John Franklin-Adams' Obituary

The Observatory – A Monthly Review of Astronomy, September, 1912

John Franklin-Adams

With great regret we have to announce the death of Mr. Franklin-Adams, an amateur astronomer whose name has been in recent years much before the astronomical world, especially on account of the valuable contribution he has made to photographic star-charting and to the developing branch of astronomy which deals with stellar magnitudes and statistics.
John Franklin-Adams, son of the late John Adams, of Lloyd's, was born at Peckham on August 5, 1843, and was educated first at the Blackheath Proprietary School, and afterwards at Berlin and Havre, this continental education, combined with subsequent fairly extensive travels in Spain, Italy, Russia, and Scandinavia, giving him a considerable command of modern languages. In 1863 he began business at Lloyd's, and subsequently carried on an independent business. He married in 1879 and went to live at Chislehurst, where his five children were born. In 1890 he removed to Wimbledon, and here began the practice of astronomy, for which he had shown a liking as a boy. He bought a 4-inch telescope on a tripod stand, which he soon transferred to Machrihanish, in Argyllshire, where he went for golf and recreation, and about 1897 he bought a house at this place, to which he added an observatory. The 4-inch telescope was mounted on a stone pier, a 6-inch equatorial, a transit-instrument, a prime vertical, and clocks were added. His interest in astronomy took him to Machrihanish at every available opportunity and at all times of the year. He had been interested in photography from the time of the wet collodion plate, and now began to develop this hobby in connection with astronomy, still generally using the wet process, and it was at Machrihanish that he conceived the idea of taking such photographs of the Milky Way as would be original and available as material for information as to star distribution. The scheme was afterwards extended to the charting by photography of the whole heavens, north and south. It was found necessary to procure new lenses for the work, and three, respectively of 4-inch, 6-inch, and 10-inch diameter, were supplied by Messrs. Cooke & Sons, a full description of which will be found in ‘Monthly Notices’, May 1904. In 1900 Franklin-Adams went with an observing party from the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, under Prof. Copeland, to Santa Pola, Spain, for the Total Solar Eclipse on May 28 of that year, which was successfully observed. About 1902, Mr. Franklin-Adams became very ill with rheumatism and neuritis, and to aid his recovery he was advised to make a journey to South Africa, which he did, taking the opportunity to prosecute his scheme for photographing the sky. By permission of Sir David Gill, the 10-inch equatorial was taken to the Cape by Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Franklin-Adams's assistant, and set up in the Observatory grounds, where it was used for a year (1903-1904) to take photographs with 2 hours' exposure, each of the series covering an area 15 degrees square, the plates of another series being rather smaller. He returned to England in the spring of 1904, apparently cured of his complaint, and now moved into a new house which he had built for himself at Mervel Hill, Hambledon, near Godalming, an observatory of considerable size being attached. The instruments as described in ‘Monthly Notices’, vol. lxvi. p. 206, were, besides the 10-inch equatorial, a twin steel telescope carrying a triple achromatic object-glass by Cooke and an 8-inch by Wray; a 10° object-glass prism mounted in such a way as to be available for either of the object-glasses; a meridian-circle by Jones, with object-glass of 3½-inoh aperture and 57 inches focal length for time determination; a prime vertical by Troughton & Simms, object-glass 3½ inches; a Frodsham clock, a slave clock, a chronograph, and meteorological instruments. Here photographs were taken similar to those at the Cape, but with exposures of 2 hours 20 minutes, the extra 20 minutes being necessary because of the difference in quality of the sky, and the projected chart of the sky was finished. Extensive preparations were made for measuring and counting the stars on these plates, and the work was begun but not finished by Mr. Franklin-Adams. In 1905 he went with Prof. Becker, of Glasgow, to Algiers, to observe the eclipse of August 30, his son Bernard accompanying him, and on his return the work of completing the negatives of the northern hemisphere and of making positives from them was pushed on with much vigour at Mervel Hill, as may be seen from the Reports in the February numbers of the ‘Monthly Notices’ in 1908, 1909, and 1910. An apparatus for ruling meridians on these plates, preparatory to counting the stars, was made, and some experimental work of this kind was done. This apparatus and specimens of the photographs were exhibited at the Conversaziones of the Royal Society in various years. Difficulties were found from dew-formation on the surfaces of the object-glass of the telescope, which were overcome by an ingenious method described by Mr. Franklin-Adams in notes in M. N. vols. lxx. p. 543, lxxii. p. 165. Eventually the plates taken at Mervel Hill were found to be superior to those taken at the Cape in 1903-1904, and it was decided to repeat those of tho southern hemisphere. Mr. Franklin-Adams was preparing to go to South Africa in November 1909, but a recurrence of his illness which had been threatening spoiled his plans, and the 10-inch equatorial was sent to the Observatory at Johannesburg in charge of his Assistant, Mr. Mitchell. The telescope was used to photograph Halley's Comet in 1910, an excellent picture being secured, and it has since been used to repeat plates of the southern hemisphere, the series having been completed by Mr. Innes, but Mr. Franklin-Adams was never able to use it again. His illness became more troublesome, and he had to give up his observatory and his astronomy in 1910. In the next year he gave up his business at Lloyd's. The 10-inch equatorial was given to the Transvaal (now the Union) Observatory, the 6-inch lens to the Royal Observatory, Greenwich and the photographs and micrometer designed by Mr. Franklin-Adams were handed into the charge of the Astronomer Royal. The work of counting the stars on these plates has been in progress at Greenwich for the past eighteen months. Mr. Franklin-Adams was a keen musician. In early life he acted as organist and choirmaster at All Saints’ Church, Putney, in the building of which he was largely instrumental. He had been an active volunteer, taking part in many shooting competitions at Wimbledon, and went with a volunteer ambulance to the Franco-German War in 1870-71. He was a golfer and a Freemason, holding high office in the Craft, and was twice Master of the Armourers' and Braziers' Company. He died at Enfield on August 13 last, at the age of 69, leaving a widow, two sons, and three daughters, and his ashes, after cremation, were buried there on August 16.


