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Frederick Abel

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Sir Frederick Augustus Abel, 1st Baronet FRS (1827–1902) was an English chemist.

1827 (or 1826) July 17th. Born in London

Studied chemistry for six years under A. W. von Hofmann at the Royal College of Chemistry, then became professor of chemistry at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich in 1851, and three years later was appointed chemist to the War Department and chemical referee to the government.

During his tenure of this office, which lasted until 1888, he carried out a large amount of work in connection with the chemistry of explosives. One of the most important of his investigations had to do with the manufacture of gun-cotton, and he developed a process, consisting essentially of reducing the nitrated cotton to fine pulp, which enabled it to be safely manufactured and at the same time yielded the product in a form that increased its usefulness.

1875 - 1877 President of the Chemical Society. [1]

This work to an important extent prepared the way for the "smokeless powders" which came into general use towards the end of the 19th century; cordite, the type adopted by the British government in 1891, was invented jointly by him and Sir James Dewar. He and Dewar were unsuccessfully sued by Alfred Nobel over infringement of Nobel's patent for a similar explosive called ballistite, the case finally being resolved in the House of Lords in 1895. He also extensively researched the behaviour of black powder when ignited, with the Scottish physicist Sir Andrew Noble.

At the request of the British government, he devised the Abel test, a means of determining the flash point of petroleum products. His first instrument, the open-test apparatus, was specified in an Act of Parliament in 1868 for officially specifying petroleum products. It was superseded in August 1879 by the much more reliable Abel close-test instrument.

Under the leadership of Sir Frederick Abel, first, Gun-cotton was developed at Waltham Abbey Royal Gunpowder Mills, patented in 1865, then, the propellant Cordite, patented in 1889.

In electricity Abel studied the construction of electrical fuses and other applications of electricity to warlike purposes, and his work on problems of steel manufacture won him in 1897 the Bessemer medal of the Iron and Steel Institute, of which from 1891 to 1893 he was president. He was president of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (then the Society of Telegraph Engineers) in 1877.

He became a member of the Royal Society in 1860, and received a royal medal in 1887. He took an important part in the work of the Inventions Exhibition (London) in 1885, and in 1887 became organizing secretary and first director of the Imperial Institute, a position he held till his death in 1902. He was knighted in 1891, and created a baronet in 1893.

1902 September 6th. Died. Buried in Nunhead Cemetery


1902 Obituary [2]

Sir FREDERICK AUGUSTUS ABEL, Bart., G.C.V.O., K.C.B., was born at Woolwich on 17th of July 1827, being the son of the late Mr. Johann Frederick Abel, of that town.

Electing to be a chemist, he commenced his studies in 1844 at the Royal Polytechnic Institution, and in the following year entered the Royal College of Chemistry, which had just then been founded, with a temporary laboratory in George Street, Hanover Square.

In 1846 he became assistant to Professor Hoffman, under whose direction the College was founded. After five years in this position, he was appointed to succeed Faraday as Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Military Academy, a post he held until 1851, when he was appointed Chemist to the War Office. In this position he remained until 1891, as adviser of the department in all matters affecting ammunition and explosives. During the last three years of that period he was also President of the Explosives Committee.

In 1888 the Government appointed a Select Committee to examine the various kinds of smokeless powder in existence, and to report which of them was best adapted to the requirements of the Service. Ultimately Sir Frederick with Professor Dewar, who was also a member of the committee, patented the substance now known as cordite, and since adopted in the Navy and Army. Litigation ensued with the view of nullifying the patent, but he won the case. In conjunction with Sir Andrew Noble he carried out investigations into the processes attendant on the firing of black powder. To the theory of detonation be made important contributions, and the construction of electrical and other fuses also engaged his attention.

In 1879 he was appointed a member of the Royal Commission on Accidents in Mines, his knowledge of blasting powders being of great service. He rendered useful service on the subject of the flash-point of petroleum, the result being the legislation in 1868 of his open-test apparatus; and later, when it proved subject to manipulation, the close-test instrument was designed and legalised in 1879, which has since continued the standard.

In 1883 he was elected an Honorary Member of this Institution, having in 1881 undertaken for the Research Committee on the Hardening, &c., of Steel, experiments on the condition in which carbon exists in steel. A second Report was presented in 1883 (page 56), and the final Report in 1885 (page 30). The actual carrying out of these experiments was performed by his colleague in the chemical department of Woolwich Arsenal, Mr. W. H. Deering.

