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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ellery, Robert Lewis (1827–1908)

by S. C. B. Gascoigne

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Robert Lewis John Ellery (1827-1908), astronomer and public servant, was born on 14 July 1827 at Cranleigh, Surrey, England, son of John Ellery, surgeon, and his wife Caroline, née Potter. He was trained as a surgeon (M.R.C.S.), but his early interest in astronomy was encouraged by friends at Greenwich Observatory and he was given some access to instruments there. He arrived in the Moselle at Melbourne in December 1852 and settled in Williamstown. He wrote to the press in 1853 advocating that an observatory be set up at Williamstown to determine accurate time against which shipmasters in the port could adjust their chronometers. Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe acted on the suggestion and the observatory was established within the year. Ellery was its first director, a position he retained for forty-two years.

Ellery had a sound appreciation of the directions in which the observatory could be developed, and under his hand it increased in importance in the civil and scientific life of the colony. In addition to his astronomical work he had from the outset made systematic meteorological observations. In 1858 he was appointed to conduct the geodetic survey of the colony, an undertaking which absorbed much of his time until 1874 and which had great influence on the astronomical programmes of the observatory. By 1863 the Williamstown site had become unsuitable and the observatory was moved to the Melbourne Domain where its functions were merged with those of the meteorological and magnetic observatory opened in 1858 on Flagstaff Hill by Professor Georg Neumayer. In 1862, stimulated by the appearance of Donati's comet in 1858, a group of citizens had resumed earlier negotiations to equip the observatory with a major telescope. In 1865, after long discussions, a 48-inch (122 cm) reflector was ordered from Thomas Grubb in Dublin and arrived in 1868. Until 1908 the Great Melbourne Telescope was the largest in the world, but it ran into trouble from the outset and its failure is said to have retarded the development of large telescopes for thirty years. Its faults lay not so much in the workmanship as in the design. In particular its liability to oscillate in the lightest wind and the susceptibility of the mirrors to tarnish made it almost unmanageable; even Ellery, with his fine instrumental skill, could not do much with it. What he did achieve, sketches of nebulae based on visual observations, was soon made obsolete by the advent of photography for which the telescope could not be used. Ellery had no hand in the design and was one of the few people to emerge with credit from a sorry affair. The telescope was finally acquired by the Mount Stromlo Observatory, where after extensive modification it functions successfully.

Despite the early failure of the telescope, the observatory had won solid repute in the astronomical world by the 1870s. With a staff at one time of twelve and four telescopes the main work developed from providing surveyors with more accurate positions for their reference stars into an extensive programme of mapping the southern skies. Two volumes of star positions, published in 1874 and 1889, constitute Ellery's principal scientific achievement although he published many shorter papers on instrumental problems and such transient phenomena as comets. Similarly the dropping of the Williamstown time-ball became a colony-wide time service, with signals transmitted daily over the telegraph network. The observatory was also the meteorological centre for the colony: it gathered observations and issued forecasts; it collated tidal and magnetic information and finally was responsible for calibrating navigational, surveying and other instruments, functions closely parallel to those of Greenwich Observatory.

Ellery's interests ranged far outside astronomy. A leading member of the colony's scientific community, he was president in 1866-85 of the Royal Society of Victoria which acknowledged that 'his energy long made him the mainspring of our society, and his resourcefulness helped us in many a time of difficulty'. He served on many public bodies, notably as treasurer of the Council of the University of Melbourne, as chairman of the Alfred Hospital, and as a trustee of the Public Library, Gallery and Museum. He was deeply interested and active in the first and later Australian Antarctic Exploration Committees. As early as 1886 he suggested that 'self-registering instruments should be set up on the Antarctic continent to save a party the trouble and risk of living there during the winter'; seventy years later this plan was put into effect. In 1888 he presided at a Meteorological Conference of directors of Australasian Observatories, held to improve and systematize intercolonial meteorology. In 1870 as a captain he helped to establish the Victorian Torpedo and Signal Corps; he retired in December 1888 as lieutenant-colonel. In 1885 he was the first president of the Victorian Beekeepers' Club, and edited the Australian Beekeepers' Journal.

To his role of scientific pioneer Ellery brought great intelligence, humanity and energy. With invaluable instrumental skill he devised and built an early form of chart recorder for continuous automatic records of quantities such as rainfall and temperature; incidental to this machine he anticipated by several years the invention of the fountain pen. When the Great Telescope became unusable by tarnishing of its mirrors (they were made of a tin-copper alloy known as speculum), Ellery after many trials mastered the technique of repolishing them. By 1890 he could claim that 'the performance of the great telescope is now certainly better than it ever has been'. This would be a noteworthy feat today; for that time it was remarkable. Indeed Ellery was nothing if not versatile. 'He excelled in unexpected and apparently incompatible directions; besides being a good musician, he was a good carpenter … a blacksmith, watching him working at an anvil one day, said: “that man has been in the trade; he hammers like a professional” '. To his successor, Pietro Baracchi, 'he was one of the originators of every scientific movement in Australia during half a century'. Others emphasized 'the kindly nature and fund of humour' of this 'genial old veteran'. He died in Melbourne on 14 January 1908.

Of his principal honours Ellery was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1855 and of the Royal Society in 1873, appointed C.M.G. in 1889 and in 1900 was president of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science at the Melbourne meeting. In 1853 he had married Amy, daughter of Dr John Shields; she died in 1856. In 1858 he married her sister, Margaret, who died in 1915, survived by one daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • Board of Visitors to the Observatory, Reports (Melb, 1860-95)
  • H. G. Turner, A History of the Colony of Victoria, vol 2 (Lond, 1904)
  • R. A. Swan, Australia in the Antarctic (Melb, 1961)
  • Select Committee on National Defences, Evidence, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1864-65, 2 (D33)
  • C. S. Ross, ‘Our Observatory: The Story of its Establishment’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 6, no 3, Mar 1918, pp 134-44
  • H. Wood, ‘Astronomy in Australia’, Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales, vol 84, 1950, pp 3-16
  • Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria, vol 21, 1908, p 553
  • Royal Society, Proceedings, 82 (1909)
  • Australasian, 7, 14 July 1866, 9 Mar 1867, 28 Nov 1868, 22 Oct 1870, 9 Mar 1872, 14 Mar 1885, 27 Feb 1897, 29 June 1901
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 Jan 1884.

Citation details

S. C. B. Gascoigne, 'Ellery, Robert Lewis (1827–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 12 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

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