Walter Sydney Adams Papers

Mss.B.Ad19

Date: 1881-1939 | Size: 0.25 Linear feet

Abstract

An expert in stellar spectroscopy, Walter Sydney Adams (1876-1956, APS 1915) made important empirical contributions to the analysis of the physical conditions of stellar and planetary atmospheres, determining the distances to extragalactic objects, and understanding stellar evolution. Adams succeeded his mentor George Ellery Hale as director of the Mount Wilson Observatory, serving in that capacity from 1923 to 1946.

The Adams Papers contains approximately 100 letters addressed to the astronomer Walter Sydney Adams, dating primarily from the period after his move to Mount Wilson Observatory in 1904. Much of the correspondence is relatively perfunctory, however a few letters include interesting scientific content, including Harlow Shapley discussing his photometric study of HV 3435 and interest in Alpha Circini, Arthur Compton's comments on Keener's photoelectric method, Svante Arrhenius on the possibilities of constructing a new observatory for the Swedish Academy of Sciences, and Arthur Eddington discussing the implications of the spectrum of the companion to Sirius. Among Adams' other correspondents are J. C. Kapteyn, James H. Jeans, Henry Norris Russell, Elihu Thomson, and Willem de Sitter.

Background note

Walter Sydney Adams (1876-1956, APS 1915), astronomer, explored the uses of spectroscopy, investigated sunspots and the rotation of the Sun, the velocities and distances of thousands of stars, and planetary atmospheres. Adams served as acting director and director of Mount Wilson Observatory from 1909 until 1946.

Walter Adams was born in the village of Kessab near Antioch in Northern Syria in 1876. His parents Lucien Harper Adams and Nancy Dorrance Francis Adams were missionaries under the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. The boy received his earliest education, which focused on theology, geography, history and the classics, at home. In 1885 the family moved to Derry, New Hampshire. There Adams attended first the local public school and then Pinkerton Academy, a private high school. When his father was sent back to Syria in 1890, Walter enrolled at St. Johnsbury Academy in northern Vermont. Due largely to health reasons, he subsequently spent a year on a Massachusetts farm. He then studied at Phillips Academy, Andover, where he deepened his knowledge of mathematics, physics, and chemistry. Upon graduation in 1894 he enrolled at Dartmouth College where he studied under the astronomy professor Edwin B. Frost (1866-1935, APS 1909), graduating in 1898.

In 1898 Frost accepted an invitation by George Ellery Hale (1868-1938, APS 1902) to take charge of the department of stellar spectroscopy at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, which had a 40 inch refractor, the largest refracting telescope in the world. Adams accompanied Frost to Chicago in order to gain practical experience and attend graduate school at the University of Chicago, where he studied celestial mechanics and learned practical astrophysical technique at Yerkes. At Chicago he studied under the astronomers Forest R. Moulton (1872-1952, APS 1916) and Kurt Laves (1866-1944), and the mathematician Oskar Bolza (1857-1942). At the Yerkes Observatory he worked closely with Hale and also with Frost, with whom he collaborated in a radial velocity program for stars of early spectral type. They found that many of the stars were spectroscopic binaries with large ranges in velocity.

In 1899 Adams published his first research contribution on "The polar compression of Jupiter." The following year he departed for Munich, Germany, to complete a Ph.D. under the astronomers Hugo von Seeliger (1849-1924) and Karl Schwarzschild (1873-1916), returning to Chicago in 1901 to become computer and general assistant at Yerkes and also taught astrophysics at Chicago.

In 1904 Hale invited Ferdinand Ellerman (1869-1940), George Willis Ritchey (1864-1945) and Adams to join him in the task of establishing a new observatory on Mt. Wilson in the hills above Pasadena in California, with funding from the Carnegie Institution. Adams accepted, and from 1904 to 1909, he served as Assistant Astronomer. He subsequently was acting director from 1909 to 1923, and director from 1923 to 1946. Adams worked closely with Hale in the planning and building of the observatory situated on the then barely accessible Mount Wilson, where equipment had to be carried up by burro. Construction of the 60-ft. solar tower telescope and 60-inch stellar telescope took nearly two years. Adams subsequently oversaw the completion of the 100-inch reflecting telescope and, late in his career, the 200-inch telescope at Mt. Palomar.

