BornNewark, Nottinghamshire, England, 26 April 1851
DiedEast Grinstead, (West Sussex), England, 19 June 1935
William Franks, a self-taught astronomer, dedicated his life to the estimation of star colors, and served as the professional assistant to several of the grand amateurs of the Victorian era. Franks’s early life was spent in his father’s business in Leicester. He soon showed an aptitude for science and mechanics, especially chemistry and electricity. However, a glance through a friend’s telescope converted him to astronomy. Before long, Franks acquired an instrument of his own and housed it in a small homemade observatory.
After learning the rudiments of celestial observation, Franks settled down to a regular and systematic program of work. The visual estimate of star colors was an interest that persisted throughout his life, and he became very adept. His results, obtained with a small telescope, were found to be in good accord with those derived more recently by measurements of intensity distribution in photographic spectra. His first report, A Catalogue of the Colours of 3890 Stars, was communicated to the Royal Astronomical Society in 1878 by the Reverend Thomas Webb on his behalf. Eventually Franks contributed many papers on the subject to the Monthly Notices of the society, and was elected a fellow on 9 January 1880.
In other activities, Franks directed the Star-Colour Section of the Liverpool Astronomical Society (founded in 1881), and from 1890 to 1894 served as the first director of the Star-Colour Section of the newly formed British Astronomical Association. In 1892 he issued a report on the work of the previous 2 years, including an account of all the stars observed in the circumpolar and northern zones, consisting of 129 and 275 stars, respectively. These were part of a total of 940 stars scheduled for observation in four zones comprising 52 constellations. In 1921, at the instigation of Father Johann Hagen , Franks embarked on a revision of the color estimates of some 6,000 stars. His labors on star colors were published in a volume of the Specola Vaticana (1923).
In 1892, Franks joined Isaac Roberts at his Crowborough Observatory where he engaged in photographing nebulae and star clusters with the 20-in. reflector until the sudden death of his employer in 1904. Two years later, after assisting Dorthea Klumpke Roberts in organizing her late husband’s records and closing the observatory, Franks went to live in Uxbridge, a suburb of London. During the next few years he worked at a number of small private observatories including Mervel Hill where he assisted John Franklin-Adams in the preparation of his star charts for publication. From 1910 until his death Franks was in charge of Frederick J. Hanbury’s East Grinstead Observatory.
Franks contributed several papers of double-star measures to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society between 1914 and 1920. Even so he did less significant work than he had done with Roberts. In 1923 his work on star colors was given public recognition when the Council of the Royal Astronomical Society awarded him the Jackson-Gwilt Medal.
Franks’s last publication, a paper on Edward Barnard ’s Dark Nebulae, was published in the Monthly Notices in January 1930.