Franklin-Adams was one of those men who, like South, Lassell, De la Rue, and many others, find themselves drawn by a species of natural compulsion into the pursuit of practical astronomy. It was not until comparatively late in life that Franklin-Adams’ thoughts turned strongly in this direction; but when they did, when he came into contact with others interested in the subject, his imagination was fired, and he devoted a large share of his vigorous intellect and extraordinary energy to its pursuit. His early education and the engrossing character of his business occupations had not prepared him for such work ; but I can never forget the joy with which he described to me the satisfaction he found in working out the theory and practice of the use of a transit-instrument, both in the meridian and the prime vertical. He had no instructor beyond a book, his instrument, and his own wits, and he declared that no one could really learn practical astronomy unless they began in that way and worked out things for themselves. My first intimate acquaintance with him began in 1902, when he visited the Cape. We had frequently met and had much correspondence before this, but until then I never really knew the man. He came there for the somewhat incongruous double purpose of curing a severe attack of rheumatism and neuritis and of photographing the southern heavens. He occupied rooms near the Royal Observatory during one-half of each mouth, and during the other half of the month, when moonlight would fog his long-exposure plates, he went to the Sanatorium of Caledon, about 60 miles distant from the Observatory, where he took a course of baths of the celebrated hot chalybeate springs. It was in vain that his doctor and I urged him to first complete his cure and then to do his astronomy – nothing would turn him from his purpose. He would come back from Caledon at the end of a fortnight greatly benefited, and undo a great part of that benefit by long exposure at night, to return as cheerily as ever to Caledon at the end of a fortnight. At first he could not dress without assistance, nor wash without difficulty and pain. The conditions slowly improved, but I never was convinced that he was entirely cured. There was about him an enthusiasm, an optimism, and energy which I have seldom seen surpassed. These qualities told against the permanent improvement of his health and the ultimate quality of his first series of Cape photographs. He had made a plan for doing his work which left no time for preliminary experiment, for his previous experience did not enable him to realize how numerous are the precautions, trials, and tests required to obtain perfect astronomical photographs of plates 15? square taken with a telescope of 10 inches aperture and so short a focus as 45 inches. The object-glass was a very fine one, the stand and clockwork practically perfect, but the mounting of the lens did not allow of its accurate centering and squaring, nor was the wooden plate-holder capable of precise adjustment. In spite of all advice, Franklin-Adams insisted that the work must go on before these things could be altered; but when he returned to England he got the necessary changes made, and realized the improvement in a new series of photographs of the northern heavens, finally presenting his splendid instrument to the Union Observatory, Johannesburg, with provision for re-photographing the southern heavens. This work is now being completed under Mr. Innes’ supervision, and the plates, which are valuable as bearing on stellar distribution in number and magnitude, are, through the kindness and enterprise of the Astronomer Royal, being counted and discussed at Greenwich. The appreciation of men like Kapteyn, Dyson, and others interested in cosmical astronomy was to Franklin-Adams an immense satisfaction in his later days, and it is sad to think that he has not lived to see the full outcome of his work. It appears to me, from what I have seen at Greenwich, that these results will be of high value. Franklin-Adams, so long as his health permitted, was a regular attendant at the Meetings of the Royal Astronomical Society, and his kindly personality will long be remembered as a member of the R. A. S. Club.
David Gill.