ELLERY, Robert Lewis John (1827-1908)

ELLERY, Robert Lewis John (1827-1908)
son of John Ellery, surgeon, was born at Cranleigh, Surrey, England, on 14 July 1827. He was educated at the local grammar school and qualified as a medical practitioner. He sailed for Victoria in 1851 attracted by the discovery of gold, and is stated to have practised as a physician at Williamstown near Melbourne. If so it could only have been for a very short period, as in 1853 the Victorian government decided to found an astronomical observatory, and in July of that year Ellery was placed in charge of it. He had known some members of the staff of Greenwich observatory and had learned the use of their instruments. The observatory was at first on a very modest scale, being housed in a small two-roomed cottage at Williamstown, and the only instruments were a sextant, an artificial horizon and a chronometer. However, by March 1854, a 30-inch transit instrument, a good astronomical clock and a time-ball apparatus had been added, and a few meteorological instruments were also obtained. The work that could possibly be done was not heavy, and Ellery also undertook for a time the duties of storekeeper of the marine depot. In 1856 he began a geodetic survey of Victoria which was not completed until 1874. At the beginning of 1858 the government founded another observatory known as the magnetic observatory on Flagstaff Hill, West Melbourne, under a distinguished German scientist, G. Neumayer (q.v.), who had applied for a site in the Domain south of the Yarra without success. Both Ellery and Neumayer found that the sites given them were quite unsuitable for their work, but it was not until 1863 that a move was made to the Domain. E. J. White, an able astronomer, was added to Ellery's staff in May 1860, and several valuable catalogues of stars were prepared and published. In 1868 a new telescope was sent out from England but the results obtained with it were unsatisfactory. Ellery, who had much mechanical ability, applied himself to the problems involved and the telescope ultimately did good work. At the end of 1890 another telescope arrived and Ellery began a new important piece of work, the preparation of the share allotted to Melbourne of the astrographic chart. He retired in 1895 and was succeeded by P. Baracchi.
In addition to his own work Ellery had much to do with educational and scientific bodies. He was one of the founders of the Royal Society of Victoria and its president from 1856 to 1884, became a trustee of the public library, museums and national gallery of Victoria in 1882, and was also for many years a member of the council of the university of Melbourne. He was interested in the volunteer movement and in 1873 organized the Victorian torpedo corps, afterwards the submarine mining engineers. He was in command until 1889, when he retired with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. At the meeting of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science held at Melbourne in 1900, Ellery was elected president and chose as the subject of his address "A Brief History of the Beginnings and Growth of Astronomy in Australasia". Early in 1907 he had a paralytic stroke, but recovered well and was in fair health until shortly before his death at Melbourne on 14 January 1908. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, London, in 1873, and was created C.M.G. in 1889. He was married twice, to two sisters, daughters of Dr John Shields. He left a widow and a daughter. Ellery wrote many papers for scientific journals some of which were re-issued as pamphlets. Some of the catalogues of stars and other work done under his supervision at the observatory were published, but at the time of his death much remained in manuscript.
Ellery was little more than an amateur when he began, but his knowledge increased rapidly. Situated far away from capable workmen accustomed to scientific instruments, he surmounted many difficulties by his own ingenuity. As an instance it may be mentioned that late in life he learned to refigure and polish the mirrors of telescopes. In 1891 he successfully worked out the photographic exposures required to gain one or two magnitudes, at a time when the matter was in much doubt. An amiable, ingenious, hard-working man Ellery took high rank as a pioneer scientist in Australia.
Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, ser. A, Vol. 82, p. VI; The Argus, Melbourne, 15 January 1908; P. Mennell, The Dictionary of Australasian Biography; The Victorian Historical Magazine, vol. VI, p. 134; First Annual Report, Board of Visitors, Observatories; Victorian Parliamentary Papers, vol. III, 1860.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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