History of the Friends of Boyden, South Africa

by Braam van Zyl


The Harvard University founded the Boyden Observatory in Bloemfontein in 1927. The observatory was handed over to the University of the Free State (UFS) after the withdrawal of Harvard fifty years later. In 1989, only 12 years later, the UFS was compelled to abandon professional research due to factors such as financial constraints and obsolescence of equipment. The last director, Prof. Jarret, subsequently retired, the rest of the staff being transferred to the UFS while the Observatory closed down. Only the 2 gardeners continued working at the Observatory to maintain the gardens and terrain. The Ceolostat solar telescope as well as furniture was moved to the UFS.

The fate and future of Boyden had to be decided upon at that point in time. It was then determined that it would be converted into a seminar/conference centre. The first phase included the transformation of the old ADH telescope building into a hall with braai facilities. Fortunately the project was terminated due to financial constraints.

At that stage members of the Amateur Astronomy Association (Bloemfontein Centre of ASSA) requested to make use of the facilities. Members of the public also started taking an interest in Boyden and requested visits/viewing opportunities. It is interesting that both the abovementioned parties never really had access to the Boyden Observatory previously. Some members of the department of Physics, UFS, displayed continued interest in astronomy. This lead to the observatory being utilised to a limited extent for educational purposes and training of undergraduate students. Matie Hoffman and Hannes Calitz, both from the Department of Physics, took an active lead in this process. Members of the public were also accommodated on limited public occasions and permission was granted to the members of Bloemfontein ASSA to utilise Boyden's facilities. At this time a renewal of activity was experienced once again at Boyden Observatory.

In 1994 a very significant and important event in the history of Boyden namely the Jupiter/Schumaker/Levi collision took place. The Johannesburg ASSA Centre collaborated with the Bloemfontein Centre in preparing the telescopes at Boyden for this exciting astronomical occurrence. Under supervision of the Department of Physics the lens of the 1,5-m telescope was removed and recoated with aluminium at Sutherland Observatory (SAAO). On the night of the impact it was, however, overcast in Sutherland resulting in all the visual material being televised nationally from Boyden Observatory - thus placing Boyden on the astronomical map again!

The national exposure gained in 1994 at Boyden possibly prompted the ASSA National committee to request that Bloemfontein ASSA host the ASSA Symposium in 1995. As it was impossible for the Bloemfontein ASSA Committee to single-handedly host the event, other non-ASSA members with relevant expertise were involved. A steering committee was established and an excellent symposium was hosted. A natural consequence of the steering committee's existence was the creation of the Friends of Boyden society. Why was this necessary? Due to financial constraints, the UFS had to cut down on all areas, which included the [possible] closing of Boyden Observatory. Although no research was conducted at Boyden, factors such as the maintenance of the telescopes, gardens and buildings, salaries of two gardeners/assistants resulted in a reasonably large amount budgeted annually by the UFS. Extensive weather damage caused to the dome obviously also contributed to the need to close the Observatory.

In spite of the abovementioned threat, Boyden still had loyal supporters that would prove to be invaluable. They consisted of professional astronomers like Dr Peter Martinez of SAAO, UFS staff like Matie Hoffman and a number of astronomy lovers from all over the country. It was evident that time was running out for Boyden and desperate measures had to be taken. During August 1994 Dr Martinez and a team from UCT and SAAO consisting of 2 astronomers and 2 technicians evaluated the facilities at Boyden. In spite of minor technical shortcomings the team declared that the 1.5-m telescope had enormous research potential. Due to unavailability of funds in South Africa Dr. Martinez started searching for partners abroad.

Foundation of the Friends of Boyden

It became apparent that overseas partners/investors would not be found soon. In 1996 it was evident that the closing down of the observatory was at hand. Matie Hoffman and Dr. Peter Martinez realised that something drastic needed to be done. The idea of establishing the Friends of Boyden was thus born. The Friends of Boyden had to be an interest group with the authority to effect support for the continued existence of the Observatory.

On 19 July 1996 Matie Hoffman, Dr. Peter Martinez and 7 others convened. A pilot committee with Matie Hoffman as chairperson was elected. Their first important priority was to draft a concept constitution. One of the members, Judge Eksteen, played a pivotal role in this regard. The foundation meeting was held on 7 October 1996. The constitution was accepted and a committee with prof. A Schoch as chairperson was chosen. The committee consisted of 6 members with Matie Hoffman representing the UFS. Judge M.T. Steyn was elected as the first patron. Although the Friends of Boyden had a humble beginning, an enormous task awaited them.
The goals and priorities met at the time were the following:
- The historical and scientific value of the Observatory was brought under the attention of the University Governing Body. A prestigious event was held where the constitution was presented to the Rector.
- The value of the Observatory was brought under the attention of the Provincial Government, local municipality and educational institutions.
- Public evenings were launched to create awareness among the general public. Renowned international and local speakers were invited e.g. David Malin (Australia), Charles McGruder (USA), Dr Louw Alberts and Dr Tony Fairall.

The following contributions have been made in the past and are still continuing namely:

- Special events are arranged during solar eclipses, lunar eclipses and other important astronomical occurrences
- Discussion are held with the city council to help minimise light pollution
- Facilities at Boyden have been improved, such as access roads, parking areas, lighting, a public address system and chairs have been procured.
- The historical and world renowned Metcalf telescope has been restored
- Radio and press are provided with educational information
- A service is provided to the public through the selling of astronomy books, sunfilters (eclipse viewers) and other educational aids.
- A unique and original web page was produced.

All initiatives undertaken proved to be successful. Overseas partners were found and local institutions made generous contributions. The most important development was, however, the UFS's decision to keep the Observatory. Dr Pieter Meintjes, a professional astronomer, was appointed in 1997 and became responsible for the research program. It was also decided that Boyden would become a unique educational centre headed by Dr Matie Hoffman. The 1,5-m telescope was upgraded and various other improvements were made to the Observatory. The solar telescope was also returned to its original location.

From March 2002, the UFS-Boyden 1.5-m telescope has been participating in several international campaigns, for example the Microlensing Planet Search project (Principle Investigator: Prof. Dave Bennet of UND), the REACT Gamma-Ray burster follow-up search (PI: Drs Kem Cook (LLNL) and PJ Meintjes (UFS)) as well as the study of galactic accretion driven systems (PI: Dr P.J. Meintjes, UFS). We shall also participate in the monitoring of the near earth objects that may pose a threat to Earth (PI: Prof. C Alcock (U Penn) and Dr K Cook (LLNL)).

Read the History of Boyden Observatory

Contact details

Contact Braam van Zyl at +27 051- 436 7555 (h) if you would like to become a member of the
Friends of Boyden, or email jalvzyl@mweb.co.za.

More information and costs
Download application form.

Website information
This website: www.assabfn.co.za/friendsofboyden
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