In addition to substantial administrative work, Adams continued to carry out studies on radial velocities. He made fundamental empirical contributions to understanding how and why spectra could be used to reveal the conditions of stellar atmospheres, helping to establish the means by which spectra could be used to discern the temperature, pressure, and density of stars. His spectroscopic observations also helped to confirm the presence of two fundamental classes of stars, giants and dwarfs. Furthermore, he and his colleague Arnold Kohlschütter (1883-1969) discovered the use of spectral parallax (a comparison of the intrinsic versus observed brightness of stars) in determining the distance to stars. Adams and Kohlschütter published their first joint paper on the spectroscopic method of determining a star's phallax in 1914, shortly before Kohlschütter had to return to Germany. In a number of papers written with other researchers, including Alfred H. Joy (1882-1973), Milton La Salle Humason (1891-1972), and Ada M. Brayton, Adams developed this method more fully. In recognition of his efforts, Adams was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1915. In addition, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1917, and the Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences in 1918.

In 1925, Adams reached the peak of public acclaim when his observation of the gravitational field around Sirius corroborated Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. In 1928 the Astronomical Society of the Pacific awarded Adams the Bruce Medal. Later in his career, he devoted his attention to the analysis of planetary atmospheres, reporting the presence of carbon dioxide on Venus in 1932 and trace amounts of oxygen on Mars in 1934. Furthermore, he used Doppler displacement to study the rotation of the sun.

After his retirement from Mt. Wilson in 1946, Adams worked as a research associate of the Carnegie Institute of Washington (1946-1948), and of the California Institute of Technology (1947-1948). He thus maintained a close working relationship with the observatory from its founding in 1904 to its merger with the Mt. Palomar Observatory in 1947.

Adams was the recipient of many awards and honors. In addition to the Gold, Bruce, and Draper Medals, he was awarded the Prix Janssen of the Société Astronomique de France (1926), and the Janssen Medal of the French Academy of Sciences (1935). In 1947 he was the Henry Norris Russell Lecturer of the American Astronomical Society. He received honorary degrees from Chicago, Columbia, Dartmouth, Pompona, Princeton, and Southern California. He was a Foreign Associate or Member of the Royal Astronomical Society (1914), the Royal Swedish Academy (1935), the Institut de France (1945), and the Royal Society (1950). In addition to the APS he was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and served as president of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (1923), of the American Astronomical Society (1931-1934), and of the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1929). He was Vice-President of the International Astronomical Union (1935-1948) and also acted as its General Secretary (1940-1945). A crater on Mars minor planet #3145 were named after him.

In 1956 Adams died of cerebral thrombosis in Pasadena. He was twice married. His first wife Lilian M. Wickham died in 1922. He was survived by his second wife, Adeline Miller, and two children.

Scope and content

The Adams Papers contains approximately 100 letters addressed to the astronomer Walter Sydney Adams, dating primarily from the period after his move to Mount Wilson Observatory in 1904. Much of the correspondence is relatively perfunctory, however a few letters include interesting scientific content, including Harlow Shapley discussing his photometric study of HV 3435 and interest in Alpha Circini, Arthur Compton's comments on Keener's photoelectric method, Svante Arrhenius on the possibilities of constructing a new observatory for the Swedish Academy of Sciences, and Arthur Eddington discussing the implications of the spectrum of the companion to Sirius. Among Adams' other correspondents are J. C. Kapteyn, James H. Jeans, Henry Norris Russell, Elihu Thomson, and Willem de Sitter.

Two letters in the collection deal specifically with instrumentation: H. Spencer Jones complains of the problems in the manufacture of optical glass in the post-World War I period, and Elihu Thomson writes about his manufacture of quartz disks and tubes. Typically, a few of the letters include interesting personal details. In addition to Edwin B. Frost's recommendation for a fellowship at the University of Chicago when Adams was a graduate student there, the collection includes a fine, long letter from Russell describing his trip in the Middle East, and Adams' correspondence with English colleagues during the First World War provides a glimpse of the stress on astronomical research in England and on Anglo-American relations.

Collection Information

Provenance

Acquired from Mary Benjamin, April 1966 (accn. no. 1966-545ms).

Preferred citation

Cite as: Walter Sydney Adams Papers, American Philosophical Society.

Processing information

Recatalogued by rsc, 2004.

Related material

The largest collection of the papers of Walter Sydney Adams is housed at the Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif., which also holds a substantial archive of material relating to the Mount Wilson Observatory. Hale is a major correspondent in the papers of Edwin Frost (Yerkes Observatory) and Henry Norris Russell (Princeton).

The Niels Bohr Library at the American Institute of Physics has 10 pages of autobiographical notes by Adams, 1954, an oral history with him regarding the early days at Mount Wilson Observatory, and a tape recording of the Fiftieth Anniversary dinner for Adams at Mount Wilson, 1954.

