S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Mason, Mr Hugh Churchill (astronomy, civil engineering)

Born: 1873, Truro, Cornwall, United Kingdom.
Died: February 1936, Cape Town, South Africa.

Hugh Churchill Mason, son of a Wesleyan missionary, was born while his father was temporarily transferred to England. The family returned to South Africa in 1876. Hugh was educated at Gill College, Somerset East, and matriculated through the University of the Cape of Good Hope in 1889. Two years later he passed the university's intermediate examination for the Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree, but health problems prevented him from completing his degree. After spending some years on a farm he visited England and upon his return was appointed on 1 December 1897 as junior astronomical assistant at the Natal Observatory in Durban, directed by E.N. Nevill*. He resigned from this position in June 1900. Though he passed the examination for the Survey Certificate of the University of the Cape of Good Hope in 1901 he does not appear to have practiced as a surveyor.

After serving in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) Mason became editor of the weekly newspaper the Albert Times and Molteno News, published in Burgersdorp. By 1924 he lived in Camps Bay, Cape Town, and a few years later in Mowbray, Cape Town. During the latter part of his career (from 1920 or earlier) he worked in the Engineering Department of the Cape Town City Council, from where he retired in 1933. During this period he published three papers in the journal Civil Engineering = Siviele Ingenieurswese, on "Traffic census and road maintenance" (1923), "Design of roads for reconstruction with smooth surfaces" (1927), and "Observations on cracks in asphalt and concrete pavements" (1931).

Mason became a member of the Cape Centre of the Astronomical Society of South Africa in 1922 and for years was an active member and a quiet and courteous, yet forceful debater. He served on the committee of the centre from 1926, and was its chairman for 1929/30. He served also on the council of the society (from 1928) and on its journal committee. One of his main interests was the moon - an interest that he may well have developed as a result of working with Nevill, who specialised in lunar research at the Natal Observatory. Mason published a full account of his theory of the origin of lunar craters, "Lunar craters and the volcanic theory", in the society's Journal (1928, Vol. 2(3), p. 101-114). This account was expanded in a paper read before the British Association for the Advancement of Science during its visit to South Africa in 1929 and published as "Lunar craters and the volcanic theory" in the same journal as his earlier paper (1930, Vol. 2(4), pp. 180-186 ). The next year he combined his theory with the theory that meteorites are of lunar origin ("The origin of meteorites", South African Journal of Science, 1930, Vol. 27, p. 139-146). His theories did not get the attention from experts that they appeared to deserve at the time, probably because of his didactic style of writing.

In addition to astronomy Mason was interested in a wide variety of subjects, including physics, and wrote extensively on scientific topics. He published a book on his philosophical and religious views, entitled The golden mean (a series of meditative essays), The inner court, and a novel, The Devil's Christmas box (1920), which contained a pleasant blend of science and romance. His interest in social problems led him to visit Russia shortly after his retirement. He was planning a second visit at the time of his death.

List of sources:

Google scholar. http://scholar.google.co.za Publications by H.C. Mason.

Journal of the Astronomical Society of South Africa, 1924, Vol. 1(3), pp. 98-100, list of members; 1926-1930, Vol. 2, papers by Mason.

Long, A.W. The foundation and development of the Astronomical Society of South Africa. Journal of the Astronomical Society of South Africa, 1930, Vol. 2(4), pp. 153-180.

Natal [Colony]. Report of the Government Astronomer, 1897-1900.

National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System (NAAIRS). http://www.national.archives.gov.za/naairs.htm Documents relating to Hugh Churchill Mason / H.C. Mason.

[Obituary] Hugh Churchill Mason, 1873-1936. Journal of the Astronomical Society of South Africa, 1937, Vol. 4(2), pp. 76-77.

Rosenthal, E. Southern African dictionary of national biography. London: Frederick Warne, 1966.

South African bibliography to the year 1925. London: Mansell, 1979.

South African Journal of Science, 1930, Vol. 27, paper by Mason.

University of the Cape of Good Hope. Calendar, 1903/4.

Compiled by: C. Plug