The controversial pen of Edwin Holmes


The name of Edwin Alfred Holmes (Figure 1) will forever be associated with the eponymous comet that he discovered, quite by chance, just before midnight on 1892 November 6, whilst trying to locate the Andromeda Nebula, M31. He had observed the Nebula regularly ever since the appearance of a bright new star therein in 1885, now known to have been a supernova. On pointing his telescope in the direction of the Nebula he placed his eye to the eyepiece and was shocked by its unusual appearance. Holmes said he ‘called out involuntarily, ‘What is the matter’? ‘There is something strange here.’ My wife heard me and thought something had happened to the instrument and came to see.’  He quickly realised that it wasn’t the Nebula, but a bright comet, saying to his wife ‘This is coming end on, and will be a big fellow’.

Realising the importance of his discovery Holmes notified the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. The report was initially received with scepticism, for perhaps the amateur observer had mistaken it for the Andromeda Nebula (Holmes had omitted to tell them he had established it to be a different object). Nevertheless the discovery was confirmed as a new comet on the evening of Nov 7. It transpired that it had passed perihelion nearly five months earlier, but at the time of discovery was undergoing a massive outburst in apparent brightness, bringing it to naked-eye visibility. A drawing made during the outburst by H. F. Newall (1857-1944) at the Cambridge Observatory is shown in Figure 2. It began to fade in the second half of November and a second outburst occurred in mid-January 1893. Holmes was awarded the Donohoe comet medal of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific in recognition of his discovery.

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