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.