The 'Comet Man'
Born: 31st August 1821, Marylebone, Middlesex, England
Died: 4th November 1915, Dorking, Surrey, England
In the late summer of 1858 a ‘Great Comet’ appeared which was so bright it could easily be seen in broad daylight; people were awed by it, artists painted it and the great astronomers of the day tried to photograph it. The famous Astrophotographer, Warren de La Rue attempted to capture it and failed. George Phillips Bond (1825-1865), the son of the Director of the Harvard College Observatory, even succeeded in photographing it on the 28th of September of that year. However he would later find out that he was beaten to it – by a single day, and therefore lost his claim of being the first person ever to photograph a Comet.
So which of the great observatories with their large telescopes claimed this remarkable feat as theirs:Greenwich, Berlin, Paris or St. Petersburg? And who was the astronomer whose name would live forever in the annals of the History of Photography - Sir George Airy, the Astronomer Royal; or Johann Galle, the discoverer of the Planet Neptune; or Giovanni Battista Donati (1826-1873), the comet’s discoverer? It was none of them!
The honour went in fact to - William Usherwood, an unknown miniature artist and commercial photographer from Walton-on-the-Hill, Surrey, England. Yet his name like the object he photographed shone brightly for a while, before disappearing into the dark depths of space and time. So why did William Usherwood, with the aid of the camera he used for photographing babies and weddings succeed; whilst Bond with the ‘Great Harvard Refractor’ at his disposal only managed a photograph of the comet, which he himself admitted was poor and a day too late?
William Usherwood’s story, begins not on Walton Common where he captured the light of an object which man had not seen since the time before Rome ruled the known world; or at Dorking where he lived for a good part of life, but in the streets of the old parish of St. Marylebone in the old county of Middlesex, where he was born.
To read more on his life and work and the other early pioneers of amateur Astrophotography, read the eBook chapter on William Usherwood or buy the eBook or Printed Book at 'Catchers of the Light'.
Comet Donati by William Turner (1789-1862) of Oxford.