Professor Allen Abraham: An Illustrious Son of Jaffna College … and His Predictions about the Halley’s comet

Logan Thurairatnam …. with highlighting in black being that from the author, while coloured highlights have been  imposed by The Editor, Thuppahi

April 14th, 1910 – Prof. Allen Abraham sighted the Halley’s Comet with his naked eye from his home base of Karaitivu, Ceylon. He was the first in the world to do so. His sighting and claim are recorded in the Jaffna College Miscellany, June 1910 edition as “With the naked eye it was first seen by us in Jaffna on the 14th of April 1910.Professor Allen Abraham was an Astronomer, Professor of Mathematics and Tamil at Jaffna College and a composer.

Prof. Allen Abraham BA, FRAS, 1865 – 1922

He joined Jaffna College as a student in 1884, then [became] Professor of Tamil in 1891. In 1893 he was appointed as Professor of Mathematics. He continued his teaching until his death in 1922. He is considered one of Jaffna College’s greats. He was a poet. He composed lyrics of which ten are included in the Church of South India Song Book. These songs are still sung in churches today.






The Halley’s Comet was expected to return in early 1910 and there was great excitement among astronomers as this return was to be the first opportunity to photograph the comet as well as observe the transit of the sun (when viewed from earth the comet would move across the face of the sun). The transit of the sun occurs once every 650 revolutions ie approximately 50,000 years.

It was made known that a prize would be awarded to anyone who could predict the date of the perihelion – the closet point to the sun. There were two submissions for this competition. On September 11, 1909, Dr. Max Wolf of the Heidelberg Observatory sighted the comet using his telescope and photographed it. When the sighting was announced, the perihelion was calculated and the winners of the prize were Dr. A.C.D Crommelin and P.H. Cowell from the Greenwich Observatory in London. In their essay the perihelion was calculated to be 16th of April 1910 but the true date calculated after sighting was 19th April 1910. Messrs Crommelin and Cowell were given numerous awards and accolades for their great achievement. In November 1909, after making observations of the comet, they published the revised date of the perihelion and the date and time of the transit. These were published in the November notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), London.

On the obscure island of Karaitivu, off the island of Ceylon an unknown astronomer Prof. Allen Abraham (named Ambalavanar Subramaniar at birth) was also calculating the trajectory of the Halley’s Comet. He was also writing articles in the local newspapers and school journals about the Halleys’s Comet. The newspapers carried sensational news about the comet and the possible disaster befalling the earthlings. Some reports said that the comet would crash into the earth whilst others claimed the comet would brush past earth and the poisonous gas in the comets tail would kill many of the inhabitants on earth. Unfortunately, many in the public believed these stories. In addition to writing articles, he was giving lectures about the comet and providing a rational explanation for the comet’s appearance.

On March 26th, 1910, Prof. Abraham gave a lecture to about 500 people at the American English school, in Karaitivu about the Halley’s Comet. In attendance was the Ceylon Observer reporter who filed his report which was published on 28th March 1910. The news report stated that during the lecture, it was said that:

  1. The comet had already become a morning star and would be visible to the naked eye in the Eastern sky from the middle of April to the middle of May.
  2. It will be almost in conjunction with Venus during the first week of May when its motion will be affected by that planet.

The first prediction came true when he sighted the comet on 14th April 1910.

As predicted by the British astronomers the perihelion occurred on 20th April 1910. The next event expected was the transit and the predicted date was 18th May 1910, visible in Australasia — India, Ceylon, Australia etc. All was well until 17th of May 1910 (day before transit was to occur), when the Comet Committee of the Astronomical and Astrophysical Society of America requested the Berkeley University Astronomical Department to recheck the transit calculations of Dr. A.C.D Crommelin and P.H. Cowell. The initial calculations were checked by Professor Crawford and Mr. Meyer. They corrected the information provided by Crommelin and Cowell in November 1909 and determined that the transit would occur one hour later. This information was then relayed around the world to leading observatories by telegram. They also determined that Mars did not affect the calculations, but perturbations were caused by the actions of Venus and Earth.

Observatories in Sydney and Kodaikkanal amongst others were in preparation to observe the transit. One of the astronomers in the Sydney observatory did not pass on the corrected transit time to the astronomers who oversaw the transit. As a result, they reported “…… not a trace of the comet could be found.” Kodaikkanal Observatory reported:

“The calculated time of the comet’s ingress, as communicated to us some time before, was 7h 50m and so everything was in readiness ……… but at 8 o’clock we received a Kiel telegram giving the corrected time of ingress and egress as 8h 59 and 9h 59m L.S.T.”

