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Science for a King

Published: 27 September 2017

After his coronation in 1760, King George III commissioned a large set of scientific instruments from George Adams to add to the Royal Collection.

Adams was one of London’s leading instrument makers. During the 1760s, the King built an observatory at Kew in west London, where he kept his instruments. He appointed the astronomer and natural scientist Stephen Demainbray, one of his former tutors, to the role of Superintendent.

When Demainbray took up the position he brought his collection of demonstration apparatus with him and these became part of the Royal Collection. The King George III Collection remained at Kew until the 1840s, when Queen Victoria presented it to King’s College London where it was displayed in the King George III Museum. In 1927 it was transferred on long-term loan to the Science Museum.

Philosophical Table by George Adams C. 1761 – 1762

Philosophical Table by George Adams Science Museum, London | Science & Society Picture Library | King's College, London © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

The philosophical table, made by George Adams between 1761 and 1762, was the centrepiece of the mechanics apparatus made for King George III when he came to the throne. The pillar was used for experiments with pendulums and the apparatus at the other end was for experiments with colliding objects. Various instruments could be placed on the table, including the central forces machine for conducting experiments concerning tension and the tidal motion model for explaining the rise and fall of the sea level.

Pair of globes by George Adams

Terrestrial and Celestial globes by George Adams © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

The terrestrial globe on the left, made by George Adams in 1766, was one of a pair of globes made for King George III. It shows the route of George Anson’s voyage round the world between 1740-44. The celestial globe on the right shows constellations in the southern hemisphere based on Nicolas de Lacaille’s observations at the Cape of Good Hope between 1750-52. Newly discovered constellations were named after scientific instruments, which enabled Adams to represent them with images of his own instruments.

Model pile driver

Valoue's piledriver, 1752. © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library -- All rights reserved.

Stephen Demainbray, a traveling lecturer and later superintendent at Kew Observatory, used this model of Vauloue's pile driver to demonstrate its mechanical principles.  James Vauloué was a watchmaker from France. He designed the pile-driver used in the construction of the old Westminster Bridge in 1739. Three horses turned the capstan, which lifted an 800kg weight six metres into the air. On release, the weight drove the foundations (piles) deep into the river bed.

Wedgwood pyrometer

Wedgwood pyrometer © The Board of Trustees of the Science Museum

This pyrometer was presented to King George III by Josiah Wedgwood in 1786. Wedgwood developed the instrument to measure the high temperatures used in firing pottery. Porcelain shrinks when heated, which means the shrinkage of pieces of porcelain could be used to measure kiln temperature. The small pieces were heated and then placed in the gauge, where their relative size was used to determine how close the kiln’s temperature was to the optimum required for the purpose.

Mechanical powers apparatus

Mechanical powers apparatus, 1775. © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library -- All rights reserved.

Pair of mechanical models, made by George Adams the Younger between 1770 and 1795 for demonstrating the mechanical powers, which was an important part of the eighteenth-century curriculum. The model on the right shows the inclined plane, wheel and axle, wedge, endless screw, compound engine, and friction wheels. The model on the left shows the working of pulleys in various combinations. George Adams the Younger was instrument maker to King George III, as his father had been.

As well its remarkable cache of objects, the King George III collection contains an equally fascinating archive section