Jason Clarke Antiques

Cased Nairne Pattern Electrostatic Machine with Accessories by George Adams of London


For sale, an enormously rare Eighteenth Century cased Nairne Pattern electrostatic machine with associated accessories by George Adams the Younger of Fleet Street London.

The electrostatic machine consists of a large glass cylinder suspended horizontally by beautifully manufactured brass supports on a mahogany frame with two mahogany gear wheels and a handle to one end in order to revolve it. Attached to the base behind the cylinder is a glass strut with boxwood supports with a mahogany backed leather pad which can be adjusted by means of a slide at the base to make contact with the glass. The act of turning the cylinder against the leather creates friction and removes a charge from the pad. Consequently, the resulting charge can be transferred to a collector.

The collector consists of a turned mahogany base into which is screwed a boxwood support with a glass strut attached to the centre. A brass tube with globular ends is affixed to the end of the glass to complete it. There are numerous holes within the brass collector. The end holes would be utilised for applying the collecting comb and the other end for attaching a chain to connect with a Leyden jar or some other experimental attachment such as an electrostatic bell for example.    

On its own, a set of this period would be a supremely rare but it also comes complete with its original Leyden jar, a Henleys quadrant electrometer engraved to G. Adams London (to be applied to the top of the collector), two sets of glass handled discharge tongs, a plaster head model on stand with hair applied (for demonstrating that hair stood on end when a charge was applied) and a mahogany insulating stool with glass legs which would allow the user to operate the machine without risk of earthing.

This set is contained in its original pine packing case with fitted interior for storing each component, exterior handles and campaign type iron strapwork to the edges and corners.

The original machine was devised and patented on the 5th of February 1782 by Edward Nairne. (Number 1318), entitled an “Electrical Machine, or a method of insulating such machine, and constructing the conductors so that either shocks or sparks may be received from them. Insulated Medical Electrical Machine”.

They were originally sold by the partners Edward Nairne and Thomas Blunt accompanied by a sixty two page pamphlet with five explanatory plates, “the Description and Use of Nairne’s Patent Electrical Machine; with the addition of some Philosophical Experiments & Medical Observations”. The plates provide numerous images of a gentleman attaching a variety of electrodes to different parts of his body to demonstrate the therapeutic treatment offered by this machine.

Less common than Ramsden’s slightly later single plate friction machine, this design remained popular until about the middle of the nineteenth century for therapeutic treatments however unsuccessful they may have been. An interesting painting by the artist David Henry Friston depicting a woman receiving treatment from a similar example currently resides in the Geffrye Museum in London.

The Adams dynasty needs little introduction, a family who began their success in the early Eighteenth Century. George Adams Senior was born in Fleet Street, London in 1709 to Morris and Mary Adams. His Father was a freeman of London, belonging to the Loriner’s Company and although he was a liveryman, was actually a cook by trade. At the age of fifteen (1724), George was apprenticed to a James Parker, a mathematical instrument maker of the Grocer’s Company for a premium of £20. His initial two years were not without difficulty as his father Morris died the following year leaving George, his mother Mary and two further children without support and the following year also saw the death of his master. By good fortune, George was turned over to a new master Thomas Heath who had by then been trading on The Strand for just six years but ran a successful and enterprising establishment and his adverts from the period attest to the wide range of instruments that the young Adams would have been tasked to manufacture. On completion of his seven-year tenure, he chose to continue his work for Heath, only being granted his freedom of the Grocer’s Company in 1733 by which point his mother had also passed away. It is likely then that the proceeds of his parent’s estate were the catalyst for George Adams to begin trading in his own right.

The establishment of his business at the sign of Tycho Brahe’s Head on Fleet Street was close to his home in Shoe Lane but he joined a community of already established scientific instrument makers in that area and could guarantee a certain amount of passing trade from the positioning. He also kept up his ties with Thomas Heath which is evidenced from dual advertisements that were taken out by the pair in the mid-1730’s. His prominence as an instrument maker really took off in the 1740’s where he began to undertake work for both The Board of Ordnance and The East India Company. It was also the decade in which the microscope began to ascend in its popularity and Adams, seeing an opportunity, undertook to write the first of his two famous publications. This initial publication, “Micrographia Illustrata” was introduced in 1746 at the same time as his New Universal Microscope and must have been timed to support his instrument’s release to the market but the book was in its majority a compilation of many previously known publications but served to provide his audience with instruction and a full account of the possible uses to which this instrument could be applied.

Tragedy struck Adams again in the same year with his wife Ann’s death, leaving him with two young daughters and records of his duties as churchwarden would suggest that he threw himself into both business and civic duties for the following two years until he finally remarried to Ann Dudley in 1748, a marriage that spawned a further three boys and six girls during his lifetime.

By 1750, Adams had also picked up the accolade of supplier to the Royal Mathematical School (then part of Christs Hospital) and had also been elected to the livery of The Grocer’s Company alongside his old master Thomas Heath and fellow instrument maker, John Gilbert. His short relationship with the mathematics teacher Richard Jack also provided Adams with his only patent for a quadrant and a new refracting telescope which was widely advertised as exceeding the magnification power of any of its competitors. Adam’s claim brought him into direct conflict with the young (and perhaps equally famous for his involvement in the Dollond achromatic lens affair) Francis Watkins of Charing Cross. Watkins publicly challenged Adams and Jack to a test of this instrument against his own in 1752, an affair that ultimately led to the pair being exonerated much to Watkin’s chagrin.

By 1757, the young George III had reached the age of eighteen and took the position of Prince of Wales and Adams benefitted from this change of events in the Royal Household by receiving his first Royal Appointment. His new title as, “Mathematical Instrument Maker to his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales” would have immediately increased the level of trade had it not been for a further setback in the form of a fire which ravaged numerous premises on Fleet Street including his own. It wasn’t until the end of the year that the ever-labouring Adams had managed to open in alternative premises on Fleet Street and circumstances must have proved encouraging enough for him to have taken the position of Junior Warden in the Grocer’s Company in 1758.

