The Lamont-Hussey Observatory
Naval Hill, Bloemfontein, South Africa

Concise History and Current Research
Page compiled by ASSA Bloemfontein Centre

Lamont-Hussey Observatory Web Archives
Contact us if you require additional information
and archives
Recent discoveries
and news

History and archive records available on this website:

Photo gallery
and sketches
and contact details
Become part of
the research effort
Contact us for a visit
to the Museum

Concise historical facts - the Lamont-Hussey Observatory, Naval Hill, Bloemfontein

The Story of a Friendship

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 1880's. 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 did become a great 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 Hussey could continue his research in the field of double stars. By this time, Hussey was a Professor in Astronomy at the University of Michigan.

Plans for a Southern Hemisphere Observatory

In the 1910's, a lot of 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 were 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 and a 24 inch refractor began as early as 1910. World War I intervened, and not till after the war was a 27 inch lens finally obtained.

The First Expedition

The first expedition to South Africa was slated for October 1926 and the telescope was also sent directly to South Africa then. The party consisted of Hussey and his wife, Rossiter and his wife and their two children. They traveled via London. Just prior to there departure, Hussey had an attack of pleurisy (inflammation of the lungs). One night in London during a meal with friends he suddenly sank into 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 contributions.

Construction of the Building and Dome

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 Observatory was opened by the mayor on 28 April 1928 and research began shortly after.

Research at the Observatory

The first research team consisted of Dr. Rossiter, Mr. H.F. Donner and Mr. M.K. Jessup, all from the 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. By 1947, a total of 7 200 double stars have been found and 25 000 measurements of double stars had been made. Rossiter remained director until 1952. In 1956 noted astronomer Earl. C. Slipher and an international team visited the Observatory to take photos of Mars The Observatory was reopened for double star observations in 1962 by its last director, Frank Holden.

Final Days...

Holden made repeated observations of most of the double stars previously discovered at the Observatory in order to see which ones moved.
He was director until 1971 when all observations ended. In 1974 the observatory closed and in 1975, the telescope's optics were removed and sent back to Michigan, where it is in safe keeping to this day.

The Observatory Theatre

The University of Michigan gave the building to PACOFS (1976) (who used it as a theatre) and the telescope fell into the hands of the Municipality. The current caretaker takes good care of the building and is still maintaining it as a unique theatre in SA. The telescope met a more unfortunate fate, though it is still salvageable. It will never be used for astronomical purposes again, but is currently secured in the Fire Station Museum in Erlichpark (the tube, counterweight and mounting).

Current research efforts

Much research has been done on the history of the Lamont-Hussey Observatory. Dr. Patrick Seitzer of the University of Michigan has supplied the South African researchers with a large amount of information. Also part of the research team is Mr. Willie Koorts from SAAO in Cape Town and the members belonging to the History group of ASSA Bloemfontein in the Free State and Friends of Lamont-Hussey. Wendy Stone from the University of the Free State has done her thesis on the observatory's past and present profile. Through all the research though, there are still loose ends and even unanswered questions waiting to be unveiled...