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A heritage to be proud of

Chris de Coning - Director: ASSA Historical Section

The first astronomers in South Africa were travelling men of science who stopped over at Cape Town, the Tavern of the Sea, whilst on some errand. They were primarily interested in solving navigational problems in order to make seafaring safer. It is no surprise, therefore, that astronomers were involved in carrying out the first trigonometrical surveys as well as establishing an extensive network of lighthouses around Southern Africa.

   Partly because Cape Town was easily accessible to northern hemisphere astronomers, the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope  the first permanent astronomical observatory in the southern hemisphere, established in 1820  dominated early South African astronomy. In later years, the excellent observing conditions on the highveld were exploited and other major observatories were established.

   From 1834 to 1838 Sir John Herschel worked at his private observatory in Wynberg (present-day Claremont), Cape Town, where he extended to the south his search for star clusters, nebulae and double stars, completing the work his father, Sir William Herschel, had begun in the north.

   The Natal Observatory was founded in Durban at the time of the 1882 transit of Venus. The Natal Legislative Council maintained the observatory and appointed the first and only Government Astronomer, Edmund Nieson, who was distinguished for his lunar studies. A small transit circle was used to provide a public time service. The observatory was closed in 1911.

   In 1903 the Transvaal Meteorological Department, from which the Republic Observatory later developed, was created, and RTA Innes, then Secretary and Librarian of the Royal Observatory, was appointed as its first director.

   By the 1920s, South Africas reputation as a choice observing location was known internationally. With strong support from the Union Government, the observatories of Yale, Harvard, Michigan and Leiden established southern stations here. Many astronomers with worthwhile programmes were therefore able to work with great efficiency and produce data of very high quality. Indeed, some of the large-scale fundamental photometric and spectroscopic programmes completed at the Cape and Radcliffe Observatories have no counterparts in the Northern Hemisphere. The regions clear skies were also utilised in other Southern African countries, especially in Namibia, which hosted a few German-sponsored observatories.



   The European Southern Observatory investigated South Africa as a possible location for their southern observatory, but to our loss they decided on a site in northern Chile.

   In the late 1950s the Space Age saw the advent of tracking stations for artificial satellites (Olifantsfontein & STADAN) and more recently there has been increasing interest in radio astronomy in South Africa (HartRAO & Rhodes University Astronomical Laboratory).

   In 1961 South Africa became a Republic and as a result of the policy of apartheid, sanctions were imposed, which had a negative impact on scientific co-operation with the international community. Gradually most of the foreign institutions withdrew their support. Their observatories were usually handed over to South African institutions which were financially hard-pressed to keep them running.

   By the late 1960s the unprecedented growth of cities had caused light pollution problems all over the world. In order to overcome this problem, and to streamline astronomy in South Africa, the government decided to amalgamate some observatories and move their instruments to Sutherland, a dark-sky site in the Karoo. By 1974 the Republic, Radcliffe and Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope were combined into what became known as the South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO).

   In 1994 South Africa held its landmark democratic elections and sanctions were withdrawn. The international astronomical community started to re-invest in South Africas clear dark skies. Boyden Observatory in Bloemfontein became operational again after a period of dormancy. The most exciting post-sanction infusion into Southern African astronomy is the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) project at Sutherland. South Africas neighbours are also benefiting in Namibia, for example, the HESS Gamma Ray Telescope is nearing completion.

   The astronomers who worked in South Africa were exceptional. Sir John Herschel was not only an excellent observer but also a pioneer of photography as well as one of the fathers of education in South Africa. Thomas Maclears geodetic work led to the establishment of the Government Trigonometrical Survey Office of South Africa, the Meteorological Commission and the Commission of Standards for Weights and Measurements. David Gill pioneered astronomical photography, designed the reversible transit circle, and was one of the founding fathers of the game of golf in this country. RTA Innes showed that Proxima Centauri was the nearest star to the Sun. He was a brilliant self-taught mathematician and astronomer who left school at age 12 and became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society when he was only 17. These astronomers are just a small selection of the calibre of persons that have enriched our astronomical heritage.



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