S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Allis, Mr Edward Haggar (astronomy)

Born: 1849, Bristol, United Kingdom.
Died: 1911, London, United Kingdom.

Edward H. Allis had worked as a professional photographer in England before he emigrated to Cape Town around 1880. He practiced as a photographer in Mowbray and Rosebank (1882-1890) and in Rondebosch (1891-1893), concentrating on landscape photography. A collection of photographs ascribed to him are in the Picture Collection of the National Library in Cape Town.

In September 1882 the brightest comet observed during the nineteenth century appeared. This "Great Comet of 1882" was visible even during the day. Several photographs of it were obtained by local amateur photographers, but the scientific value of these efforts were limited because the cameras did not compensate for the diurnal motion of the earth during the exposure, thus producing blurred images. Her Majesty's Astronomer at the Cape, David Gill*, was keen to obtain clear photographs of the comet, but as the necessary equipment and expertise was not available at the Royal Observatory he called upon Allis for assistance. Allis responded with great enthusiasm. He supplied a camera with a suitable lens (focal length 279mm), which was mounted on a 152 mm equatorial telescope, as well as the necessary dry plates and the means to develop these. As the camera and telescope pointed in the same direction, the telescope could be used to guide the camera. A number of plates were obtained, with exposure times of 30 to 140 minutes. The plates showed not only a sharp image of the comet, but also clear images of stars in the background, thus demonstrating for the first time the value of photography for charting the star sphere. Gill sent prints of the photographs to various overseas correspondents, who reacted with enthusiasm. The photos were later published in the Annals of the Cape Observatory (Vol. 2, Part 1). He donated Allis's negatives to the Royal Astronomical Society and they are now in the Science Museum in London.

In a letter to the Photographic Journal in England, Allis implied that the idea of mounting the camera on a telescope to compensate for the earth's diurnal motion and so obtain sharp images of the celestial bodies originated with him, and that he obtained Gill's help to carry it out. Gill responded by explaining in a letter to the secretary of the Royal Astronomical Society that he was himself the originator of the concept, and that Allis had merely acted as a most able assistant. Gill's version of the events is generally accepted.

Allis had returned to England by 1896 and from that year to 1901 had a studio in London. In 1901 he was a trade photographer there.

List of sources:
Bensusan, A.D. 19th Century photographers in South Africa. Africana Notes and News, 1963, Vol. 15, pp. 219-252.

Gill, D. & Kapteyn, J.C. The Cape Photographic Durchmusterung for the equinox 1875 (Parts 1-3. Annals of the Cape Observatory, Vol. 3, 4 and 5. See introduction by Gill in Vol. 1). London: HMSO, 1896, 1897, 1900.

Glass, I.S. The beginnings of astronomical photography at the Cape. Monthly Notes of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa, 1989, Vol. 48(11&12), pp. 117-122.

Loos, J.E.H. Allis, early Cape photographer. Quarterly Bulletin of the South African Library, 1996, Vol. 51(2), pp. 53-57.

PhotoLondon. www.photolondon.org.uk/pages/details.asp?pid=86 as on 2015-8-17.

Compiled by: C. Plug