Sunday, 7 May 2017

Update On The Earliest Known Halo Photograph

Following recent comments by one of our readers, Aysun Ülger, on the post regarding the earliest known photograph of a halo, I thought it would be useful to post an update in order to make a permanent record of the images he has been kind enough to share with us. 

First, from the book "Manual of Meteorology" by Sir Napier Shaw dated 1926, we have two images of halos. The one on the left taken in Aberdeen, Scotland by G. A. Clarke and is dated 30th September 1910, and the one on the right taken in Potsdam, Germany by A. Sprung is dated 13th March 1902. This is now the earliest photograph of a halo we have.
Second, whilst not an actual photograph of a halo, I also thought it would be useful to reproduce an illustration which was included in the book "The Voyage of the 'Discovery'" by Captain Robert F. Scott dated 1905 giving an account of his Antarctic expedition between 1901 and 1904. 
To my mind, this illustration has a very modern look to it, as if it could have been drawn from a photograph taken with a modern all sky lens. If only they had such equipment back then! I also like the way the artist has differentiated the coloured and white halos. What is of great interest is that it has one of the earliest depictions of the Kern arc that we know about. It is interesting to read Scott's own account of the display and it is worth quoting in full,

"November 29 - Shortly after four o'clock to-day we observed the most striking atmospheric phenomenon we have yet seen in these regions. We were enveloped in a light, thin stratus cloud of small ice-crystals; it could not have extended to any height, as the sun was only lightly veiled. From these drifting crystals above, the sun's rays were reflected in such an extraordinary manner that the whole arch of the heavens was traced with circles and lines of brilliant prismatic or white light. The coloured circles of a bright double halo were touched or intersected by one which ran about us parallel to the horizon; above this, again, a gorgeous prismatic ring encircled the zenith; away from the sun was a white fogbow, with two bright mock suns where it intersected the horizon circle. The whole effect was almost bewildering, and its beauty is far beyond the descriptive powers of my sledging pencil. We have often seen double halos, fog-bows, mock suns, and even indications of other circles, but we have never been privileged to witness a display that approaches in splendour that of to-day. We stopped, whilst Wilson took notes of the artistic composition, and I altitudes and bearings of the various light effects. If it is robbed of some of the beauties of a milder climate, our region has certainly pictures of its own to display.

On our return to the ship I could find no account, in such reference books as we had, of anything to equal this scene, nor have I since heard of its having been witnessed elsewhere. The accompanying drawing shows more clearly than I can describe what we actually saw; our artist has shown it diagrammatically, and the observer is supposed to be looking straight upwards towards the zenith." (The Voyage of the 'Discovery', Captain Robert F. Scott, pp 35-36).

So then, the bar is now set at 13th March 1902. This is a mere 76 years after the birth of photography. With a little more effort I am sure we can push this date back into the nineteenth century and even further. As Aysun commented, "Let's keep going"!


  1. to me, it is much more likely the helic arc. helic is white and sharp and can be well visible. it would just be that the loop was not correctly drawn


  2. For me the most stunning part of this is how Scott was amazed by the view. He was not the kind of person who could be easily amazed by anything.
    By the way Edward Wilson was the most accurate illustrator ever born on this planet. He was not only a perfect observer, making sketches right just when he saw something interesting (marking the colours with every part of the view for later coloured drawings) but he was also good at drawing angles, distances, etc. I'd rather believe anything he draw than what Scott wrote.

  3. Great insight Nicolas. At South Pole helic arc is a common halo - I think we saw it more often than Parry arc. Often it was made of individual crystals and visible only high up against the deepest blue sky.

  4. Interesting, Nicolas. It did cross my mind whether there could be another explanation considering the rarity of the Kern. It is also interesting to note that Scott took "altitudes and bearings of the various light effects". I wonder whether his notes and measurements still exist? If so, it might be possible to make an accurate simulation of what he saw and then compare it with the Wison's drawing. Am I right in thinking that this is one of the historically accepted observations of the Kern or am I mistaken in that assumption? If that is the case and in actuality it was a mistaken helic arc then this has a devastating effect on Kern stats! The helic possibility may also cast some doubt on other non-photographic Kern observations.

    I wish more people would also start sketching what they see as well as taking photographs. I began to do this earlier in the year year. I find it incredibly difficult to produce a decent drawing but it certainly makes you observe in a more analytical way. It will be a long time before I can produce anything quite as good as the Wilson sketch.

  5. Thank you so much for this update Alec. I found another book that contains more sketches of halos by Wilson. They are after the page 16.