His father was the engineer J. R. McClean, FRS. Graduating from Trinity College, Cambridge in 1859, Frank McClean was a Bachelor Scholar at Trinity for the next three years. As an engineering apprentice to Sir John Hawkshaw from 1859 to 1862, he participated in improvements in the drainage of the Fens Districts. In 1862 he became a partner in the firm of Messrs. McClean and Stileman, eventually retiring in 1870 to work on astronomy and live at Tunbridge Wells, at Ferncliffe with his wife and children.
He did important spectrographic work in astronomy, inventing his well-known star-spectroscope in 1875 and observing solar prominences. In 1877 he moved to Rusthall House, Tunbridge Wells, fitted his polar heliostat to the roof of his house, and with a grating spectroscope and electrical equipment began his studies of the solar and metallic spectra. McClean built an observatory and carried out a survey of the brighter stars in the northern hemisphere. After two years' work he finished the northern sky (publishing the spectra of 160 stars in the journal Nature). In the spring of 1897 he went to the Cape of Good Hope to survey the southern stars. In six months he had made photographs of 116 stars in the southern hemisphere. in 1897 he discovered the presence of oxygen in spectrographs from Beta Scorpii, Beta Canis Majoris, Beta Centauri, and Beta Crucis. His spectrographic survey of the stars was cited in the presentation to him of the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1899.
He studied history, made a fine collection of ancient coins, and made an outstanding collection of medieval art, books, and manuscripts, especially from Italy and France. His son Francis McClean became a famous pioneer aviator.
He is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery, London.
- "McClean, Frank (MLN855F)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
- Gill, David (1899). "On the Presence of Oxygen in the Atmosphere of Certain Fixed Stars". Astrophysical Journal 10: 272–282. Bibcode:1899ApJ....10..272G. doi:10.1086/140647.
- "Obituary: Frank McClean, LL.D., F.R.S". The Observatory 27 (351): 448–449. 1904. Bibcode:1904Obs....27..448.
- Sayle, Michael E. (2010). Fitzwilliam Museum McClean Bequest. Cambridge U. Press.
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