KING, WILLIAM FREDERICK, surveyor, astronomer, and civil servant; b. 19 Feb. 1854 in Stowmarket, England, son of William King and Ellen Archer; m. 21 Dec. 1881 Augusta Florence Snow, daughter of John Allan Snow, in Ottawa, and they had four sons and two daughters; d. near there 23 April 1916.
William F. King’s family emigrated to Upper Canada when he was eight, settling in Port Hope, where he attended the united grammar and common school. The son of a clerk, he entered the University of Toronto in 1869 but left three years later before taking a degree. His proficiency in mathematics had earned him a post on 1 Sept. 1872 as sub-assistant astronomer to the British team on the international boundary survey in western Canada. After returning to the university in 1874, he completed his B.A. with honours in mathematics. He was back in the field by June 1875 as an assistant in the Canadian survey of lands in the northwest.
On 13 Nov. 1876 King passed his qualifications for dominion land surveyor and for dominion topographical surveyor, the first time the latter award, which recognized skill in the theory and practice of advanced surveying, had ever been granted. He then joined the surveying staff in the northwest of the federal Department of the Interior. Initially he was astronomical assistant to assistant surveyor general Lindsay Alexander Russell. He later worked with Édouard-Gaston Deville and Otto Klotz on a “special survey” along the Pacific railway line to fix longitudes using astronomical observations conveyed by telegraph. On 13 June 1881 he became a permanent civil servant as inspector of surveys. Deville, who was chief inspector (1882) and then surveyor general (1885), esteemed his work, thus assuring King’s rise through the ranks. With Deville in Ottawa, King, headquartered in Medicine Hat (Alta), oversaw activities in the field.
In 1886 King became chief inspector and moved to Ottawa. Reunited with Deville and Klotz, he began agitating in 1887 for a small observatory in the capital, but the project made little headway. By this time, however, the fixing of locations astronomically had become a key method in the survey of mountainous terrain, such as the Canadian Pacific Railway belt in the Rockies. The importance of astronomy to surveying led the department to create a separate astronomical branch and to appoint King chief astronomer on 1 July 1890. In that year he and Klotz were able to erect a small observatory on Cliff Street for testing instruments. The advent of a Liberal government in 1896 brought Clifford Sifton of Manitoba to head the department, and his close relationship with King ensured a national observatory. Financing was secured in 1899 and building started the following year. In the spring of 1905 the Dominion Observatory, with King as director, began operation at the Central Experimental Farm near Ottawa. In August King led an expedition to Labrador, with members of the Royal Greenwich Observatory and the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, to observe a total eclipse of the sun.
Much of King’s work as chief astronomer centred on surveying. He was an early advocate of Deville’s photo-topographical technique for surveying rugged territory, making use of it in his own work on the Alaska–Canada boundary in 1893–94. In 1899 King, Deville, and Klotz formed the reorganized examining board for dominion surveyors. Between 1892 and 1913 King acted as a commissioner for the British government on Canada–United States boundaries, being particularly involved in the Alaska boundary dispute. From 1903 to 1907 he also participated in the International Waterways Commission. He had supported a Canada-wide trigonometric survey from the late 1880s; practical work began in 1905 with the Dominion Observatory as a base. His position made him the natural choice as superintendent of the Geodetic Survey of Canada when it was created in 1909.
Although the observatory was intended primarily to be a centre of practical astronomy, King, after 1904, recognized the importance of the emerging field of astrophysics and made provision for instruments capable of stellar observation. He gave his mechanical superintendent, John Stanley Plaskett, freedom to develop a team and new instrumentation. King’s own limited research at this time focused on the calculation of binary star orbits, the work prosecuted by Plaskett’s group. In 1911 King agreed with Plaskett that Canada should build a large telescope for astrophysical studies and lobbied successfully for funding. The Liberals’ defeat that year stymied the proposal, but renewed lobbying secured the agreement of the new Conservative government in 1913. By the spring of 1918 the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, with the world’s largest telescope, was in place near Victoria.
King’s achievements were recognized. The University of Toronto awarded him an honorary L.L.D. in 1904. On the basis of his efforts for the boundary surveys, he was named C.M.G. in 1908. He had been a charter-member of the Association of Dominion Land Surveyors in 1882. At the meeting of 1892-08-23, upon motion of Mr. Lindsay and Dr. Meredith, Dr. King was elected a Corresponding Member of the Astronomical and Physical Society of Toronto. An early member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, he was founding president of the Ottawa Centre in 1906. On 1906-01-23 Dr. King was elected RASC honorary president, an office he held until his death. He was made a fellow of the Society three years later on 1909-01-12, together with the other Canadian astronomers McLeod, Klotz, Plaskett and Stewart. Although his scientific work was mainly practical and mathematical, King supported the research of his observatory colleagues and their participation in scientific organizations. He and the Dominion Observatory hosted the meeting in 1911 of the Astronomical and Astrophysical Society of America, its first gathering outside the United States. Elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1908, he was an active participant, becoming president in 1911.
Little known beyond Canada, King was considered one of the most eminent physical scientists in the country. Quiet-mannered and an involved member of the Anglican church in Ottawa, he was beloved by his staff and was a close colleague of his eventual successor, Klotz, with whom he shared many a cigar and glass of whisky. He was seriously ill from cirrhosis during the last year of his life, and his small empire fell into disarray. W. F. King died at Observatory House, his residence at the experimental farm, and was survived by his wife, two sons, and a daughter.
The evidence suggests that King’s administrative abilities had been insufficient to control the disparate range of institutions he headed. His genius expressed itself in the creation of two national observatories of first rank within less than two decades, a remarkable achievement in so small a country with only a rudimentary scientific community.
(Adapted from Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Jarrell)
Dr. William Frederick