Telescope: 30-inch Steavenson Reflector (1939)

Dating from 1939, the telescope is named after its original owner WH Steavenson (1894–1975), who gave it to the Royal Observatory in about 1960. It has had a chequered history and is currently installed in the Science Park in Granada in Spain.


Steavenson –  wealthy amateur astronomer and man of influence

Steavenson, a surgeon by profession, was an amateur astronomer who devoted his life to astronomy. Already the owner of a 20½-inch reflector by the amateur astronomer maker John Henry Hindle (1869–1942), Steavenson acquired a 30-inch reflector from him in 1939. Unlike the smaller telescope which had been set up at his home, the 30-inch reflector was set up in the grounds of the Observatory at the University of Cambridge for shared use by agreement with its Director, Sir Arthur Eddington. Steavenson subsequently became President of the Royal Astronomical Society (1957–59) and a member of the Board of Visitors at Greenwich (1958–59 & 1961–64).


Hindle the ironmaster

Hindle was a largely self taught ironmaster from Lancashire. He made his money from the manufacture of heavy looms for weaving and baling presses, but enjoyed making telescopes which he mostly gave away. The 30-inch telescope was the largest he attempted. Conceived as a fork mounted Newtonian equatorial, the mirror weighed 196 pounds, had a diameter of 30 inches and a focal length of 120 inches (f4). It was ground by Hindle from a 3½-inch blank of Chance glass in about 1935 and mounted in an 18 point Hindle Cell. The tube was thin sheet steel, braced with tensile steel wire; and the secondary electrically heated. The electric drive was a gramophone motor with a governor that was braked or released for slow or fast tracking. There was a separate ¼ hp motor for motor for rapid adjustment in right ascension. The telescope was described by Hindle in the September 1939 edition of Scientific American (p186-9). At that time, it was the largest telescope ever constructed by an amateur astronomer maker. Click here to read Hindle’s obituary.


Donated to the Observatory and shipped to the Cape

The telescope, together with the framework of the dome were donated to the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) in 1960/61, apparently for use at the Cape Observatory (which had been under the control of the RGO since 1959). By June 1962, it had been erected and completely overhauled, the space under the dome providing two much needed offices. A secondary mirror was purchased from Messrs. Cox, Hargreaves and Thompson with a view to providing a folded cassegrain focus and using the telescope for photoelectric photometry, which it was planned to do this in the infra red. The conversion work was completed by June 1963, though it was still possible to use the Newtonian focus when required. At the same time, a slow-motion motor was fitted.


Outright gift or strings attached?

Regrettably, there are no references to the telescope in the catalogues of the RGO Archive in Cambridge nor of the National Archives at Kew. The only official mentions seem to be the brief entries that appear in the Observatory’s annual reports from 1961 to 1980 together with the subsequent report of 1980–85. It is not known why Steavenson gave the telescope, nor why at that particular time, nor if there were any conditions attached. However, Woolley’s frustration at the delays in getting the equatorial group at Herstmonceux up and running together with only a distant prospect of getting the new Schmidt telescope (for which Dome C had been built) were well known. In 1956/7, Wooley had gone so far as to persuade the Science Museum to allow him to use the 20-inch Isaac Roberts reflector in their collection as a stop gap measure. This telescope was used for photometric work by Eggen but observing conditions at Herstmonceux proved unsuitable and the telescope was returned to the Science Museum on 4 July 1961.  Against this background, it is understandable that Steavenson as a member of the Board of Visitors might well have felt it his duty to offer his telescope to Woolley. It would also explain why the telescope was set up at the Cape rather than Herstmonceux.


1972 – the telescope returns to England and is installed at Herstmonceux for upgrade work

When the Cape Observatory was transferred to the Combined South African Observatories at the start of 1972, the telescope was shipped back to England, arriving at Hertmonceux, later that year. There, a series of alterations were commenced with a view to setting the telescope up in the still empty Dome C for testing prior to shipping it to a yet to be built Observatory at Loma de Dilar in the Sierra Nevada in Spain (OSN) as part of a collaboration between the Science Research Council (UK) and the Spanish National Research Council (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas – CSIC).

Erection of the telescope in Dome C commenced in 1973, when a new base together with new right ascension and declination drives and clamping systems were installed. By September 1975, all the new mechanical parts had been manufactured and erection of the telescope in Dome C was nearly complete. Little progress was made during the following 12 months owing to a ‘lack of available electronic effort’. Meanwhile, negotiations aimed at its eventual installation in Spain had stalled for a while due to administrative changes there.


The telescope is shipped to Spain

By September 1978, renovation and testing of the telescope was nearly complete and work had started on the erection of the new telescope piers in Spain.  The Stevenson telescope was packed up for transportation in 1980 and installed in the 8m western cupola of the OSN by December 1981 and commissioned the following year. It remained in service until 1989, when it was removed prior to being replaced by a superior instrument built specifically for the purpose. The Stevenson telescope was given to the Instituto de Astrofisica de Andalucia (IAA), who, in turn, donated it to the city of Granada who installed it in the Science Park located in the city, where it can still be seen today.