Braam van Zyl
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
of the Friends of Boyden
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.
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.
following contributions have been made in the past and are still
events are arranged during solar eclipses, lunar eclipses and other
important astronomical occurrences
- Discussion are held with the city council to help minimise light
- Facilities at Boyden have been improved, such as access roads,
parking areas, lighting, a public address system and chairs have
- 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.
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
Read the History
of Boyden Observatory