“All Closed and Lenses Covered”: The Boyden Station in Arequipa

***In Fall 2019, the Wolbach Library displayed a small exhibit on the history of the Boyden Station entitled, “A Peculiar Sense of Proprietorship,” which directly addressed the imperialist actions of Harvard astronomers in Peru. The accompanying blog is still available here: https://wolba.ch/gazette/arequipa/. The blog and exhibit were adapted from Alex McGrath’s master’s thesis, “You Take Our Stars: Harvard Astronomers in Peru, 1889-1900,” (Master’s Thesis, Simmons University, 2019), which includes more extensive bibliographic information regarding the Boyden Station and the work of American scientists in South American at the beginning of the 20th century.

Uriah A. Boyden. c. 1845.

Uriah A. Boyden died on October 17, 1879. As an engineer, he was best known for the invention of the Boyden Turbine, a conical water turbine used throughout the Northeast in the later-half of the 19th century, including at the first Niagara Falls hydroelectric plant. The invention made him a wealthy man. Upon his death, Boyden left his $238,000 fortune to an unspecified astronomical institution. He stipulated that the money should be used to build a mountain-top observatory for better atmospheric seeing conditions than was possible at lower altitudes. Boyden’s immediate family challenged the will, delaying the distribution of the funds, but in 1887, Edward Pickering succeeding in securing the award for the Harvard College Observatory.

Pickering initially planned to build the new observatory at Mount Wilson, in the San Gabriel Mountains just outside Los Angeles, but abandoned those plans and looked instead to the southern hemisphere. In the late-19th century, there were few observers south of the equator with access to the expensive telescopes used by Harvard astronomers, and fewer still with cameras capable of photographing the stars. To Pickering’s mind, a southern station would enable Harvard astronomers to expand their research to include the entire sky, which offered particular appeal towards his interests in photometry and spectroscopy. Beginning in the 1850s, private and government entities from Europe and the United States organized astronomical expeditions into South America to observe unique events, including eclipses and transits, with increasing regularity. The proposed ‘Boyden Station’ represented a new kind of scientific intervention in the region, as a permanent entity, building upon growing trends in the commodification and exportation of scientific knowledge outward.

Working quickly, the Harvard College Observatory founded the Boyden Station at Mount Harvard in Lima, Peru in 1889. It was relocated to nearby Arequipa two years later, where it remained until 1927. Astronomy has a long history in the Andes region of South America, dating back to the complex cosmology of early pre-Columbian civilizations. However, when Pickering chose Peru as the site of a future southern observatory, there’s little evidence to suggest the regional significance of astronomical inquiry factored into his decision. Instead, Harvard astronomers participated in a harmful tradition of intellectual imperialism that began with European colonization in the mid-16th century.

Temporary station on Mount Harvard. Lima, Peru.

In July 1821, the Spanish-Argentine general José de San Martín liberated Peru from Spanish control and proclaimed its independence, though it would be another five years until the final Spanish forces surrendered. After almost three hundred years of European hegemony, socio-political instability plagued the early decades of Peruvian independence. Associated territory disputes, notably along the western coast, culminated in the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) between Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, with the latter two operating as allies. Chile emerged victorious, while in Peru, the war resulted in a significant economic downturn and heighten political tensions. The founding of the Boyden Station coincided with a cultural and political shift throughout Peru, marked by pronounced social stratification along economic lines and the rule of an oligarchical elite.

From the early days of their arrival, the Harvard astronomers, led by Solon Bailey, cooperated with President Andrés Cáceres. Then in his second term, Cáceres rose to prominence a decade earlier as the general who defended Peru against Chilean occupation during the War of the Pacific. His first term was the result of an earlier coup between warring political factions that ended in an election where he was the sole candidate on the ballot. Controversy again followed his second election, and in 1894, Peru erupted in civil war when Cáceres’ inauguration prompted widespread rebellion and led to another violent coup. By then, the Boyden Station was an established institution in Arequipa, though Solon Bailey’s preference towards employing only American scientists meant the rising tensions held little personal sway for observatory staff. News of the mounting political strife reached Cambridge as early as July 1893, when Bailey chose to make light of the situation in a letter back to Pickering, writing that he might “have to remove the lenses and use the telescope tubes for canons” in the event of revolution. Later that fall, as public dissent in Peru escalated, he mentioned plans to install heavy wooden shutters on all the windows of the Boyden Station as a precautionary measure.

24″ Bruce dome, Boyden station. Arequipa, Peru, c. 1890
Solon I. Bailey. C. 1932.

