Boyden Observatory (Harvard)
1889 to Present

Current Information:
Boyden was located at two sites:

  • Arequipa:  1889 – 1927
  • Bloemfontein: 1927 – present

Current  Information:

  • Director:The Observatory has no director. As the Observatory belongs to the University of the Orange Free State, the director responsibilities lie with the Dean, Prof. C.N. van Wyk.
  • Note on structure: Boyden’s activities consist of two categories, each  with its own director:
    -Science (Research): Dr PJ Meintjes
    -Education: Dr MJH Hoffman
    Telephone no.: (051) 441 2191
    Fax no.: (051) 401 3507
    P.R.O. e-mail: Matie Hoffman:
    Physical address:
    Postal address: Department of Physics, University of the Orange  Free State, P.O. Box 339, Bloemfontein, 9300, South Africa
  • The Bloemfontein Centre of ASSA has a very active Historical Section resorting under the Friend of Boyden. They also have their own website.
    Historical Website:


Longitude: 26 24 20 East
Latitude: 29 02 20 South
Altitude: 1 387 m (4 550 ft)

In Brief:

Noted  for:

In 1879 Uriah A. Boyden made a bequest to Harvard University in  USA. As Harvard was at the time a world leader in stellar spectroscopy, they needed an Observatory in the Southern Hemisphere  to extend their groundbreaking work. The Boyden bequest was used in 1889 to set up the first Boyden Observatory in Arequipa,  Peru. However the observation conditions were not very good and  Arequipa was situated in very inaccessible terrain. The decision  was made to move the Observatory. In 1927 Boyden Observatory  moved across continents to Maselspoort, just outside of Bloemfontein, South Africa.

Boyden underwent a very productive period until politics impeded the workings of science. In 1976 the Observatory was handed over to the University of the Orange Free State, who did not have the funds and astronomy student numbers to keep the Observatory operating. When the Professor of Astronomy retired in 1989, the University  closed down the Astronomy Department and the Observatory underwent  a period of inactivity.

Internationally, astronomers struggle to acquire observing time. Therefore, when Apartheid ended, the international astronomical  community started investing money in Boyden to make the Observatory  operational. The revival of Boyden is due not only to the efforts  of the international professional community, but also due to the  efforts of the amateur astronomers. During the years of inactivity,  amateur astronomers had free use of the Observatory, including the  use of what was then the second largest telescope in South Africa, the 60 inch Rockefeller. The amateurs started an organisation, the “Friends of Boyden,” to promote and resurrect the site. (Look Society: Friends of Boyden)  They were successful.

Historical background:

Historical Index: South America; South Africa; Politics; New Era.

