Lamont-Hussey  Observatory

1927 – 1972

Current Information:
Current  Information

  • This 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 utilised as the planetarium (Naval Hill Planetarium).
  • The 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 Station Museum. 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 and Found.  All queries regarding the Lamont -Hussey Observatory  must please be sent to G. Penning gpenning@webmail.co.za and please send a carbon copy to musca.crux@gmail.com


In Brief:

Noted  for:

  • Once housed the largest refracting telescope in the Southern Hemisphere.
  • Extensive  and pioneering research in the cataloguing and measurement of double stars in the Southern Hemisphere.
  • Some of the best Earth-based pictures ever taken of the planet Mars (for the time).
  • The first colour photograph of Mars was taken from this Observatory
  • Probably the only Observatory situated in a game park.


The 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.

Historical background:


  • 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.
  • Hussey 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 of Science.
  • 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.
  • Construction 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. R.A. Rossiter (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 shortly after.
  • 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.
  • In 1939 noted astronomer Earl. C. Slipher made use of the 27-inch camera and took the first colour photographs of Mars (Schindler, p148).
  • For a few years no official research was done at Lamont-Hussey Observatory, with the exception of the second Mars expedition led by Sliper in 1956.
  • In 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 1956 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.]
  • 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
  • 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.
  • University 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.


List of Directors:

  • R.A. Rossiter (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.
  • Frank  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.
  • Karl 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.



27-inch refractor



  • Schindler, K.S.: ” EC Slipher’s Mars Expeditions to South Africa“, MNASSA vol 66 nos 7 & 8, August 2007.
  • Smits, P., A Brief History of Astronomy in Southern Africa. (Unpublished)
  • Moore, P. & Collins, P., Astronomy in Southern Africa, pp130 – 131. (General Source)
  • “Mars fever at Bloemfontein – 1954”, MNASSA October 2003, Vol. 62 nos. 7 & 8, pp. 190 – 191.
  • Penning, G. Another exciting Lamont-Hussey find in Bloemfontein. MNASSA April 2004, Vol. 63 nos. 3 & 4, pp. 22 – 24.
  • “Story of the American Expedition”, Cape Times, 13 May 1926.

More information:

  • Dr.  Patrick Seitzer, University of Michigan
  • Mr.  Willie Koorts, SAAO
  • ASSA Bloemfontein History Group
  • The  Friend Newspaper, Bloemfontein


Many thanks to Gerrit Penning who drafted the page on Lamont- Hussey Observatory.

Relevant Internal Links:
Fire Station Museum.
Relevant External Links:
ASSA Bloemfontein