The white domes on top of the hill are the first strange-looking objects one sees as the journey nears the small town of Sutherland. If it is your first time visiting the Observatory you wonder about them, if not, it may be comforting because it means you are close to your final destination, to stretch your legs and get much-needed rest. However, if you are not very tired, an extremely beautiful sunset as well as a clear night sky with very crisp air forcing you to layer up, await. The fair distribution of the number of clear hours throughout the year resulted in the choice of the Karoo location; the decision was based on extensive investigation throughout South Africa. It was also considered a fair distance away from the Cape of Good Hope Observatory, which was going to be used for administrative work after observations.
A week before the launch of the Sutherland site, Sir Richard Woolley together with the partners involved in the operations and management of the new Observatory organised a symposium with invited talks from astronomers who were considered leaders in their fields. Among them was Dr. A.D. Thackeray from Radcliffe Observatory, who agreed to give a talk on the “RR Lyrae Variables in the Magellanic Clouds”. The talks were supposed to be centred around the viability of the site and had to focus on the science that would be undertaken at Sutherland. As such, papers that were presented had to cover variable stars, the centre of the Galaxy, Magellanic Clouds and instrumentation appropriate to Sutherland. Prof. Margaret Burbidge from the Greenwich Observatory accepted the invitation to attend the symposium and to give a talk about infrared astronomy. Prof. W. Becker from the Astronomisch-Meteorologische Anstalt der Universitat Basel planned to give a talk on “White objects in high latitude fields.” Dr. Gerald Kron from the US Naval Observatory talked about the recent work on the measurements of the brightness distribution in globular clusters. Professor Donald Lynden-Bell from Greenwich Observatory/Cambridge University was asked to stay on for a week to give public lectures at the University of Cape Town and at Stellenbosch University. Professor Brian Warner gave a talk about “asymmetric pulsations” based on the data collected at Sutherland.
The 0.5m was the first telescope to arrive from the Republic Observatory in Johannesburg and immediately started observing upon arrival in June 1972. Its main function at the Republic Observatory was photometry and planetary photography. It was constructed by Boller & Chivens of Pasadena, California at the end of 1968. Once in Sutherland, it was initially used with the Texas-designed UCT high-speed photometer connected to a Nova minicomputer with software by R.E. Nather. The “People’s Photometer” designed by Richard Bingham, built at the Greenwich Observatory, later became the main instrument used with the telescope. Many papers about rapid variables such as dwarf novae resulted from this telescope. It was later donated to Boyden Observatory in 2015. In the call for bids to host the retired telescopes, the South African Astronomical Observatory expressly stated that “all bids by potential recipient institutions had to incorporate in their proposal an undertaking that the telescopes would be used for student training, advancing scientific research, as well as public engagement.” Even upon retirement from Sutherland, Prime Minister Voster’s vision of astronomy development at universities through student training continued to follow the telescope to its new home, with an additional function of science engagement – a policy position by the Department of Science and Innovation since 1996.