The Printed Materials Department houses several works by Adams, including: Frost, Edwin Brant and Walter Sydney Adams. Radial Velocities of Twenty Stars Having Spectra of the Orion Type (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1903). Call no.: 378.773 C43M.Adams, Walter Sydney. An Investigation of the Rotation Period of the Sun by Spectroscopic Methods (Washington: Carnegie Institution, 1911). Call no.: 506.73 C21p no.138.Adams, Walter Sydney. The Sun's Place Among the Stars (Washington: Smithsonian, 1936). Call no.: 506.73 Sm6an 1935.Adams, Walter Sydney. What Lies Between the Stars (Washington: Smithsonian, 1942). Call no.: 506.73 Sm6an 1941.

Bibliography

Joy, A. H. "Walter Sydney Adams," Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences 31 (1958): 1-31.

Indexing Terms


Corporate Name(s)

  • Mount Wilson Observatory.

Personal Name(s)

  • Adams, Walter S. (Walter Sydney), 1876-1956
  • Arrhenius, Svante, 1859-1927
  • Bush, Vannevar, 1890-1974
  • Compton, Arthur Holly, 1892-1962
  • Dyson , Frank Watson, 1868-1939
  • Eddington, Arthur Stanley, Sir, 1882-1944
  • Frost, Edwin Brant, 1866-1935
  • Hale , George Ellery, 1868-1938
  • Jeans, James Hopwood, Sir, 1877-1946
  • Jones, H. Spencer (Harold Spencer)
  • Kapteyn, J. C. (Jacobus Cornel
  • Newall, Hugh Frank, 1871-
  • Russell, Henry Norris, 1877-1957
  • Shapley, Harlow, 1885-1972
  • Sliphen, V. M.
  • St. John, Charles Edward, 1857
  • Thomson, Elihu, 1853-1937
  • Turner, H. H. (Herbert Hall), 1861-1930

Subject(s)

  • Astronomical spectroscopy.
  • Astronomy
  • World War, 1914-1918


Detailed Inventory

Walter Sydney Adams Papers
  box 1
Breakfast complimentary to Prof. Richard A. Procter
1881 April 9Pr. Menu, 1p.

Autographs of attendees on verso.

Frost, Edwin Brant, 1866-1935.
To W. R. Harper
1899 Feb. 24ALS, 3p.

Recommending Adams for fellowship.

Newcomb, Simon.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1901 June 18ALS, 1p.
Hale , George Ellery, 1868-1938.
ALS to Walter Sydney Adams
1908 Mar. 12ALS, 1p.

Includes card from James A. Ward, sculptor, glued to verso.

Kapteyn, J. C. (Jacobus Cornel.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1911 June 28ALS, 3p.
Kapteyn, J. C. (Jacobus Cornel.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1911 Dec. 6ALS, 3p.

Thanks for the radial velocities; I anxious for better information on A stars. Sends list of all stars to magnitude 9'0 within 15 to the pole.

Gates, Henry C..
To Ferdinand Ellerman
1913 Mar. 25TLS, 1p.
Julien, W. H..
To Charles E. St. John
1914 July 21ALS, 4p.

Re: spectroscopic observations and theory.

Plummer, H. S..
To Walter Sydney Adams
1914 Sept. 23ALS, 1p.
Turner, H. H..
To Walter Sydney Adams
1917 Jan. 12ALS, 2p.

Congratulations on receiving the Gold Medal.

Newall, Hugh Frank, 1871-.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1917 Jan. 14ALS, 1p.

Congratulations on receiving the Gold Medal.

Dyson , Frank Watson, 1868-1939.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1917 Feb. 8ALS, 2p.

Congratulations on receiving the Gold Medal.

Aitken, Robert Grant, 1864-1951.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1917 Feb. 15ALS, 1p.

Congratulations on receiving the Gold Medal.

Turner, H. H..
To Walter Sydney Adams
1917 Feb. 27ALS, 2p.

"The distraction of the war is serious... It is overdue that our cousins over the water should join us in stamping on this mad dog -- terribly strong & terribly mad."

Kapteyn, J. C. (Jacobus Cornel.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1917 Mar. 26ALS, 2p.

Congratulations on receiving the Gold Medal.

Dyson , Frank Watson, 1868-1939.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1917 Dec. 28ALS, 4p.

"If this war induces the same friendly feelings between Americans & Englishmen generally as exist and have existed over now for some time between the Astronomers of the two countries it will not have been altogether in vain. However, we hope for more than that. I am convinced that if only a democratic government could arise in Germany there would before many years be an era of good-will. Unfortunately the prospect does not seem very near..."

Jeans, James Hopwood, Sir, 1877-1946.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1918 Jan. 1ALS, 4p.

Certainly is rotation in Andromeda, "am inclined to think the numbers probably represent a linear law corresponding to a rigid body rotation."

Turner, H. H..
To Walter Sydney Adams
1918 Jan. 1ALS, 3p.

