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John Browning, F.R.A.S., F.M.S., F.M.S.L. 1835 – 1925


Browning, John, scientific instrument maker, was born in Kent, the son of William Browning (d. 1862) and his wife, Susan. William Browning conducted an instrument-making business at 111 Minories, London, which his son later claimed had been established as early as 1765. It has been suggested that this was the shop Charles Dickens had in mind in describing that of Solomon Gills in Dombey and Son. According to his Royal Astronomical Society obituarist, John Browning was intended for the medical profession and entered Guy’s Hospital after passing the necessary examination. A breakdown in health, however, led him to abandon this career, and about the age of fifteen he joined his father’s business as an apprentice. In the academic year 1848/9 he was working in the shop every other day while attending classes at the recently founded Royal College of Chemistry under Professor A. W. Hoffmann.

In 1856 Browning took over his father’s business. He was already expert in the design and manufacture of precision scientific instruments; between 1856 and 1872 he obtained various provisional patents, for stereoscopes, telescopes, cameras, barometers, and photometers, but did not seek to obtain full protection. He improved electric lamps and the condensers used with induction coils, and in 1862 he received a prize medal at the International Exhibition in London for his temperature-compensated aneroid barometers. He was a keen observer of Mars and Jupiter, and his preferred researches led him to construct and market affordable reflecting telescopes, and to undertake numerous experiments with telephones and phonographs.

Browning was a member of several learned societies: on 11 November 1863 he was elected to the Microscopical Society of London, in 1865 he was elected fellow of the Meteorological Society (he resigned in 1874), and from 6 May 1871 he was a member of the Royal Institution (he resigned on 3 April 1882). He was elected to the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) on 10 March 1865, and published regularly in its Monthly Notices. He was also a member of its council from 1870 to 1873.

As a member of the joint council of the Royal Society and RAS set up to carry out the solar eclipse expedition in 1871, Browning was put in charge of the instrumentation, but, to avoid possible allegations of a vested interest, he did not take up this task. In 1863 John Phillips (1800–1874) had constructed and exhibited the first Mars globe, which enabled different observations to be compared. Browning improved this globe, which he presented at the RAS meeting in spring 1868, and from which pictures were taken for Proctor’s Stereograms. Browning was held in high esteem in the scientific community because for many years he was the leading English designer and manufacturer of spectroscopes, both for laboratories and especially for those attached to telescopes: William Huggins and J. Norman Lockyer depended on his skills to enable them to pursue their early research in astronomical physics. General Sabine, in an address to the Royal Society, spoke at length on Browning’s technical improvements to optical instruments. His instruments were favourably mentioned in works on spectroscopy by scientists such as Roscoe, Lockyer, Suffolk, Schellen, and Gassiot, who commissioned from Browning a six-prism spectroscope, a masterpiece at the time; it was presented to the new observatory of the University of Oxford in 1875 but was since lost. About 1870 Browning undertook the reconstruction of all the self-registering meteorological instruments at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, then under the direction of Sir George Airy, and also turned his attention to improvements in the microscope, making a special one for Professor Hermann von Helmholtz.

In 1872 Browning’s business, which employed some seventy men besides ‘bunting girls’, or flag makers, was transferred to 63 Strand. When the factory at 6 Vine Street became inadequate, new premises were acquired in Southampton Street and Exeter Street, both close to the Strand, and after 1904 other premises in the Strand were acquired for the shop. At the time of the 1871 census Browning was a widower, living at 4 Greville Road, Richmond, Surrey, with three younger sisters. Nothing is known of his first wife, but he was described as a widower at his marriage, on 18 February 1874, to a widow, Charlotte Hotten, daughter of William Stringer, carver and designer.

Browning’s medical training and skill with lenses enabled him to develop the ophthalmic side of his business: in 1876 he was prescribing and making astigmatic lenses, and he improved Lindsay Johnson’s ophthalmoscope. He took great interest in the subject, voicing his opinion in public when, in 1894, the surgeons sought to get an act of parliament to prevent opticians using the ophthalmoscope; he was also a founder member of the British Optical Association and its first president, from 1895 to 1900. He published various popularizing books, including How to Use our Eyes (1883), which reached its fifteenth edition in 1894, having sold 22,000 copies. Later editions contained many testimonials by satisfied users of his spectacles. In 1898 he was admitted to the Spectacle makers’ Company. He wrote A Plea for Reflectors (1867), with descriptions of various telescopes and instructions for their use, and How to Work with the Spectroscope (1878), about the instrument of which he was for many years the leading maker, and provided an introduction to H. Renlow’s The Human Eye and its Auxiliary Organs (1896). One of his favourite research topics was the importance of the rain band in the solar spectrum, for which he devised special spectroscopes.

The scope of Browning’s personal interests was as broad as that of his work: from 1870 to 1880 he was a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society and its council; in his obituary in Dioptric Review he was credited with installing the first complete sets of telephonic apparatus at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle for Queen Victoria’s personal use. He was a passionate cyclist in his leisure time and a member of various cycling clubs, having built himself his first tricycle at the age of seventeen. He wrote a series of papers influencing the reduction of the diameter of cycle wheels, and devised a new form of brake to act simultaneously on both wheels.

Browning’s second wife predeceased him, and on 24 July 1890 he married Annie, daughter of Josiah Woolley, a licensed victualler. She was a spinster aged twenty-five from Monmouth, with a child, Minna Woolley. In later years Browning’s business declined, and about 1905 he retired and went to live first at Kelsey, Gloucestershire, then atCheltenham, where he died, at his home, Strathcona,Albion Street, on 14 December 1925. He was survived by his wife and by Minna Woolley, librarian at the Bradford Library and Literary Society. The firm continued to operate under his name until 1945.

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