy of eleven, I joined the British Astronomical Association, and there came  the all-important question of choosing a telescope. Steavenson,  then one of Britain’s most famous astronomers, took the trouble to come all the way to my home in East Grinstead and select for me a 3-inch refractor, which I still have and with which I published my first lunar papers. Steavenson remained on hand to help and advise, right up to the time of his death in 1975. I was only  one of many to receive help from him. – P.M. [Copied from Moore p. 83.]
Medical  doctor with an interest in Astronomy. He saw himself as an Amateur  Astronomer.

A  very generous person


Link to the Telescope Manufacturers.

Used a 30 inch reflector privately at Cambridge.  When he became older and observed less frequently he presented the Cape Observatory with the telescope.


Link to the Main Bibliography Section and more information about Sources.

Remaining Artifacts:

Moore, P. & Collins, P., Astronomy in Southern Africa, p.83; p.114.   (General Source)

By Steavenson:

Related Internal Links:
Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope.
Steavenson Telescope.