S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Nevill*, Mr Edmond Neville (astronomy, meteorology)

Born: 27 August 1849, Beverley, Yorkshire, England.
Died: 14 January 1940, Eastbourne, England.

Edmond N. Nevill was also known as E.N. Neison, a name under which he wrote most of his early publications. Judging by documents relating to him in the National Archives of South Africa he used the name Neison until about 1897.

Nevill was educated at Harrow (a well-known school near London) and at New College, Oxford. During the Franco-German War of 1870-1871 he joined the French forces, and afterwards worked as a newspaper reporter and theatrical critic. Having developed an early interest in astronomy he started a study of the moon, making his observations from Hampstead, London, with a 150 mm refractor and a 240 mm reflector. His first paper on this work was a "Note on the possible existence of a lunar atmosphere", published in June 1873. That same year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. During the next nine years he published 35 further papers. Most of these appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Astronomical Society and dealt with the theory of the moon's motion and related topics, showing him to be an expert mathematician. Others dealt with various aspects of chemistry.

Nevill decided to revise the famous lunar map and description of lunar features published in 1838-1839 by W. Beer and J. von M?dler. The resulting book, The moon, and the conditions and configurations of its surface (London, 1876, 576 p.), was the first important lunar book in English and became a classic. Written under his pseudonym, E.N. Neison, it established him as the leader in his field. He was a foundation member of the Selenographical Society and served as its secretary until 1883. With C.T. Kingzett he was furthermore instrumental in the formation of the Institute of Chemistry. He was elected a Fellow of this institute, as well as of the Chemical Society.

In anticipation of the transit of Venus in December 1882 an astronomical observatory was established in Durban earlier that year through the efforts of Dr David Gill* of the Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope. The new observatory, situated in the north-west corner of the Natal Botanic Gardens, was equipped with a 200 mm equatorial refractor, a 75 mm transit instrument, a 75 mm portable equatorial refractor, and the necessary clocks and chronometers. In June that year Gill invited Nevill to take up the post of government astronomer of Natal, and urged him to arrive in time to observe the transit. Nevill landed in Durban on 27 November and despite problems with the equipment observed the transit with success.

He remained government astronomer of Natal from November 1882 to the end of 1910, and was the first and only superintendent of the Natal Observatory. However, despite his undoubted talents his career was marked by repeated frustrations and setbacks, mainly because of insufficient funds to appoint suitable assistants and to pay for the publication of his work. His most important astronomical work in Natal related to the theory of the moon's motion. During the 1880's the discrepancies between the best available lunar tables (published by Hansen in 1857) and observations had become so large that navigators could no longer use the moon's position to determine their longitude accurately. Nevill tackled the problem by first verifying Hansen's treatment of lunar perturbations resulting from the direct action of the sun, and introducing more accurate values of the inclination and eccentricity of the moon's orbit and the solar parallax. He then devised an improved method for calculating perturbations caused by Venus. The remaining errors he ascribed to the gravitational pull of the other planets, whose effects were very difficult to calculate. The first part of the work was published in a paper, "On the corrections required by Hansen's Tables de la Lune", in the Memoirs of the Royal Astronomical Society (1885) and other papers. He next approached the problem by reducing all available lunar observations since the middle of the 17th century to a uniform basis. Comparing these to Hansen's tables, he used the discrepancies to derive the amplitudes and periods of appropriate correction terms. After all these improvements Hansen's tables now provided an excellent fit to all lunar observations made since 1650. The work was ready for publication by the end of 1894, but no funds were available to have it printed. The manuscript remained unpublished and in 1899 was damaged during a rain storm owing to a leak in the observatory's roof. In subsequent years similar work was done by others, who received the credit. Nevill related this sad history in his presidential address to Section A of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science in 1907. His address was published in the association's Report for that year. Meanwhile he had, however, published three papers dealing with various parts of the problem in the Proceedings of the Royal Astronomical Society around 1906.

His investigation of the moon's motion led him to study accounts of ancient lunar and solar eclipses in an effort to determine the long-term acceleration of the moon. In 1905 he reported his findings in "The value of the secular acceleration of the moon yielded by the early eclipses of the sun", read at the joint meeting of the British and South African Associations for the Advancement of Science and included in the Adresses and papers... (Vol. 1, pp. 66-75) published after the meeting. Two further papers by him on early eclipses were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Astronomical Society around the same time. Though he brought some clarity to the interpretation of a few potentially useful Babylonian eclipse reports, the magnitude of the acceleration of the moon remained uncertain. He returned to the topic a few years later with a paper, "On the early Babylonian eclipse of the sun", published in the Transactions of the Royal Society of South Afica (1910-1912, Vol. 2, pp. 243-260). Two other papers based on work at the Natal Observatory, dealing with "Observations of the partial eclipse of the sun, 23rd December 1908" and "On the data employed in Oppolzer's Canon der Finsternisse" were sent to the Royal Astronomical Society in 1909 for publication.