In South America

  • The name comes from a gentleman named Uriah A. Boyden,  who was a mechanical engineer in the American City of Boston.  In 1879 he left a sum of 238 000 dollars to Harvard College for the express purpose of furthering astronomical research and in  1887 the Trustees of the Fund transferred it to the Harvard College Observatory.
  • One  of the main branches of work at Harvard has always been stellar spectroscopy. The original work on classifying  stellar spectra was undertaken by men such as Angelo Secchi in Italy and Sir William Huggins in England. Harvard University developed  a new system of classifying the spectra that soon became the norm.  Each stellar type was given a letter of the alphabet and the series  ended up with the well-known sequence; 0,B,A,F,G,K,M,R,N and S – 0 stars, having the hottest surface, and R, N, and S the coolest.
  • In  the late 1800’s data was still being collected for analysis and Harvard astronomers such as E. C. Pickering and Miss Annie Cannon were anxious to extend their surveys as far as  possible. This meant that a southern station was essential. This was where the Boyden bequest came in.
  • Harvard decided to locate their Southern site in South America where seeing  conditions are excellent. Surveys were made and the choice fell  upon Arequipa in Peru.
  • The southern Harvard station (or first Boyden Observatory in Arequipa) was build,  and it operated reasonably well. And yet it was not ideal.  The meteorological conditions did not really come up to expectations  and there were communications difficulties as well; even today Peru is not one of the most accessible of places.
  • After a few years the Harvard astronomers began to look for alternative  sites. Due to Sir David Gill,  who was particularly vocal in stressing the advantages of South Africa, Harvard became keenly interested. In 1908 Solon I. Bailey, an eminent American astronomer, arrived to investigate  – and he was very thorough. Armed with a portable telescope, he went from place to place studying the skies as carefully as he could. Sites tested ranged from Worcester, Kimberley and Hanover.  [Smits] He was in favour of Maselspoort, which not only  has great skies, but also is only a few minutes drive from Bloemfontein.  Thus their major problem of accessibility was solved.
  • There was a major problem. A great deal of equipment had been set up at Arequipa, and moving it from one continent to another would  be an expensive operation. So, for a long time nothing could be done and Arequipa continued to function as effectively as it could.
  • The next developments did not happen until 1926, by which time the Harvard Directorship had been assumed by Dr Harlow Shapley- the man who first measured the size of our star-system or Galaxy.  (He was able to do this, because of the observations made at Arequipa.)  Shapley was able to obtain generous grants from both Harvard University and the International Education Board and decided to move the  observatory.
  • In 1923 Dr John Stefanos Paraskevopoulos had become astronomer in charge of Arequipa.  In July 1927 he came to Maselspoort together with his wife, who  was also an astronomer. They made a final evaluation of the merits  of the site and were satisfied. Paraskevopoulos was officially appointed Director of the new Boyden Observatory at Maselspoort.

Move to South Africa

  • The move was well organised. The move was approved in July of 1927;  first observations were made in September1927. The Observatory  was declared in full working order in 1933.
  • Paraskevopoulus  was an excellent Director. He retired in1951. (He died on 15 March 1961.) After his retirement, there was no official Director and it was tacitly agreed that the senior visiting astronomer  should be regarded as taking charge. This was by no means a satisfactory arrangement, but it persisted until 1968, when Dr Alan H. Jarrett was appointed Director. Some of the famous astronomers who were at Boyden for periods during this time: Bart  J. Bok, A. G. Velghe, M. Haffner, A. van  Hoef, E. M.Lindsay, E. H. Geyer, T. Schmidt,  A. D. Andrews, J. Dommanget. For much of this time  M. Bester acted as Chief Observer.
  • Boyden  was initially an American venture, as sponsored by the Boyden bequest to Harvard University. Because of the good qualities of the terrain, it attracted some international attention. The Boyden Council was set up in 1954 to run the Observatory, a consortium consisting of Armagh, Dunsink, Hamburg, Harvard, Stockholm and Uccle Observatories.
  • Due to South Africa’s policy of apartheid and international  pressure, politics started to interfere with science. In 1966 Sweden (Stockholm University) withdrew, and the University of  the Orange Free State filled the vacancy. (Prof. Jarret of this University became Director in 1968).
  • In  1968 a new Director was appointed in the person of Professor A. H. Jarret. (1968 – 1989) (Professor of Astronomy at the University of the Orange Free State, situated in Bloemfontein, approximately  30 km from Boyden)


  • Due to international pressure, the Boyden Council ceased to exist on 30 June 1976. (In 1971 Hamburg University withdrew. In 1976 Harvard & UCCLE Universities withdrew.) Funding to Boyden ceased and the Observatory was handed in its entirety over to the University of the Orange Free State. (Many of the Boyden  Council members decided to establish a new site, the European Southern Observatory [ESO], in the Chilean Andes, where even better  conditions existed)
  • The University directed Boyden until Prof. Jarret retired in 1989. The University was struggling to keep the Observatory financially alive and student numbers were declining. The decision was made to scale the Observatory down and cease all research.  The Observatory entered a period of inactivity. The assets of the Astronomy Department were transferred to the department of  Physics.
  • During  the period of inactivity, a growth of amateur observers occurred in the Free State, partially due to access to the observatory. This was in large part due to Hannes Calitz, then still  an amateur astronomer and also a member of the Physics Department at the of the University. The amateur numbers “grew exponentially” until the astronomy society had to split, in order to accommodate both the serious observer (Bloemfontein Branch of A.S.S.A.), and the interested public (Friends of Boyden). The Friends of Boyden strives to promote the Observatory. (Look Societies) [Personal experience; Chris de Coning]

