Biography of William Grylls Adams

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William Grylls Adams, professor of Natural Philosophy at King’s College,London, was important for his role in the discovery of the photoelectric effect. William Grylls Adams was born on the 16 February 1836 in Laneast near Launceston, Cornwall, into a family of prosperous farmers, and was educated at St John’s College, Cambridge.

He received a BA in 1859 and was member of the Jesus College in Cambridge. In 1863 Adams was appointed as Lecturer in the Department of Natural Philosophy, King’s College, London, where he joined JamesClerk Maxwell (1831-1879). In 1865 he succeeded Maxwell as professor, holding the post for the next forty years.

In 1876 William Grylls Adams, with his student, Richard Evans Day, discovered that a solid material – selenium – produced electricity when exposed to light. Today, we refer to electricity produced directly from light as the photovoltaic effect. When William Grylls Adams and his student, Richard Evans Day, discovered that an electrical current could be started in selenium solely by exposing it to light, they felt confident that they had discovered something completely new.

Werner von Siemens, a contemporary whose reputation in the field of electricity ranked him alongside Thomas Edison, called the discovery “scientifically of the most far-reaching importance.” This pioneering work portended quantum mechanics long before most chemists and physicist had accepted the reality of atoms. Although selenium solar cells failed to convert enough sunlight to power electrical equipment, they proved that a solid material could change light into electricity without heat or without moving parts.

Adams served as President of the Physical Society of London in 1878-1880. In 1880 he was elected as President of the Mathematical and Physical Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Adams was also Elected Fellow of the Royal Society.

His links with the Kew Observatory Committee of the Royal Society and the Board of Visitors of the Royal Observatory led him into work on terrestrial magnetism. He wrote several papers on this subject. Adams also carried out a study into the relative benefits of oil and electric lightfor lighthouses. Adams published, beside a lot of mathematical work, a report on the solar eclipse on 22 December 1870 as observed from Sicily.

William Grylls Adams was the brother of John Couch Adams (1819-1892), the astronomer who discovered Neptune. After his brother John’s death, William Adams edited and published his brother’s papers – both the scientific papers he had published and the manuscripts of those that he had not published. This was published in two parts, in 1896 and 1901.

William Grylls Adams died on the 10 April 1915.

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