Nevill's other astronomical work included the accurate determination of the observatory's latitude and longitude, first for astronomical purposes and then for the geodetic survey of the colony, and regular transit observations for the provision of time signals. A larger project, carried out from 1886 to 1896 in collaboration with observers in the northern hemisphere, involved the comparison of the declinations of stars based on observations made in the northern and southern hemispheres. During his early years in Natal, under the name E.N. Neison, he published a book entitled Astronomy: a simple introduction to a noble science (London, 1886). His astronomical assistants over the years included his wife (M. Nevill*), John Grant*, R.F. Rendell*, and A.E. Hodgson*.

In December 1883 he received meteorological instruments from England and instituted regular meteorological observations at the observatory. Furthermore, as government astronomer he assumed responsibility for all meteorological observations in Natal. By 1900 there were 31 stations in Natal, the Free State and Transvaal that submitted their observations to him monthly. Summaries were published regularly in the Government Gazette of Natal and in Nevill's annual reports. In 1908 he wrote an article on "The rainfall in Natal" for the Natal Agricultural Journal (Vol. 11, pp. 1531-1533) in which he identified an 18 year rainfall cycle. For many years F.A. Hammond* was his meteorological assistant.

Nevill also reduced tidal observations made during 1884-1888 and compiled tidal tables for Durban harbour. By 1903 these had still not been printed and by that time the entrance to the harbour had changed so much that more recent tidal observations needed to be reduced, for which there were no funds. From 1893, after a visit to England to obtain the necessary instruments, he made daily observations of the magnetic declination (and occasionally the magnetic inclination) at the observatory. In November 1887 he was appointed also as government chemist and official assayer for Natal, which further reduced the time available for astronomical research. His work as government chemist was mainly of a routine nature and included the analysis of geological samples for gold and other metals, analyses of soil samples for agricultural purposes, the examination of high explosives and detonators, and toxicological investigations. Among his chemical assistants were W.H. Pay* and J.S. Jamieson*.

Nevill was a man of many interests, including sport. He was a good golfer and an excellent tennis player, and is credited with introducing lawn tennis to South Africa. In 1894 he married the local tennis champion Mabel Grant [see Nevill, Mabel*] with whom he had two sons and a daughter. Drawing was another of his well-developed skills, enabling him to produce general as well as astronomical sketches. As a result of his study of ancient eclipses he became intensely interested in Babylonian history and collected much information relating to this topic. He even wrote some novels, but did not submit the manuscripts to a publisher. He was a shy person and had a strong aversion to being photographed. Twice he declined an invitation to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of London, but finally accepted in 1908. That same year he was elected as one of the original Fellows of the Royal Society of South Africa. By 1906 he was a member of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science. Around this time he served on the board of trustees of the Natal Museum.

After the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 his post was abolished and the observatory closed down. Some of the equipment went to the Union Observatory in Johannesburg, while the 200 mm refractor came under the control of the Natal Technical College. Nevill returned to England and in 1917 was associated with the office of the High Commissioner for South Africa in London. He retired to Eastbourne, but kept up his scientific interests and was awarded the medal of the Chemical Society in 1935.

List of sources:
Addresses and papers read at the joint meeting of the British and South African Associations for the Advancement of Science held in South Africa, 1905. Johannesburg: SAAAS.

Beattie, J.C. Earth magnetism in South Africa. In W. Flint & J.D.F. Gilchrist (eds), Science in South Africa (pp. 74-78). Cape Town: T. Maskew Miller, 1905.

Burdecki, F. The dawn of meteorology in Natal. Weather Bureau Newsletter, 1960, No. 135, pp. 8-9.

Durban Botanic Society. Report Natal Botanic Gardens for the year 1886. Port Natal: T.L. Cullingworth, [1887].

History of meteorology in South Africa. Weather Bureau Newsletter, Centenary edition, 1960, No. 139 (whole number), pp. 1-48.

Moore, P. & Collins, P. The astronomy of southern Africa. Cape Town: Howard Timmins, 1977.

Natal [Colony]. Civil service list, 1906.

Natal [Colony]. Departmental Reports: Report of the Government Chemist (title varies), 1888-1895, 1897-1899, 1901-1905.

Natal [Colony]. Departmental Reports: Report of the Superintendent, Natal Observatory and later, Report of the Government Astronomer, 1883-1898, 1900-1907, 1909.

Natal almanac, directory, and yearly register, 1909, p. 55, Natal Museum: Board of Trustees.

National Archives of South Africa, Pietermaritaburg Archives Repository. List of documents relating to E.N. Neison.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Natal who's who, 1906.

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers [1800-1900]. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

Royal Society of South Africa. Transactions, 1908-1917, Vol. 1, 2, and 6.

South African Association for the Advancement of Science. Report, 1905/6, 1907, 1910.

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

Standard encyclopaedia of southern Africa (SESA). Cape Town: NASOU, 1970-1976.

Venter, R.J. Bibliography of regional meteorological literature. Vol. 1. Southern Africa, 1486-1948. Pretoria: Weather Bureau, 1949.

Who was who, Vol. 3, 2nd ed. London: Adam & Black, 1967.

Compiled by: C. Plug