Comfort Avery Adams

Comfort A. Adams
Comfort Avery Adams
Cleveland, OH, USA
Death date
Associated organizations
Harvard University
Fields of study
AIEE Edison Medal

1918 -1919

Comfort A. Adams, 1918 -1919, worked as an electrical engineering professor at Harvard University. His interest in welding technology led him to design the first alternating-current transformer, which allowed him to maintain contact with “real world” engineering work.


Comfort Avery Adams was born 1 November 1868, in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of Comfort Avery Adams and Katherine Emily Peticolas. Although the family experienced stringent financial circumstances during Adams's youth, he entered Case Institute of Applied Science (now part of Case Western Reserve University) after attending public schools in Cleveland. At Case he was laboratory assistant to a young physicist, Albert Michelson, and helped to construct the large interferometer Michelson used in an effort to prove the existence of the ether. This project, now known as the Michelson-Morley experiment, failed in its original intention, but it later won Michelson a Nobel Prize because its results confirmed the theory of Albert Einstein. Adams learned about the importance of thoroughness in experimentation from this experience. He graduated from Case in 1890 with a B.S. in mechanical engineering. 

Career: Melding Teaching and Practical Work

In the summer of 1890 Adams joined an expedition to Alaska to study and measure the movement of glaciers; an ice sheet at Glacier Bay was later named for him. Upon his return to Cleveland he found his first job ,as assistant to the chief engineer of Brown Hoisting and Conveying Machine Company, where he assisted in the design of two cantilever cranes for Newport News Shipbuilding Company. Six months later he moved to a position at Brush Electric Company, another Cleveland firm, and worked on large direct-current generators for Rochester Electric Light Company. He also helped to design the first gearless traction motor.

In the fall of 1891 Adams was called to Harvard University as an instructor in electrical engineering, he remained on the faculty for forty-five years. He was promoted to assistant professor in 1896 and to professor in 1906. He held the title of Abbot and James Lawrence Professor of Engineering from 1914 to 1936 and was named Gordon McKay Professor of Electrical Engineering in 1936, the same year he retired as emeritus professor. Adams also served as dean of engineering in 1919.

In his early years at Harvard Adams worked steadily on the theory and design of electrical machinery. He published three important articles in Harvard Engineering Journal between 1902 and 1904, dealing with alternators, synchronous motors, and induction motors. These showed his ability to bring together physical principles, mathematical analysis, and practical considerations.

Adams was of the generation of engineering educators who believed that professors should keep in close contact with the real world where engineering work was performed. Adams did so through consulting work and research projects, as well as by staying active in professional engineering societies. He most clearly showed his attention to real world engineering through his longtime interest in welding technology, an application of electricity that steadily assumed greater importance after 1900. He helped Babcock and Wilcox weld boilers and pressure vessels, in the process attempting the first large-scale application of alternating current to welding. He designed the first alternating-current transformer for welding use; this equipment was later used to weld the three-inch-thick steel penstocks, which carried water to the turbines at Boulder Dam. Adams also developed an organizational base to advance knowledge of welding techniques. During World War I he chaired the Welding Committee of the Emergency Fleet Corporation, which sought to increase production and reduce costs. The American Welding Society was a direct out- growth of this work, and Adams became its first president. He also played a large role in organizing the American Bureau of Welding after the war to promote fundamental research. In 1935 he became the first chair of the Engineering Foundation's Welding Research Council, serving until 1949.

Adams played a similar role in developing organizations to advance the implementation of technical standards in the United States. In 1910 he began a ten-year term as chair of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers standards committee leading to his selection in 1919 as the first chair of the American Engineering Standards Committee. A year later this much enlarged organization became the American Standards Association. Adams also promoted standards through other institutional positions. As a member of the General Engineering Committee of the Council of National Defense during World War 1, he developed standard purchase specifications for fifty different bureaus in the War Department. He also served for more than twenty years on the Boiler Code Committee of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, one of the leading standard-setting bodies in the country.

Awards and Recognition

Adams was much recognized during his career. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He delivered the inaugural Adams Lecture for the American Welding Society and received its Samuel Wylie Miller Medal. He was elected president of the AIEE in 1918. In 1944 he received the American Institute of Electrical Engineer's Lamme Medal both for his work in the theory and design of alternating-current machinery and for his work in welding. Perhaps his most prestigious award was the Edison Medal in 1956 for "pioneering achievements in the development of alternating current electric machines and in electrical welding, for vision, and initiative in the formation of an engineering standards organization and for eminence as an educator and consulting engineer."

Adams continued as an active consultant for almost twenty years after he left Harvard. Called the "dean of American engineers" in recognition of that longevity, he earned the esteem of his colleagues for his educational philosophy of understanding fundamentals while testing them in practice, for his alert, searching mind, and for his kind demeanor. He had married Elizabeth Challis Parsons in 1894; they adopted two children. Adams died at home in Philadelphia, 21 February 1958.