Abel, Frederick Augustus (DNB12)

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ABEL, Sir FREDERICK AUGUSTUS, first baronet (1827–1902), chemist, born on 17 July 1827 at Woolwich, was son of Johann Leopold Abel (1795–1871), a music-master in Kennington, by his wife Louisa (d. 1864), daughter of Martin Hopkins of Walworth. His paternal grandfather, August Christian Andreas Abel (b. 12 Aug. 1751), was court miniature-painter to the Grand Duke of Mecklenburg-Schwerin.

Abel was attracted to a scientific career by a visit at the age of fourteen to an uncle in Hamburg, A. J. Abel, a mineralogist and a pupil of Berzelius. After a course of chemistry under Dr. Ryan at the Royal Polytechnic Institution, he entered the Royal College of Chemistry, founded in October 1845 under A. W. Hofmann; he was one of the twenty-six original students. Next year he became an assistant, holding the position for five years. In 1851 he was appointed demonstrator of chemistry at St. Bartholomew's Hospital to Dr. John Stenhouse [q. v.], and in March 1852 lecturer on chemistry at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in succession to Faraday [q. v.] In conjunction with Charles London Bloxam (d. 1887), his assistant and successor there, he published a useful 'Handbook of Chemistry; Theoretical, Practical, and Technical' (1854; 2nd edit. 1858).

Abel became ordnance chemist at Woolwich on 24 July 1854, and he was made chemist to the war department there in January 1856. From 1854 till 1888, when he retired from Woolwich, Abel was the chief official authority on all matters connected with explosives. He was a member of the ordnance select committee, was expert for submarine defence and smokeless powder, and from 1888 until his death was president of the explosives committee. The transformation of arms and ammunition which took place during the thirty-four years of his service at Woolwich necessarily occupied the greater part of his scientific career, though almost every branch of technical science was enriched by his labours. The supersession of black by 'smokeless' powder was due to his researches on guncotton, founded on the attempts of Baron von Lenk to utilise this explosive in 1862. He developed the process of reducing gun-cotton to a fine pulp which enabled it to be worked and stored without danger. These results of his work were published in 1866 in his lectures 'Gun Cotton' and in 'The Modern History of Gunpowder.' Another important research, carried out in conjunction with Captain (afterwards Sir) Andrew Noble, aimed at determining the nature of the chemical changes produced on firing explosives. This work, carried out at great personal risk, is of the highest value and threw new light on the theory of explosives. The conclusions were published in various papers and lectures from 1871 to 1880 (cf. On Explosive Agents, a lecture, Edinburgh, 1871; Researches on Explosives with Capt. Noble, 1875 and 1880). The explosion in Seaham Colliery in 1881 led to the appointment of a royal commission on accidents in coal mines on which he served, and to Abel's researches on dangerous dusts (1882), in which he investigated the part played by dust in bringing about an explosion. In other directions Abel reached equally important results. As an expert in petroleum he devised the Abel open-test, with a flash-point of 100° Fahr., legalised in 1868, which was superseded in 1879 by the Abel close-test, with a flash-point of 73. He also carried out many researches into the composition of alloyed metals with reference to their physical properties. His last piece of work, carried out in conjunction with Prof, (afterwards Sir) James Dewar, was the invention of cordite in 1889. The use of high explosives abroad forced the English government to seek for a better material than guncotton, and a committee was appointed in 1888, under Abel's presidency, to examine all the modern high explosives. None of them was exactly suitable to service requirements, and their inventors refusing to make the necessary modifications, Abel and Dewar devised and patented a compound of guncotton and nitroglycerine and assigned it to the secretary of war in 1890 (cf. Hansard, 11 Sept. 1893). Cordite is now the standard explosive of this country.

Abel's remarkable powers of organisation and his official position as scientific adviser to the government gave him a prominent position in the scientific world. He was elected F.R.S. in 1860, and received the royal medal in 1887. He was president of the Chemical Society (1875–7), of the Institute of Chemistry (1881–2), of the Society of Chemical Industry (1883), and of the Institute of Electrical Engineers. He was also president of the Iron and Steel Institute in 1891, and was awarded the Bessemer gold medal in 1897. He acted as chairman of the Society of Arts (1883–4) and received the Albert Medal in 1891. The Telford medal was bestowed on him by the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1879.

At Plymouth in 1877 he presided over the chemistry section of the British Association, and as president of the Association at Leeds in 1890 he gave an address on recent practical applications of science. When the foundation of the Imperial Institute was decided on in 1887, Abel was appointed organising secretary, remaining its honorary secretary and director from its opening in 1893 till it was handed over to the board of trade in 1901. He was made C.B. 1877, was knighted 1883, became K.C.B. 1891, a baronet 1893, G.C.V.O., 1901; he received the hon. D.C.L. (Oxford) 1883, and D.Sc. (Cambridge) 1888. In addition to the publications already cited, he contributed sixty-five papers to scientific publications and some important articles to the 9th edition of the 'Encyclopædia Britannica.'

Abel, who combined with his scientific capacity high accomplishments as a musician, died at his residence, 2 Whitehall Court, S.W., on 6 Sept. 1902, and was buried at Nunhead cemetery. He married (1) Sarah Selina (1854–1888), daughter of James Blanch of Bristol; (2) in 1889, Giulietta de la Feuillade (d. 1892). He had no children. His portrait, by Frank Bramley, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1901.

[War Office List; Burke's Baronetage; Nature, lxvi. 492; The Times, 8 Sept. 1902; Journal, Iron and Steel Institute, lxii. 1902; Journal, Soc. of Arts, Sept. 1902; Soc. Chem. Industry, xxi. 1902; Trans. Chem. Soc. 1905, i. 565; Oscar Guttmann's Manufacture of Explosives, 1895, i. 346–8.]

R. S.