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Volume 52, 1920

Charles William Adams, 1840–1918.

Charles William Adams was born at Bucklands, Tasmania, on the 7th July, 1840. His parents, the Rev. Henry Cay Adams and his wife (née Maiden), were early settlers in Tasmania. He was educated at the Campbelltown Grammar School under Dr. W. Carr Boyd, of Trinity College, Dublin.

After some experience in land-surveying in Victoria and Tasmania he came to New Zealand in 1862 and entered the Provincial Survey Department of Otago, being appointed in 1865 to the Wellington Provincial Survey Department. In 1867 he returned to the Otago Survey Department, and on the abolition of the provinces in 1876 he was appointed Geodesical Surveyor in the General Government.

In 1877, when engaged in latitude observations on the west coast of the South Island, Mr. Adams discovered an error in the British Admiralty Nautical Almanac. His programme included observations to eight stars—four north and four south of the zenith—and at each of three stations Alpha Centauri was one of the stars observed to the south of the zenith. The observations were made in April, May, and June, and when reduced the observations on Alpha Centauri were not consistent with the others. It is to be remembered that the observations were made with a portable field theodolite with 8 in. circles, and not with the large instruments of an observatory.

The difference disclosed was of the order of 12″, whilst his probable error of each of the other results was about 1″. Mr. Adams thereupon corresponded with the Astronomer Royal (Sir G. B. Airy), Greenwich, and the Government Astronomer (Mr. R. L. J. Ellery), Melbourne, with the result that the error was admitted, and the declination of Alpha Centauri was afterwards corrected.

It should be stated that the Nautical Almanac position of Alpha Centauri depended on Herschel's observations at the Cape of Good Hope in 1834–38, and that a small proper motion had been accumulating for about forty years, and, not being taken into account, the position in 1877 was some 11″ in error.

In 1882 a temporary observatory was built at-Mount Cook, Wellington, to prepare for the observation of the Transit of Venus on the 7th December, 1882. Previous to this event, and in preparation for it, Mr. Adams undertook extensive observations for time and azimuth, and exchanged time signals with the British and other astronomers who observed the Transit of Venus in New Zealand.

In 1883 Mr. Adams observed over one hundred pairs of stars with the zenith telescope for latitude at Wellington. In September he visited the observatories at Melbourne and Sydney to prepare for the exchange of time signals by the submarine cable between Sydney and Wellington for the determination of the difference of longitude. The astronomical observations were made and the time signals exchanged in December, 1883. Mr. Adams was the astronomer at the Wellington Observatory, whilst Mr. Russell, Government Astronomer of New South Wales, was in charge at Sydney.

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Twenty years later another determination of the difference of longitude between Sydney and Wellington was obtained by the Canadian Astronomer, Dr. Otto Klotz, and by Mr. Thomas King, the New Zealand Astronomer, and so accurately was the work performed by all the astronomers that the two determinations differed only some 17 ft. in a distance of over 1,200 nautical miles.

Mr. Adams was engaged in other astronomical work until 1885, and took part in the observations of the total solar eclipse on the 8th September, 1885. In that year he was appointed Chief Surveyor of Otago; in 1896 he was transferred to Marlborough; and he retired from the Public Service in May, 1904.

His scientific activities were wide and varied. For twenty years he was the editor of the New Zealand Surveyor, and almost every number of that periodical contains some scientific article from his pen. He was a life member of the New Zealand Institute, and was a past President of the Otago Institute.

He addressed the Wellington Philosophical Society on “Daylight-saving,” a device to which he strongly objected; but he was an energetic advocate for a permanent alteration of the clock of half an hour, so as to make New Zealand standard time twelve hours in advance of Greenwich mean time.

He was connected with the Hector Observatory, and was in charge of the time service during the interval when the Observatory was being moved from Bolton Street to Kelburn. It was during this period that he developed the almucantar method of time observation with a 12 in. transit theodolite.

His ripe experience in astronomy was invaluable to the Hector Observatory, to which institution he acted as honorary scientific adviser. It is interesting to note that the transit instrument and astronomical clock used by Mr. Adams in 1883 are now in use at the Observatory.

The above details of Mr. Adams's scientific activities were supplied by his son, Dr. C. E. Adams, of the Hector Observatory; and whilst the writer, during his twenty-five years in the Lands and Survey Department, knew Mr. Adams through such papers as those dealing with the sag of steel bands and calculations in connection therewith, and other like technical papers, it was not until comparatively recently that he came into personal contact with him, and then it was in an entirely different department of mental activity, the department of poetry and literary criticism, where again his bent of original thought gave value to such acute observations as he occasionally made: this side of his nature is well represented in his son Arthur H. Adams.

Those who knew him characterize him as a hard and conscientious worker, methodical and orderly; a rugged personality, who lived intensely in the present. His life and work taught the lesson—do everything in the best way possible, and by unremitting labour improve upon it the next time. He was always good company, his tenacious and ready memory supplying him with a fund of anecdotes, so that he was always able to introduce one or more, quite apropos, whatever the subject of conversation.

He retained his scientific activities right to the end, and less than a month before he died he read a paper on a novel star atlas before the Astronomical Section of the Wellington Philosophical Society.

Mr. Adams died at his residence, Bellevue Road, Lower Hutt, on Tuesday, the 29th October, 1918, from heart-failure, his widow (sister of the late E. T. Gillon) and a family of six (five sons and one daughter) surviving him.

Johannes C. Andersen.