He retired from his appointment at the War Office in 1888, having become in 1887 Organising Secretary of the Imperial Institute, which position he held until 1900, and was still working as Honorary Secretary when his death took place. He was made a Companion of the Bath in 1877, received the honour of Knighthood in 1883, promoted to the rank of Knight Commander of the Bath in 1891, and created a Baronet in 1893, after the opening of the Imperial Institute, and in 1901 be received the honour of the Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order.

He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, D.C.L. of Oxford, and D.Sc. of Cambridge. He had been President of the British Association, the Iron and Steel Institute, the Chemical Society, the Institute of Chemistry, the Society of Chemical Industry, the Institution of Electrical Engineers, and had also been Chairman of the Society of Arts. He held the Albert, the Royal, the Telford, and the Bessemer Medals, and load published several books, chiefly associated with explosives.

His death occurred suddenly at his residence in Whitehall Court, London, on 6th September 1902, at the age of seventy-five.


1902 Obituary [3]

"...Whitehall Court, Sir Frederick Augustus Abel died suddenly, at the age of 75. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1860. He was President of the Iron and Steel Institute in 1891. He got its Bessemer Medal in 1897. The University of Cambridge, in which be filled the office of Rede Lecturer, conferred the honorary degree of D.Sc. on him in 1888, and Oxford that of D.C.L. in 1883. He was made C.B. in 1877, a knight in 1883, K.C.B. in 1891, a baronet in 1893, and G.C. V.O. in 1901. Sir Frederick Abel was not a great chemist. His turn of mind prevented that; but he was a very clever, competent man, and has left his mark behind him. It is not necessary to go into details of his early life. It..."More


1903 Obituary [4]

. . . . His death removes from the ranks of scientists a distinguished chemist, whose name has been specially associated with the development of explosive compounds, and their manufacture. . . . [more]


1902 Obituary [5]

SIR FREDERICK AUGUSTUS ABEL, Bart., G.C.V.O., K.C.B., died suddenly on September 6, 1902, at his residence, 2 Whitehall Court, London, S.W., at the age of seventy-five years. Having elected to be a chemist, Sir Frederick Abel began his studies in 1844 at the Royal Polytechnic Institution, and in the following year entered the Royal College of Chemistry, which had just been founded on the German method, with a temporary laboratory in George Street, Hanover Square. So apt was he as a pupil that in 1846 he became assistant to Professor Hofmann, under whose direction the College was. After five years in this position he succeeded Faraday as Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Military Academy, a post he held until 1854, when he was appointed Chemist to the War Office. For thirty-four years he remained the adviser of the department in all matters affecting ammunition and explosives, and for three years more, until 1891, he was President of the Explosives Committee.

It was about the time of his appointment that a form of smokeless powder was being introduced on the Continent, and the Government in 1888 appointed a Select Committee to examine the various kinds of smokeless powder then in existence, and to report which of them was best adapted to the requirements of the Service. Sir Frederick Abel was President of this Committee, which had submitted to it many explosive compounds, several of them meeting most, if not all, of the requirements; but ultimately Sir Frederick Abel and Professor Dewar, who was also a member of the Committee, patented the substance now known as cordite, and since adopted in both navy and army. A controversy resulted, with an appeal to the law courts for the nullifying of the patent; but Sir Frederick Abel won his case. In conjunction with Sir Andrew Noble he carried out investigations into the processes attendant on the firing of black powder. Charges up to 20 lbs. were exploded in perfectly closed vessels, and the resulting products submitted to analysis. In this way the enormous influence of the size of the grains and of the pressure under which they were fired was made apparent. To the theory of detonation Sir Frederick Abel made important contributions, his ingenious experiments throwing much light on the conditions of its occurrence and the rapidity of its transmission. The latter, he showed, might, in the case of wet gun-cotton, rise as high as four miles a second. The construction of electric and other fuses also engaged his attention, and his knowledge of blasting powders and methods of blasting was of great advantage to the Royal Commission on Accidents in Mines, of which he was appointed one of the scientific members at its constitution in 1879.

On the subject of the flash point of petroleum he rendered useful service, the result of some years' investigation being the legalisation in 1868 of his open-test apparatus; and later, when this proved insufficient, the close-test instrument was evolved and legalised in 1879, and has since continued the standard. In 1883 he was nominated an honorary life member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, having in 1881 undertaken, for their research committee on the hardening of steel, experiments on the condition in which carbon exists in steel. The final report, presented in January 1885, showed that the investigation had been carried as far as then seemed practicable by chemical research alone; and the subject remained in abeyance until 1891, when the alloys research undertaken for the same Institution by Sir William Roberts-Austen was found to offer a means of attacking it afresh from another side.