Foresees tough year with the war, Germany having the advantage, but "the U.S. are very, very welcome now."

Campbell, W. W..
To Walter Sydney Adams
1918 Apr. 10TLS, 1p.

Seeking lantern slide of the Andromeda nebula showing the new stars discovered at Mount Wilson.

Pickering, William H..
To Walter Sydney Adams
1919 Mar. 22ALS, 1p.
Kapteyn, J. C. (Jacobus Cornel.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1919 July 25ALS, 1p.
Turner, H. H..
To Walter Sydney Adams
1919 Aug. 1ALS, 2p.
Jones, H. Spencer (Harold Spencer).
To Walter Sydney Adams
1919 Aug. 7ALS, 4p.

Problems in obtaining optical glass since the war; flint glass (re: firms Wood and Derby, Chance).

Newall, Hugh Frank, 1871-.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1919 Aug. 12ALS, 1p.
Wood, R. W..
To Ferdinand Ellerman
1919 Nov. 10PC, 1p.
Hale , George Ellery, 1868-1938.
Address at the retirement of Dr. Woodward
1920TMsS, 2p.
Sliphen, V. M..
To Charles E. St. John
1921 July 15TLS, 1p.

Re: high dispersion spectra and the atmosphere of Venus.

Arrhenius, Svante, 1859-1927.
To George E. Hale
1922 July 9ALS, 1p.

Possibilities for building a new observatory for the Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Thomson, Elihu.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1922 Aug. 3TLS, 2p.

Re: production of quartz disks and quartz tubing.

Gregory, R. A..
To Walter Sydney Adams
1922 Dec. 3ALS, 2p.

Editorial duties at Nature precent him from concentrating exclusively on any one science.

Shapley, Harlow, 1885-1972.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1924 Feb. 4TLS, 1p.

Will soon complete photometric study of HV 3435 and are now interested in Alpha Circini and similar objects because of the ionized strontium lines and low temperature calcium lines.

Schlesinger, Frank.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1924 Feb. 5TLS, 1p.

Regarding his publication of spectroscopic parallaxes.

Eddington, Arthur Stanley, Sir, 1882-1944.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1924 Feb. 6ALS, 2p.

Regarding implications of the spectrum of the companion of Sirius.

Jeans, James Hopwood, Sir, 1877-1946.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1924 May 29TLS, 1p.

Will visit in early September at Hubble's invitation. Jeans will have wife and child with him, "but they will not interfere in any way with astronomical activities."

Pritchett, Henry S. (Henry Smith), 1857-1939.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1924 July 7ALS, 2p.
Birkhoff, George David, 1884-1944.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1924 Oct. 4ALS, 2p.
Day, Arthur L..
To Walter Sydney Adams
1924 Oct. 13TLS, 1p.
Sitter, Willem de.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1925 Jan. 24ALS, 1p.

The lecture he gave at Princeton on the size of the universe will be published in the publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

Abbot, C. G. (Charles Greeley), 1872-1973.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1925 Jan. 26TLS, 1p.

Smithsonian engaged in million dollar endowment drive.

Hale , George Ellery, 1868-1938.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1927 Sept. 8ALS, 1p.

Frost wants 12 inch Kenwood reflective retruned.

Hale , George Ellery, 1868-1938.
To Walter Sydney Adams
ca.1927LS, 1p.

Congratulations on birth of their child.

Russell, Henry Norris, 1877-1957.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1930 Mar. 21ALS, 4p.

Good news about Mount Wilson. Account of trip to Middle East.

Hale , George Ellery, 1868-1938.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1930 Oct. 24PC, 1p.

Thanks for the roses.

Newall, Hugh Frank, 1871-.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1935 June 5ALS, 1p.

Invitation to dinner.

Jeans, James Hopwood, Sir, 1877-1946.
To T. Spicer-Simson
1937 Nov. 11TLS, 1p.
Escanglon, S. (Observatoire de.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1938 Jan. 8ALS, 1p.

In French. Thanks for the letter of Mrs. Adams.

Compton, Arthur Holly, 1892-1962.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1938 Feb. 28ALS, 3p.

Doubts about whether Keener's photoelectric method will supplant the photographic method, but it has the merit of quantifying intensity.

Newall, Hugh Frank, 1871-.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1938 May 19ALS, 2p.

Death of George E. Hale.

Eddington, Arthur Stanley, Sir, 1882-1944.
Address to the members of the International Astronomical Union
[1938]AMs, 2p.
Bush, Vannevar, 1890-1974.
To Walter Sydney Adams
1939 Oct. 12TLS, 1p.
Milne, E. A..
To unidentified recipient
ALS, n.d.1p. (inc.)