SAAO: the Nutshell History
SAAO's history begins with the founding of the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope in 1820 -- the first scientific institute in sub-Saharan Africa. In the 1970s, the Republic Observatory in Johannesburg and the Radcliffe Observatory in Pretoria were merged with the much older Royal Observatory to form the South African Astronomical Observatory as it is today. Headquarters are located on the grounds of the old Royal Observatory, and the main building (completed in 1828) houses offices, the national library for astronomy, and computer facilities. Historic telescopes can be found in a number of domes on the grounds, and a small museum displays historic scientific instruments.
The South African Astronomical Observatory (SAAO) was established in January 1972 by a joint agreement of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) of South Africa and the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) of the United Kingdom. SAAO is now administered as a National Facility under the management of the National Research Foundation (NRF), formerly the Foundation for Research Development (FRD). The National Astronomy Facilities Board meets annually and advises the NRF on the running and further development of the Observatory.
As established in 1972, SAAO combined the facilities of the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope (founded 1820) and the Republic Observatory, Johannesburg (founded 1903 as the Transvaal Observatory). When the Radcliffe Observatory in Pretoria closed in 1974, the CSIR purchased the 1.9-m Radcliffe telescope and moved it to Sutherland as well.
The SAAO functions as a national South African centre for optical and infrared astronomy, carrying out its own research programmes and providing observing facilities for astronomers from many other countries and from within South Africa. The main observing site is in the dry Karoo near the village of Sutherland, at an altitude of 1798 m. The administrative headquarters, main computer facilities, engineering workshops, and library are located in the Cape Town suburb of Observatory on the site of the former Royal Observatory, where many of the historic buildings are still in use. A small museum in the McClean telescope building displays various instruments once used at the Royal Observatory and at SAAO.
A book by Ian Glass, an SAAO astronomer, about the first ever measurement of the distance to a star and the rather curious characters involved.