A New Era

  • Internationally,  astronomers struggle to acquire observing time. Therefore, when Apartheid ended the international astronomical community started investing money in Boyden to make the Observatory operational. In ? a new director from the University of the Free State was appointed, Dr. P.J. Meintjes. (Need more info)
  • The largest telescope is the 60-inch Rockefeller reflector, and at the time of the move (1927), it was the largest telescope in South Africa. (Currently the third  largest). In the 1960’s it was fitted with new optics and photoelectric photometers. One convenient feature of the 60 inch is that the  change over from one optical system to another can be carried out quickly and smoothly. This instrument was mainly used for  variable star research.


List of Directors:

  • John Paraskevopoulos: 1927 – 1951. He was appointed Chief Astronomer (Director) of Boyden Arequipa in 1923, and 1927 Director of Boyden Bloemfontein.
  • 1951  – 1968: No official Director. The most senior visiting astronomer was in charge. M Bester  acted mostly as Chief Observer.
  • Allen  Jarret: 1968 – 1989.
  • Director  is Dean of University: 1989 – present.
    -Retief ?
    -C.N. Van Wyk


  • Eric Lindsay: He was assistant at Boyden (Bloemfontein) Observatory  until he became Director of Armagh Observatory in Ireland (1930?). Lindsay did a wonderful job to revive Armagh Observatory.


Research / public service:
In 1938,
A.W. Roberts, an important South African variable star observer died. Paraskevopoulus and Harlow Shapley, director of Harvard Observatory, visited his house and with permission removed Roberts’s books, which catalogues all his observations. Boyden has been the custodian of the documents ever since. They are of extreme importance as Roberts made over 250 000 measurements of 98 variable stars during 1891 to 1920, a time period when few other variable star observers were active in the Southern Hemisphere. These observations were never reduced and published. In 2003 the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) made funds available and in association with Boyden and ASSA the Roberts data will now be reduced and added to the AAVSO database. [Van Zyl, MNASSA Vol. 62]

  • Variable Star


  • Sky Patrol Programme



Link to the Telescope Manufacturers.

-60 inch (1.5 m) (Rockefeller) reflector.
-13 inch (33 cm) Clark Refractor.
-10 inch (25 cm) Metcalf telescope.


-60 inch (1.5 m)
Rockefeller reflector. This telescope was for two decades the largest telescope  in South Africa.
-36 inch (91 cm)
ADH Baker Schmidt telescope.
-13 inch (33 cm)
Clark Refractor.
-10 inch (25 cm)
Metcalf telescope.
-16 inch (41 cm)
Nishimura Reflector
-14 inch (36 cm)
Hamburg Schmidt.
-24 inch (61 cm)
Bruce  Astrograph.
-8 inch (20 cm) 
Celeostat Solar Instrument

Joyce Loebl micro densimeter.
Askania diaphram photometer
Pye two-dimensional measuring microscope
-Aluminising facilities


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

Pictorial  Sources:


  • Moore, P. & Collins, P., Astronomy in Southern Africa, pp.120 – 129.  (General Source)
  • Smits, P., A Brief History of Astronomy in Southern Africa. (Unpublished)
  • Van Zyl, B., ASSA, Boyden and AAVSO to digitise the AW Roberts Archives. MNASSA October 2003, Vol. 62 nos. 7 & 8, pp. 186 -188.


Correspondence between Mr James Lyle of Grey College, Bloemfontein and Pickering at Harvard, concerning establishment of an observatory  in Bloemfontein 1908 (Ref. Governor No. 337). 

Relevant External Links:
Friends of Boyden.
University of the Free State.and their page on the History.
Stargazing at Boyden