With the accession of George III to the throne in 1760, George Adams by default became a provider of scientific instruments to His Majesty the King and the same decade saw Adams begin the production of globes, a product which has come to be a recognised and highly regarded part of the company’s output. By 1766, Adams also released his second famous publication, “A Treatise Describing and Explaining the Construction and Use of New Celestial and Terrestrial Globes”. In similar circumstances to his previous output on microscopes, it was timed to support his new creations and his dedication of the book to The King would have been added some further momentum to the exercise. Adams’s son, George Adam’s the younger had also by 1765 become apprenticed to his Father so the marketing exercise would have provided first hand evidence to Adams the Younger of the power of the printed medium. He would also have been in the same company as a young Scotsman, John Miller who later returned to Edinburgh and formed an early partnership with Alexander Adie.

In October of 1772, George Adams died at the age of sixty three, he had spent the last six years of his life largely dedicated to the updating and republication of his two most famous works. His son, George the younger had finished his apprenticeship but had not applied for his freedom and therefore had to move quickly in order to maintain the family business. His mother Ann had been left in control of the firm as a result of the content of her husband’s will and the urgency is clear from existing advertisement which seek to make it clear that Ann & George Adams, “continue to carry on the business of the late Mr Adams”.

The work seemed to continue unabated but the Board of ordnance work fell away in the short term and was taken over by a Jeremiah Sissons who was already known to them through his work with The Royal Observatory, nevertheless, Adams the younger lost no time in clearing up the affairs of his father and immediately applied for his livery in the Grocers Company which was awarded in early 1773 and he took on his first apprentice, Fowler Bean in June of the same year.

In 1774, Adams was married to Hannah Marsham and this event must have caused some household complications for the young scientific instrument maker as the home and shop premises at 60 Fleet Street were also presumably housing his mother and Adam’s siblings (notably his younger brother Dudley) all of whom were dependent on the business. The living arrangements remain unclear but by the end of the decade Adams had re-engaged his services to The Board of Ordnance, taken on his brother Dudley as an apprentice in 1777 and another in the same year named Christopher Steadman. With Fowler Bean finishing his apprenticeship in 1781, Adams also took on his half nephew Robert Blunt Junior. Blunt’s relatives maintained their links with the Grocer’s company throughout the twentieth century owing to their close ties to the Adams blood line.

By the mid-1780’s, Adams younger brother Dudley left his older siblings workshop to set up his own establishment in Charing Cross and concentrated on the manufacture of Globes. The globe plates left in George Adams Senior’s will were owned by his widow so it is likely that she reserved this benefit for Dudley. It is certainly true that any Adams globes after this period are signed to Dudley Adams and he is also likely to have provided stock to his brother for resale at the Fleet Street premises. It is perhaps unsurprising given that George Adams Junior’s attention began to turn squarely on the written word as a means to promote his business. The lessons learnt to him by his father’s activity must have encouraged this activity and he became a prolific writer of essays on all manner of scientific subjects until his death. The subjects ranged from electricity, microscopy, astronomy, meteorology and geometry and these publications provide the historian with a vast amount of useful information on the types of instruments being manufactured during the latter part of the eighteenth century.

Adams, like his father, died early at the age of forty five in august of 1795 leaving the Fleet Street business to his wife. Hannah Adams evidently had every intention of continuing her husband’s business but without offspring she was entirely alone in managing the family affairs and George’s early death meant that his Mother was still alive and therefore retained some rights to the business by virtue of her husbands will. The acrimonious nature of the following events is borne out by Dudley Adams’s immediate application to The Board of Ordnance with the intention of picking up his older brother’s commission. He was quick enough in this undertaking to beat Hannah’s similar communication and ultimately took over the work shortly after.

Faced by these numerous pressures, Hannah wound up the business of her husband in 1796 which culminated in the sale of Adams’s books by the auctioneers Leigh & Sotheby (now Sothebys) and totalled to a sum of exactly £400. She also sold the remainder of Adams stock of books and their associated copyrights to William and Samuel Jones (W&S Jones) scientific instrument makers who continued to publish them with specific updates for some years. Christies auctioneers also had a part to play in the divestment of the Adams workshop and upon this final act, Hannah left for her estate in Essex with a £3000 trust fund which would have secured her future until her death in 1810. Without children, her estate fell back into the hands of the Marsham family.

Owing to the complicated situation of the inheritance, the shop at Fleet Street seems to have remained in the hands of the Adams family and Dudley vacated his Charing Cross premises in 1796 back to the original shop at the sign of Tycho Brahe’s Head. He maintained a good industry standing for some years and is known to have received patents for three instruments during his remaining years of trading. His story is one of slow decline though and his loss of the Board of Ordnance contract in 1806 was the beginning of the end which ultimately led to bankruptcy in 1817. Records suggest that Dudley Adams may have become somewhat unhinged by his ever worsening situation and his entreaties to the Grocer’s Company and to the Earl of Liverpool in and around 1818 and 1819 bear testament. Thereafter, he seems to have involved himself in the new science of electricity and began writing essays on the subject from his new premises at 42 St Pauls Churchyard and 22 Ludgate Hill where he established his Medico-Electrical Institution and convinced of the medical possibilities of this new science began to treat patients.

Dudley died at some point between 1827 and 1830 and the lack of any records suggest that he died penniless, a somewhat sober ending to the powerhouse of scientific instrument makers that were the Adams dynasty. Their instruments however still bear testament to the superior quality and attention to detail to which was applied to their products.

Circa 1790

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