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Story: Adams, Charles William

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Adams, Charles William


Surveyor, astronomer, public servant

This biography, written by R. S. Adam, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993.

Charles William Adams was the son of Jane Maiden and her husband, Henry Cay Adams, a farmer and chaplain. He was born at Buckland, Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), probably on 7 July 1840. He was later to credit much of his professional success to the grounding in mathematics he received at a grammar school run by W. Carr-Boyd in Campbell Town. In 1859 he commenced a survey cadetship with the Survey Department in Victoria, before returning in late 1860 to Tasmania, where he carried out surveys of Crown land.

Moving to Otago, New Zealand, in 1862, Adams commenced work as an assistant surveyor in the provincial Survey Department, where John Turnbull Thomson and James McKerrow (later the surveyor general and assistant surveyor general respectively) were already established. Adams spent a long period as a field surveyor in Otago and Wellington, often working in arduous conditions. He was rewarded in 1867 with promotion to district surveyor in Otago. In Dunedin, on 5 January 1870, he married Eleanor (Ellen) Sarah Gillon.

Adams was well positioned for the administrative changes which accompanied the abolition of the provincial governments in 1876. His appointment that year as geodesical surveyor to the South Island in the newly created general Survey Department shows the confidence that Thomson, now surveyor general, held in his methodical, meticulous approach. Moreover, Adams's work in many different locations would have given him an understanding of the wider needs of a centralised government trying to overcome the narrower attitudes of the provincial administrations.

Over the next few years Adams was involved in establishing meridians (determining the direction of true north) by astronomical observation, triangulation observations, and carrying out standard surveys in Canterbury. His astronomical work led him to detect, in 1877, an error in the Nautical Almanac for the position of the star Alpha Centauri. Official reports commented that 'It was rather bold for a surveyor with an eight inch Transit Theodolite to challenge the accuracy of the Nautical Almanac'. However, Adams was sure of his ground, and was vindicated when the Greenwich and Melbourne observatories confirmed that the almanac was in error.

As part of his triangulation observations Adams in 1879 obtained a new height for Mt Cook of 12,375 feet (it was revised in 1881 to 12,349). In 1882, to prepare for the transit of Venus on 7 December that year, he established a survey observatory at Mount Cook in Wellington, where he worked for three years. He determined an accurate position in latitude and longitude for the observatory, the accuracy in longitude made possible by time signals from Sydney through the recently laid trans-Tasman cable.

From the time of his appointment in 1885 to the position of chief surveyor in Otago, Adams published over 30 papers and articles covering a wide range of topics. He was editor of the Journal of the New Zealand Institute of Surveyors (subsequently the New Zealand Surveyor) from 1892 until 1917. His paper on field astronomy, which appeared in 1905, was republished in 1926 and until the 1960s was used by survey cadets studying for their professional examinations.

In the mid 1880s a revolution was taking place in surveying measurement accuracy due to the introduction of the long steel tape. Adams was enthusiastic about the development. In writing his paper, 'The measurement of distances with long steel tapes' (1888), he was assisted by Arthur Beverly, who devised a mathematical series for calculating sag correction and measuring the elasticity of the tapes, which came to be used around the world. Adams also made at least two visits to Fiordland, where in 1888 he measured the height of the Sutherland Falls, and in 1890 named Lake Ella after his only daughter, Eleanor Juliet.

As chief surveyor of Otago, and from 1897 commissioner of Crown lands and chief surveyor in Marlborough, Charles Adams was responsible for implementing many of the reforms introduced by the minister of lands in the Liberal government, John McKenzie. Adams was a strong supporter of the leasehold tenure and of the Crown withholding the issue of freehold for its lands. Under his administration the Department of Lands and Survey was active in developing roads and providing Crown leases for settlers.

Adams retired to Lower Hutt in 1904, although he continued to edit and write for the New Zealand Surveyor. He died there on 29 October 1918, survived by Ellen Adams, five sons and one daughter. His children had become successful in a number of fields, most notably Charles Edward Adams, as government astronomer (1912–36); Arthur Henry Adams, who became well known as a playwright and novelist; and Ella Adams, who as Ella Spicer became a successful landscape painter.

How to cite this page:

R. S. Adam. 'Adams, Charles William', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1993. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/2a2/adams-charles-william (accessed 21 April 2024)