Interestingly, in Tasmania Australia a member of the public, J.B. Bullock observed the transit with the naked eye. The news report stated: “……the comet, he states, could be seen with the naked eye, and at 11 o’clock a vestige of the tail in the shape of a fan with radii opening upwards was visible. Mr. Bullock not only conducted observations himself, but his results were checked by members of his household and other people. His mode of procedure was to shut the sun out by an adjoining roof and then examine his neighbourhood through his glasses with the result that he obtained some interesting observations. The mistake which other observers made was to examine the sun and region surrounding through smoked glasses with the result that they saw nothing.  ……..”

A subsequent astronomical paper stated the following: “It was supported as well as communicated to the newspaper by Alexander McAulay, a Professor of Mathematics and Physics at the University of Tasmania. Second, in his letter to the newspaper, McAulay expressed annoyance at a colleague, Dr.Baracchi, for failing to telegraph the latest revised transit times for the comet. The times with which Bullock and McAulay had been working were 12h22 – 1h22m L.M.T.  However, Bullock continued to observe the comet in daylight before transit, up to 1h28m L.M.T., which corresponded to the true time of beginning transit….”

This sighting by J.B. Bullock is the only reported sighting of the beginning of transit anywhere in the world. Furthermore, it validates the transit times calculated by the Berkeley University members Dr. Crawford and Mr. Meyer.

Prof. Abraham’s second prediction was proven true with this validation of the corrected transit times.

In June 1911, with the recommendation of three Indian Astronomers, Sree Rajah A.V. Jugga Rao Bahadur Garu, J.D. Bharda and K.D. Naegamvala, Prof. Abraham submitted his application to be elected Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. In January 1912, he was elected Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, the first native Ceylonese to be thus elected. The Jaffna College Miscellany of 1912 celebrated his achievement as:

“ ………… He predicted and explained with diagrams that the comet would be visible to the naked eye in the middle of April 1910, while other astronomers thought that it would not be seen so soon ………… Again, he pointed out in his lectures and explained with diagrams that the comet would enter the orbit of Venus and reach so near it during the first week of May, that its motion would be retarded by that planet. ……….. Mr. Abraham has indeed done real service in popularising Astronomy and amply deserved the honour conferred on him by a scientific society of such high rank as the Royal Astronomical Society of England.”

 Subsequently in 1913, The Missionary Herald, Boston, USA stated the following:

“ALLEN ABRAHAM, for twenty-one years professor of astronomy in Jaffna College, Ceylon, has recently been elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society of England, the first native Ceylonese to receive that honour ……..When Halley’s Comet was being studied in 1910, his prediction as to the time of its visibility, earlier than that of other astronomers, was proved true; moreover he noted, what many eminent scholars overlooked, that the entrance of the comet into the orbit of Venus would retard its motion and affect the calculation of the time of its crossing the sun’s disc.”


In 1914 the British Astronomical Association published the Report on Halley’s Comet. The co-author was Dr. A.C.D. Crommelin. This report was all about the 1910 appearance of the Halley’s Comet. This report refers to Prof. Abraham as follows:

“In the Ceylon Observer of March 28, 1910, I read that Prof. Abraham, of Jaffna College, has traced the appearance of Halley’s Comet to 5012 B.C. Unfortunately the dates of the intermediate returns are not stated, so that Dr. Crommelin will not get much assistance from that source.”

There is no other reference to Prof. Abraham. His predictions in the March 28, 1910 Ceylon Observer report was ignored. This negative piece raises many questions. i) Was it necessary to include this negative piece in this report? ii) Was the author reading every newspaper in the colonies between 1910-1914 for articles on Halley’s comet? iii) Why specifically refer to the Ceylon Observer of March 28, 1910? One can only assume this piece in the report was to discredit Prof. Abraham’s predictions.

 Prediction 1 – Visibility with the naked eye

The Report on Halley’s Comet explicitly stated that, “Prof. Wolf saw the comet with the naked eye on February 11. He was the first to discover it with the camera, and the first to see it with the naked eye.”

 However, it is widely reported and accepted that Prof. Wolf was the first to see the comet with the telescope but other than the Report on Halley’s Comet nowhere else is it stated that Prof. Wolf saw the comet with his naked eye on February 11. Casting doubt is the paper by Dr. Donald K Yeoman of Jet Propulsion Laboratory/NASA (California Institute of Technology) titled Great Comets in History (April 2007). The paper lists great comets from A.D 66 to 2007 giving various information about the comets including the first reported sighting with the naked eye. The 1910 return and the first sighting with the naked eye is listed as 10th April 1910.

Prof. Wolf’s reported sighting in the Report on Halley’s Comet two months previously must be dismissed as an error. The observational logbooks at the Heidelberg observatory (Landessternwarte Königstuhl) shows that on September 11th, 1909, the comet was photographed on the photographic plate number D571. However, there are no observational records for February 11th & 12th 1910.

In two months, the comet would have been several million miles further from earth and its visibility with the naked eye in February must be questioned. It appears that Dr. Wolf did not make this claim, but is an error introduced by the Report on Halley’s Comet author.

