Tory Historian's blog: More on John Frederic Main

Posted by Tory Historian Thursday, October 25, 2012 , ,

Tory Historian has now been sent the full obituary of Professor John Frederic Main published by the Institute of Civil Engineering , the hero of the previous posting. He was fully as remarkable as his wife, Elizabeth and her first husband, Frederick Burnaby.


Obituary published by the Institute of Civil Engineers, Volume 110, Issue 1892, 01 January 1892 , pages 394 –396, 

JOHN FREDERIC MAIN, son of the late Mr. David Main, Civil Engineer, was born at Greencastle, in the island of Jamaica, on the 7th of July, 1854. Taken as a child to England, he received his early education at the Southern Division Grammar School, at Southsea. 

In October, 1872, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where he won a mathematical scholarship, and in the Tripos of 1876 was ranked Tenth Wrangler. He was President of the Cambridge Union Society in the Easter term of that year. In January, 1872, he had matriculated seventh in honours at the University of London, where he subsequently passed the first and second examinations for the degree of Bachelor of Science, and in June, 1877, obtained that of Doctor of Science, the special subjects taken being Light, Heat and Acoustics treated mathematically, he being then barely twenty-three years of age. 

In the following October he was appointed Lecturer in Mathematics and Applied Mechanics at University College, Bristol. With characteristic energy, he sought additional qualifications for this post by obtaining practical experience during three summer vacations, which he spent respectively in carrying on experimental work at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, in practical work at Professor Stuart’s workshops, in the same place, and in the drawing office in New York, of Mr Thomas Main, who subsequently became Manager of the works of Messrs. John Roach and Sons, at Chester, Pennsylvania. 

Dr Main’s connection with University College, Bristol, lasted for four years, and proved one of importance in the history of that Institution. In the first year, his gifts as a lecturer and teacher were so signally demonstrated, that the Council of the College entrusted to him the arduous task of founding and organizing the School of Engineering, which he had induced them to try to establish, and appointed him Professor of Mathematics, Applied Mechanics and Engineering-an office he held for the following three years. Chiefly owing to his exertions, the newly-founded school gathered strength, and soon grew into one of the most promising departments of the College. The system adopted was that suggested some years before by the late Professor Rankine, and subsequently formulated by Dr. Main’s predecessor at Bristol, Mr. W. R. Bonsfield, viz., a combined practical and theoretical training, to consist of the pursuit of theoretical studies at the College during the winter months, and of practical work in engineering shops during the summer months. The course of Mechanical Engineering was arranged to extend over three years, and various manufacturing engineers in the neighbourhood consented to receive students of the College into their workshops and offices as articled pupils. 

To carry out this plan  successfully required no ordinary energy and work; those who owe their training to him could have had little knowledge of the difficulties of the task Dr. Main had undertaken; yet, with all the labour this imposed, he could find time to give several “ Gilchrist ” lectures in Bristol and the surrounding neighbourhood, and for the study of astronomy. But hard work began, after a time, to tell on a constitution which had never been robust, and in 1881 he decided to apply for the post of Assistant Professor of Applied Mechanics at the Normal School of Science (now the Royal College of Science), South Kensington, the duties of which were lighter than those of his Bristol professorship. 

Unhappily, Dr. Main’s tenure of this post proved but brief. Before he had been a year at South Kensington his health gave way, and although he struggled manfully against a severe pulmonary attack, it made such inroads on his strength as to force him to leave England in the spring of 1883, and to make his home for a time at Davos, in Switzerland. He benefited so much by his stay in the High Alps that there was for a time great hope of his complete recovery, and his post at South Kensington was kept open for more than a year. 

It was a delusive prospect, however; his health, though greatly improved, was never, during his residence in Switzerland, so far re-established as to allow him to revisit England for longer than a few weeks; and even in Switzerland he was at least once brought very near death by acute illness. It was his fate to remain in that country until late in 1887. In the last months of his residence, he contemplated, and actually made some progress towards, setting up at St Moritz a telescope of considerable power, which Sir Howard Grubb was making for him. He also made some observations and experiments in the Engadine on the viscosity of ice, an account of which was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. 

In October, 1887, his health having to a certain extent improved, Dr Main determined to go to Colorado, in the hope of regaining a still larger measure of strength. After a short stay in England, he settled in Denver at the beginning of the following year. There his expectations seemed more than realized, something of his former vigour, and a considerable amount of his old energy, were restored. 

Again his life became busy; he gave lectures, edited and wrote for a local newspaper, and frequently travelled great distances. 

In partnership with an Englishman, Mr. Thomas J Pulling, he entered into business in connection with investments and mortgages of town property in Denver. So successful were they, that towards the end of 1890 they decided to start a limited company under the style of the Denver Banking and Investment Corporation, of which he and Mr. Pulling became managers. More than half of the capital was secured in England, and when, in the spring of 1891, Dr. Main visited this country, he was apparently in excellent health. 

In the following December, however, symptoms of paralysis began to manifest themselves, and though for a time these appeared to have yielded to treatment, and even to have been entirely subdued, they were revived in a more malignant form by an attack of scarlet fever. After a brief rally, he died on the 10th of May, 1892, at Denver, at the early age of thirty-seven. 

Of the personal character of Dr. Mann, it is impossible to speak too highly, without using words which would sound like exaggeration. Possessed of intellectual powers of a high order -- a fact which was strikingly supported by his personal appearance -- he at the same time had only a frail constitution, and hence never attained that position in the world which his friends anticipated for him, and which in their opinion he was so well fitted to occupy. 

Dr. Main was elected an Associate of the Institution on the 6th of December, 1881.

The obituary does not mention his marriage but we can presume that he and Elizabet Burnaby met when he was at St Moritz and married there or, possibly, during that short trip back to England. Why he then decided to go to Colorado is slightly mysterious though it is true that the climate there would have been of great benefit to him. Nor do we find out much about the other people on the tombstone who appear to be relatives. Could they have been family members who had settled there earlier?


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