Table Mountain’s first telescope now on sale

JOHN HARVEY

Millions of people check classifieds site each day, looking for jobs, homes or vehicles, but every once in a while the platform offers an item that really has to be seen to be believed.

In fact one item posted last week on Gumtree by Julian Mayer, a chief technical officer in the department of mechanical engineering at UCT, is so unique that you would have to look some distance to find something as rare, not to mention the fact that it forms a remarkable part of Cape Town’s history.

After more than 15 years, Mr Mayer is reluctantly parting with the first public telescope placed on Table Mountain soon after the cableway was built in 1930.

Some of the illustrious visitors who may have peered through its lenses include the Royal Family during their 1947 South African tour.

On this occasion, they were greeted by the 77-year old Prime Minister Jan Smuts, who not only hiked to the top of the Mountain to meet them, but arrived back in town in time for a joint sitting of the houses of Parliament.

“I bought the telescope from a gentleman by the name of Doug Kirby, who used to work in the survey department at UCT,” Mr Mayer, a Tamboerskloof resident, said.

“He knew that I collected telescopes – I have been collecting pieces of science since I was a child – and offered it to me. He was actually going to throw it away, or sell it for the metal.

“He offered to sell it for the equivalent price for what he would have received from the scrap dealer. Of course I took him up on his offer.”

He said to this day he had no idea how the telescope had come into Mr Kirby’s possession.

“All he told me was that he was at liberty to do with it as he pleased.”

Mr Mayer was able to confirm the telescope’s authenticity via the South African Astronomical Observatory. He also unearthed from online archives a picture of it in place on the mountain.

Mr Mayer tried to have the telescope refurbished by the now defunct SA Navy Optical Workshop as well as Zeiss in Germany, but in the case of the latter they required the whole telescope to be sent to them to appraise the damage, something he could not afford to do.

He also offered the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway Company the telescope as a permanent loan, but they weren’t interested because of its large size, prompting Mr Mayer to put the telescope up for sale. His asking price is R90 000.

A former Zeiss employee, visiting Cape Town from the USA, was able to provide the exact manufacture date and sent Mr Mayer the original token used to test the timing mechanism. The token takes the place of the coins which the public used to pay for their spectacular view of the city and the ocean.

“This is obviously a very, very rare piece and would be an amazing restoration project or an extremely valuable collectable for display,” Mr Meyer said.

“The telescope was manufactured in 1918 and the lenses ground in 1912.

“This information was obtained from Zeiss records and from the serial numbers on the lenses. It is in reasonably good condition but the optics are fuzzy due to chipped prisms and a cracked 150mm objective lens.

“The clockwork sixpenny coin slot mechanism is still working. Included is an original Zeiss token with a picture of the telescope used to operate the coin mechanism. The original stand has long since disappeared.”

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