As violent rioting broke out in Arequipa the following year, Bailey had an adobe wall built on the west side of the station in between the building and the road. With Pickering’s permission, he purchased more land on the north side to make room for another protecting wall. When the fighting finally reached Arequipa, warring factions cut the telegraph line and inhibited mail service. For two weeks the city was cut off from the rest of the world. Bailey buried the telescope lenses, closed the wooden shutters, and raised an American flag over the station. Even as the sounds of rifle fire echoed around him, he ventured out into the open air each evening to records the day’s meteorological records. It was the cloudy season, which meant the temporary absence of the telescope lenses was of lesser importance to his ongoing research, and work at the station continued almost entirely uninterrupted. The war ended when the revolutionary government under the command of Nicolás de Piérola assumed power. In April 1895, Bailey invited the new administration to a reception at the Arequipa station in a political bid to maintain friendly relations with the local government.

In the Boyden Station’s thirty-six year tenure in Arequipa, research continued uninterrupted, but for an extended closure during the First World War. In scale, the Peruvian civil war and World War One are at opposing ends of a spectrum, but the difference in impact at the Boyden station is more a consequence of Harvard policy than extent of warfare. During the Peruvian civil war, the staff most responsible for ongoing research didn’t participate in the local conflict because the scientific staff was entirely American, so the scientific initiatives were only minimally interrupted despite the nearness of fighting. World War One, fought more than 6,000 miles away, provides a different point of comparison.

In 1909, new financial constraints meant that Mary Anna Draper, the widow of the late Henry Draper and an established patron of the Harvard College Observatory, had to cut her annual allocations to the observatory by half. Pickering’s solution to the budget cuts was to let go one of two full-time assistants at the Arequipa station. Work at the southern observatory, now under the direction of Leon Campbell, wasn’t immediately impacted by the staffing changes until the outbreak of war in Europe (and across the globe) amplified the loss. During wartime, the appeals of overseas employment waned, and scientists were in high demand back in the United States to aid in the war efforts. In 1915, Campbell returned to Cambridge. As the war compounded international communication challenges and transportation problems, work at the station slowed. After the U.S. Army entered the war, L.C. Blanchard, Campbell’s remaining assistant, resigned to join the armed forces, and with his departure, the Arequipa station was shut down for the remainder of the war. The closure, brought about by diminishing funds and a wartime staffing crisis, was again a direct consequence of an imperial management policy that limited Harvard’s investment in local expertise.

Harvard astronomers restricted their specialized labor (meaning those with the training to conduct scientific research) to the American staff, so once Blanchard resigned, the facilities were “all closed and lenses covered so that no harm will come to them.” That is not to suggest that the American astronomers didn’t also heavily rely on Peruvian labor, but that local employees at the Boyden Station were limited to secondary roles including equipment maintenance, construction, or as guides on small-scale expeditions, replicating the widening social stratification in Peru. The conversation of a potential relocation arose years before the closure, but when the Arequipa station reopened in 1919 under Campbell’s successor Frank Hinkley, it became a top priority. In 1927, the Boyden Station relocated to Bloemfontein, South Africa.

Back in Cambridge, the steady exportation of knowledge took shape in the tens of thousands of glass plates shipped northward from Arequipa. Later additions to the collection from Chile, South Africa, and New Zealand meant that by the mid-20th century Harvard controlled close to twenty-five percent of the world’s astronomical photographic plates. While work at the Boyden Station was grounded in an imperialist mindset that limited scientific contributions beyond a select few, the analysis of the southern plates famously challenged gender barriers in early 20th century science. Women were significant in analyzing the data from Arequipa. In particular, Henrietta Leavitt studied the Peruvian photographs of the Small Magellanic Cloud to quantify the relationship between the brightness of Cepheid variable stars and their periods, which is now used for the measurement of the distances of globular clusters and spiral nebulae.


Fernie, J. Donald. “Marginalia: In Search of Better Skies: Harvard in Peru I.” American Scientist, vol. 88, no. 5, 2000, pp. 396–399. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27858081.

Gingerich, Owen (Ed.). The General History of Astronomy: Volume 4, Astrophysics and Twentieth-Century Astronomy to 1950: Part A. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Gonzales, Michael J. “Planters and Politics in Peru, 1895-1919.” Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 23, no. 3, 1991, pp. 515–541. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/157383.

Hughes, Stefan. Catchers of the light: The forgotten lives of the men and women who first photographed the heavens: Their true tales of adventure, adversity & triumph. Paphos, Cyprus: ArtDeCiel Pub, 2013.

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Jones, Bessie Zaban. Boyd, Lyle Gifford. Harvard College Observatory: The First Four Directorships, 1839-1919. Harvard University Press, 1971.

Lankford, John (Ed.). History of astronomy: An encyclopedia. New York, NY: Garland, 1997.