Sir William de Wiveleslie Abney

William de Wiveleslie Abney
Born24 July 1843
Died3 December 1920 (aged 77)
Folkestone, England
Known forPhotography
AwardsRumford Medal (1882)
Scientific career

Sir William de Wiveleslie Abney KCB FRS FRSE (24 July 1843 – 3 December 1920) was an English astronomer, chemist, and photographer.

Life and career

Abney was born in Derby, England, the son of Rev. Edward Abney (1811–1892), vicar of St Alkmund's Church, Derby, and owner of the Firs Estate. William was educated at Rossall School, the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and joined the Royal Engineers in 1861, with whom he served in India for several years. Thereafter, and to further his knowledge in photography, he became a chemical assistant at the Chatham School of Military Engineering.

Abney was a pioneer of several technical aspects of photography. His father had been an early photographic experimenter and friend of Richard Keene, an early Derby photographer. Keene became a close friend of William and his brother Charles Edward Abney (1850–1914). Both Abney sons subsequently became founder members of the Derby Photographic Society in June 1884.[1] His endeavors in the chemistry of photography produced useful photographic products and also developments in astronomy. He wrote many books on photography that were considered standard texts at the time, although he was doubtful that his improvements would have a great impact on the subject.

Abney investigated the blackening of a negative to incidental light. In 1874, Abney developed a dry photographic emulsion, which replaced "wet" emulsions. He used this emulsion in an Egyptian expedition to photograph the transit of Venus across the sun. In 1880, he introduced hydroquinone. Abney also introduced new and useful types of photographic paper, including in 1882 a formula for gelatin silver chloride paper. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1876.

Abney conducted early research into the field of spectroscopy, developing a red-sensitive emulsion which was used for the infrared spectra of organic molecules. He was also a pioneer in photographing the infrared solar spectrum (1887), as well as researching sunlight in the medium of the atmosphere.

In 1893 he inherited Meashan Hall from a rich aunt.

He became assistant secretary to the Board of Education in 1899 and advisor to that body in 1903.[2] In 1900 he was Director of the Science and Art Department. He sold his father's estate, most of which went for housing in the St Luke's Parish of Derby, but retained 11 acres until 1913 when they were purchased by the Council to become the site of Rykneld Secondary Modern School and Rykneld recreation ground.[3]

Abney invented the "Abney level", a combined clinometer and spirit level, used by surveyors to measure slopes and angles. He was responsible for the "Abney mounting" of a concave grating spectrograph in which the photographic plate was fixed and the entry slit moved to accommodate different regions of the spectrum.

He died on 3 December 1920 in Folkestone, England. He is buried in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church in Folkestone.


He had married twice: firstly in 1864 to Agnes Matilda Smith (died 1888) with whom he had a son and two daughters, and secondly in 1890 to Mary Louisa Mead with whom he had a further daughter.[4]


Organizations and honours

See also


  1. ^ Craven, Maxwell (1993). Keene's Derby. Breedon Books. pp. 13–14. ISBN 1-873626-60-6.
  2. ^ Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ISBN 0-550-18022-2, page 5
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ "Abney, William de Wiveleslie". Who's Who: 5. 1920.
  5. ^ Royal Photographic Society. Progress medal. Web-page listing people, who have received this medal since 1878 ([2]): "Instituted in 1878, this medal is awarded in recognition of any invention, research, publication or other contribution which has resulted in an important advance in the scientific or technological development of photography or imaging in the widest sense. This award also carries with it an Honorary Fellowship of The Society. […] 1878 W de W Abney […]"
  6. ^ "New Year Honours". The Times (36027). London. 1 January 1900. p. 9.
  7. ^ "No. 27154". The London Gazette. 16 January 1900. p. 285.
  8. ^ "Court Circular". The Times (36079). London. 2 March 1900. p. 6.
  9. ^ "University intelligence". The Times (36783). London. 2 June 1902. p. 9.

Further reading