Prediction 2 – Motion of the Comet affected by the planet (Venus)

The transit section of the Report on Halley’s Comet was very brief and said: “A transit took place in the night of May 18, which was expected to be visible in India and Australia. Mr. Leuschner calculated: ………… “

 Stating “Mr. Leuschner calculated” is untrue. The transit time was given by Cowell and Crommelin in the November 1909, number of the RAS monthly notices as: “…….. a nearly central transit of the comet over the sun results on 1910 May 18d 14h , visible in the Pacific Ocean, and in Asia, Australia, etc”

The Report on Halley’s Comet importantly omits that the elements, given by Cowell and Crommelin in the monthly notices, were corrected. These corrections were made by Professor Crawford and Mr. Meyer. Problems with Cowell’s & Crommelin’s predictions were identified by the Comet Committee of the Astronomical and Astrophysical Society of America, the day before transit. At their request, the Berkley Astronomical Department carried out computations of the transit. The corrected transit times were then telegraphed to all the major observatories around the world. In addition, the Berkley Astronomical Department went onto say:

“ …. The perturbations due to the action of Venus and the Earth, during March, April and May, were computed with great accuracy”.

The entire background regarding the corrections to the transit times and specifically the corrections made to Cowell’s & Crommelin’s November predictions was not included in the Report on Halley’s Comet. In addition, the fact that the corrected transit times being approximately one hour later was excluded from the report. What is also missing is that the perturbations were caused by Venus and Earth. Furthermore, J.B. Bullock’s sighting in Tasmania was dismissed by Dr. A.C.D. Crommelin without explanation.

Collectively the errors and omissions in the Report on Halley’s Comet suppressed Prof. Abraham’s predictions and discredited his work and he was denied due recognition. Furthermore, linking him to the news report of 28th March 1910 and associating him with an irrelevant portion of the lecture taken out of context to portray to the reader that the lack of intermediate returns was of no assistance to Crommelin was an effort by the Report on Halley’s Comet author to discredit Prof. Abraham.

The 1910 return of the Halley’s comet was an European story. The prediction of the perihelion to within 3 days was a tremendous effort but the recognition of the errors in the calculation of the transit and the corrections to the timing was done by the Americans. The new transit time was validated by the clever observation of the comet in Tasmania by an Australian. Above all, the prediction that the comet’s motion would be affected by Venus thus affecting the transit time was by Prof. Abraham a native Ceylonese. The Report on Halley’s Comet author did not give credit to the Americans, the Australian or the Ceylon astronomer. The report was biased as the co-author was Dr. A.C.D. Crommelin and it was engineered to benefit him.

The story did not end there. A team of researchers from Leiden University in the Netherlands published a paper titled, “The Origin of Chaos in the Orbit of Comet 1P/Halley”, in 2016. This paper was accepted by the Royal Astronomical Society for publication. The paper explained the chaotic orbit of comet Halley. The university website stated the following regarding this research:

“Despite The regular return, the comet’s orbit cannot be predicted exactly. This is partly due to processes inside the comet and partly because the orbit of Halley is disturbed by the chaotic interaction with the planets and minor bodies in the solar system.”

The publication further stated: “ …. Halley’s orbit was most strongly influenced by the planet Venus and not by Jupiter, the planet that was always pointed to as the biggest spoiler.”

This research points out that for the next several appearances of comet Halley, it is Venus that would have the greatest effect. The research paper further stated:  “ ….. perturbations in Halley’s orbit has important contributions not only from Jupiter, as is already known, but also from Venus. Indeed, currently Venus is the dominant perturber, and Jupiter takes over only after about 3 kyr from now. ………. that the distance of closest approach to Venus can compensate for its low mass.”

The research results from Leiden University in 2016, Berkeley Universities revised times and further revision of Berkeley University times after transit confirms the brilliant prediction three months previously of Prof. Allen Abraham that: “……. its motion will be affected by that planet.”

and suggests the factor which he may have considered in his calculation/observations that his contemporaries did not. It took 106 years to prove mathematically what Prof. Allen Abraham predicted on 26th March 1910 on the island of Karaitivu.

Jaffna College Vice Principal, Lyman S Kulathungam in 1947 summed up Prof. Abraham as follows: “We students of the Bicknell period respected and esteemed various teachers for various qualities, but we did not come across another who combined in himself the brilliancy of a student, the ability of a teacher, the love and care of a fond parent, the thoroughness and punctuality of a well-disciplined life, the nobility and great-heartedness of a generous nature, the upright character and saintly conduct of a perfect Christian gentleman like Mr.Abraham.


This Item  has been extracted from the authors book titled “Allen Abraham (Ambalavanar Subramaniar) and the Halley’s Comet, published in 2021. Published by, Neptune Publications ……………



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