William Grylls Adams

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William Grylls Adams
Born18 February 1836 Edit this on Wikidata
Laneast Edit this on Wikidata
Died10 April 1915 Edit this on Wikidata (aged 79)
Broadstone Edit this on Wikidata
OccupationPhysicist, astronomer, philosopher Edit this on Wikidata

William Grylls Adams FRS (18 February 1836 in Laneast, Cornwall – 10 April 1915) was professor of Natural Philosophy at King's College, London.[1] He was active in research on subjects ranging from light, magnetism, and astronomy to electrical power generation and transmission. His research in optics yielded the discovery that certain materials, notably selenium, produce an electric current when exposed to light.[2] Adams also actively participated in many academic societies and held major positions within the societies.


William Grylls Adams was the youngest son of the seven children, four sons and three daughters, of Thomas Adams and Tabitha Knill Grylls.[3] The astronomer John Couch Adams (1819–1892) was his older brother.


Adams attended St. John's College, Cambridge and graduated as 11th Wrangler in 1855.[4] He subsequently held positions at several other institutions, including vice-principal of Peterborough Training College in 1859 and mathematics master at Marlborough College in 1860.[3] In 1863 Adams moved to King's College, London where he worked under James Clerk Maxwell as a natural philosophy lecturer.[3] He undertook a teaching post at Highgate School in 1864.[5]

King's College[edit]

Adams was a pioneer in the development of science education, in particular manufacturing and engineering.[3] He focused on practical application of conceptual physics material to engineering practices.[3] This model worked well enough that the rest of the department adopted the model.[3] He also worked to increase funding through laboratory accommodations and the Whitworth scholarship scheme.[3]


In 1839, Alexandre Edmond Becquerel (1820–1891) had discovered that illumination of one of two metal plates in a dilute acid changed the electromotive force (EMF).[6] Adams, however, had a wide area of interest, chief among these was light and magnetism. Light was the focus of Adams’ research, which began in 1871, in which he studied the effects of polarization.[3] In order to study the effects of polarization on various substances like selenium and tellurium, Adams developed a new variant of the polariscope.[3] In doing this, he was able to research “the optical axes of biaxial crystals.”[3] In 1876, Adams and Richard Evans Day discovered that illuminating a junction between selenium and platinum has a photovoltaic effect.[7][8] This first demonstrated that electricity could be produced from light without moving parts and led to the modern solar cell. The two also found that "the ultra-red or the ultra-violet rays have little or no effect; also that the intensity of the action depends on the illuminating power of the light, being directly as the square root of that illuminating power."[9]

Although his focus was light, magnetism was also heavy in his research. In this area, his focus was the resistance change in materials due to magnetism.[3] Adams also compared readings of magnetographs form the observatories of various European cities and compared the “disturbances that were produced simultaneously at a number of locations."[3] Adams was able to collect and analyze the data to make recommendations on how to calibrate the machinery with specific constants.[10]

The field of astronomy also drew Adams' attention and eventually lead him to Italy to study eclipses.[3] He also ventured into areas such as electrical power generation and transmission, specifically lighthouse illumination.[3] In this area, he compared varying aspects electric and oil lights for Trinity House.[3] Adams was on the forefront of this field, and even “gave a presidential address outlining the efficiency of dynamos used at the Crystal Palace in 1882.”[3]

Outside of his main position at King's College Adams was extremely active in academic pursuits. Among these were the Department of Science and Art and the universities of Cambridge and London, where he held the title of "examiner" in the field of physics from 1879 to 1892.[3]

Societies and Fellowships[edit]

From 1878 to 1880 he was President of the Physical Society of London. In June 1872 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and in 1875 delivered their Bakerian Lecture.[11] He was president of the Institution of Electrical Engineers and of the mathematical and physical section of the British Association.[12] Adams was also a frequent attendee to the lectures of John Tyndall at the Royal Institution.[3] One of is duties for the Royal Society was being a member of the Kew observatory committee. Adams was also active at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich as a member of the board of visitors.[3]

Later Years[edit]

“In 1905 Adams retired from King’s College, London, he went to live at Heathfield in Broadstone, Dorset. He would later die here on 10 April 1915 and was survived by his wife, Mary Dingle, and three children.”[3][13]


  • Solar Heat: A Substitute Fuel for Tropical Countries, Bombay, 1878; Chadwyck-Healey Ltd., 2001
  • The action of light on selenium, 1875
  • On the action of light on tellurium and selenium, 1876
  • Simultaneous magnetic disturbances
  • Alternate current machines
  • Testing of dynamo machines


  1. ^ "Adams, William Grylls". Who's Who. Vol. 59. 1907. p. 17.
  2. ^ Cleveland, Cutler J; Morris, Christopher G (2014). Dictionary of Energy. Elsevier. p. 8. ISBN 978-0080968117.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Birley, Graham I. (4 October 2019). "Adams, William Grylls". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/54259. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  4. ^ "Adams, William Grylls (ADMS855WG)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  5. ^ Ed. Boreham, J.Y. Highgate School Register 1838-1938 (4th ed.). p. xxvi.
  6. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 29 May 2010. Retrieved 11 May 2010.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  7. ^ "Search - The Encyclopedia of Earth". Eoearth.org. Retrieved 28 July 2018.
  8. ^ Smith, Zachary Alden; Taylor, Katrina D. (28 July 2018). Renewable and Alternative Energy Resources: A Reference Handbook. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781598840896. Retrieved 28 July 2018 – via Google Books.
  9. ^ Adams, William Grylls; Day, Richard E (1 January 1877). "V. The action of light on selenium". Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. 25 (171–178): 113–117. doi:10.1098/rspl.1876.0024.
  10. ^ Adams, William Grylls (1 January 1892). "IV. Comparison of simultaneous magnetic disturbances at several observatories". Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London A. 183: 131–139. Bibcode:1892RSPTA.183..131A. doi:10.1098/rsta.1892.0004.
  11. ^ "Library and Archive Catalogue". Royal Society. Retrieved 14 December 2010.
  12. ^ Gilman, D. C.; Peck, H. T.; Colby, F. M., eds. (1905). "Adams, William Grylls" . New International Encyclopedia (1st ed.). New York: Dodd, Mead.
  13. ^ G. C. F. Obituary Notices of Fellows Deceased. Royal Society Publishing. pp. lxiii–lxiv.

William Grylls Adams in libraries (WorldCat catalog)