In 1887, Sir Frederick Abel became organising secretary of the Imperial Institute. He was made a Companion of the Bath in 1877, was knighted in 1883, created a Knight Commander of the Bath in 1891, and made a Baronet in 1893, after the opening of the Imperial Institute, while in 1901 he was created a Knight Grand Cross of the Victorian Order. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, D.C.L. of Oxford, B.Sc. of Cambridge, and an Honorary Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He had been President of the British Association, of the Chemical Society, of the Institute of Chemistry, of the Society of Chemical Industry, and of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, and had also been Chairman of the Society of Arts. He held the Albert, the Royal, and the Telford medals. He was almost as active in the study as in the laboratory, and published several books, principally associated with explosives.

The Iron and Steel Institute has benefited no less than the other institutions with which he was connected from his energy and public spirit. He was elected a member of the Iron and Steel Institute in 1878, became President in 1891, and was awarded the Bessemer Gold Medal in 1897. He delivered masterly presidential addresses in 1891, and at the spring and autumn meetings of 1892, and in con- junction with Colonel Maitland contributed in 1886 an important paper on the erosion of gun-barrels by powder products.

A memorial service was held at the Church of St. Martin-in-the- Fields, Trafalgar Square, London, W.C., on September 11, which was attended by a large number of friends and by representatives of the Iron and Steel Institute and of other Institutions with which Sir Frederick Abel was connected.


1903 Obituary [6]

SIR FREDERICK AUGUSTUS ABEL, who passed away at his residence in Whitehall Court on the 6th of September, 1902, was born on the 17th of July, 1827, in Poland Street, Oxford Street.

At the age of seventeen he commenced his studies under Dr. Ryan at the Royal Polytechnic Institution, and a year later entered the then newly-formed Royal College of Chemistry, where he worked under Hofmann, first as pupil and then as assistant.

In 1847-8-9 he read his first three papers before the Chemical Society. In 1851 he became lecturer in Chemistry under Stenhouse at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, and in 1853 succeeded to the Chair of Chemistry, previously occupied by Faraday, in the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. Whilst here, he was appointed to be, first the scientific adviser, and then, in about the year 1854, chemist to the War Office.

From 1854 to 1888 he held the last-named position, and was thus intimately associated with the modern development of explosives and the applications of steel to naval and military purposes. His name will always be specially remembered in connection with gun-cotton and cordite, with the masterly researches on explosives in which he collaborated with Sir Andrew Noble, and with his recommendations on the mode of testing the flash-point of petroleum. In course of his work at the War Office, Sir Frederick necessarily gave much attention to the application of electricity to submarine mining and for military purposes generally.

In 1874 he read before the Institution, then the Society of Telegraph Engineers, a paper embodying some of his experiences, and entitled "Notes relating to Electric Fuses."

In 1887 Sir Frederick became the Organising Secretary of the Imperial Institute. A brilliant and indefatigable worker in many fields of labour, the estimation in which he was held by his fellows is shown by the long list of distinguished positions that he held. Sir Frederick Abel was President of the Chemical Society from 1875 to 1877, of the Institute of Chemistry in 1881 and 1882, of the Society of Chemical Industry in 1883, of the Chemical Section of the British Association in 1887, of the Iron and Steel Institute in 1891, and of the British Association at Leeds in 1890. He had also acted as Chairman of the Council of the Society of Arts, and as Chairman of the Executive Committee of the City and Guilds of London Institute. He received the Companionship of the Order of the Bath in 1877, and, after having been knighted in 1883, became K.C.B. in 1891; he was made baronet in 1893, and in 1901 received the Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order. In addition to the above honours, he received honorary degrees at Oxford and Cambridge, and was at different times the recipient of the Albert, Royal, Telford, and Bessemer Medals. Sir Frederick Abel was elected a Member of this Institution, then the Society of Telegraph Engineers, on the 16th of November, 1871; he was a Member of Council in 1873 and 1874, Vice-President in 1875 and 1876, and President in 1877.

From 1887 to the time of his death he was one of the Trustees of the Institution, and although, during his later years, the pressure of other engagements, together with impaired health, prevented his attending the Meetings of the Institution, he continued to the end to take a keen interest in its work.


1902 Obituary [7]



See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. http://www.rsc.org/AboutUs/History/rscpresidents/1841to1897.asp
  2. 1902 Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Obituaries
  3. The Engineer 1902/09/12, p255.
  4. 1903 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries
  5. 1902 Iron and Steel Institute: Obituaries
  6. 1903 Institution of Electrical Engineers: Obituaries
  7. Engineering 1902 Jul-Dec: Index: General Index