Adams | William Grylls | 1836-1915 | professor of natural philosophy, King's College London

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

William Grylls Adams (1836-1915), professor of Natural Philosophy at King's College, London, was important for his role in the discovery of the photoelectric effect. He was born into a family of prosperous farmers, and was educated at St John's College, Cambridge. His brother was John Couch Adams (1819-1892), the astronomer who discovered Neptune.

In 1863, Adams joined James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) in the Department of Natural Philosophy, and in 1865, he succeeded Maxwell as professor, holding the post for the next forty years.

In 1839, Alexandre Edmond Becquerel (1820-1891) discovered that illumination of one of two metal plates in a dilute acid altered the electromotive force (EMF) produced by this cell. In 1876, with his student R. E. Day, Adams discovered that illuminating a junction between selenium and platinum also has a photovoltaic effect, though in this case, an EMF is actually produced, not altered. This effect is the basis for the modern solar cell.

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 light for lighthouses.

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 was the brother of John Couch Adams, who discovered Neptune. William Grylls Adams also worked under James Clerk Maxwell for a short while.

Other Significant Information


Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1863: Appointed Lecturer in Natural Philosophy, King's College, London

1865-1905: Appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy, King's College, London

1878-1880: President of the Physical Society of London

1880: President of the Mathematical and Physical Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science

Elected Fellow of the Royal Society


List of sources for the biographical information:

Royal Society, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series A, vol. 91, (London, Harrison and Sons, 1915)