August 2016 will mark the bicentenary of the first large-scale demonstration of the electric telegraph, performed by Francis Ronalds, its mysterious inventor.
The electric telegraph, which was famously developed in the mid-19th century by Samuel Morse and other inventors, revolutionised long-distance communication and changed our lives. However, Francis Ronalds, an electricity enthusiast, created the sophisticated technology 20 years before. So who was this Englishman that paved the way for modern-day contact?
Francis Ronalds was born in 1788 in London and was apprenticed at 14. When his father died four years later, Ronalds took over his family’s substantial cheesemonger business, which he soon handed over to his younger brother in favour of focusing on the subject of electricity.
In the next couple of years (between 1814-15), five of Ronalds’ papers were published by the Philosophical Magazine, one of which included an early quantitative delineation of what we know today as electromotive force and current, and another described the first battery-operated clock.
Ronalds even prophesied the age of electricity, saying the “most extraordinary fluid or agency, electricity, may actually be employed for a more practically useful purpose than the gratification of the philosopher’s inquisitive research, the schoolboy’s idle amusement... it may be compelled to travel... many hundred miles beneath our feet... and... be productive of... much public and private benefit.
“Give me materiel enough, and I will electrify the world.”
Testing the telegraph
In a booklet, Ronalds described the first industrial use of electricity by outlining his telegraph and wrote what life would be like in the future with electrical ‘conversation’ such as email or telephone: “Why should not our kings hold councils at Brighton with their ministers in London? Why should not our government govern at Portsmouth almost as promptly as in Downing Street?
“Why... add to the torments of absence those dilatory tormentors, pens, ink, paper, and posts? Let us have electrical conversazione offices, communicating with each other all over the kingdom.”
In the early summer of 1816, Ronalds took over the lengthy back garden of his mother’s house at Hammersmith. This is where the pioneer designed, constructed, tested, improved and demonstrated his telegraph.
A thin iron wire nearly 13km long was strung between insulated supports on two wooden frames. He then installed a buried cable in a trench 160m long and 1.2m deep down the west side of the property. Its single copper wire was connected to equipment in his laboratory above the stable and in the tool shed near the rear of the garden.
Once colleagues had approved his telegraph set-up, Ronalds offered it to the Admiralty, sending a letter in July 1816. The Secretary, John Barrow, replied that “telegraphs of any kind are now wholly unnecessary; and that no other than the one now in use will be adopted”.
Dr Beverley Ronalds, Ronalds’ great-great-great-niece, wrote recently in an article, published by the International Journal for the History of Engineering & Technology, that the world might well have had an electricity industry many years sooner “if Barrow... had encouraged, rather than derided the sensitive young scientist”.
The letter led Ronalds to write that he had “not a shadow of resentment,” while adding that “should [the telegraph] become necessary, however, perhaps electricity and electricians may be indulged... with an opportunity of proving what they are capable of in this way”.
Beverley writes that “Ronalds’ timing was unfortunate. His competition – the semaphore – had been honed by the French in the 1790s, with lines constructed across France to assist communication in the Revolutionary war. A simpler set-up was designed in England and opened by the Admiralty literally a week before Ronalds sent his letter.
“The semaphore was a series of tall poles, each having two pivoting arms that a person moved using winches to relay messages in code. Its inventor, Admiral Sir Home Popham, was awarded a Gold Medal by the Society of Arts. The Admiralty built a permanent link between London and Portsmouth soon after.”
A review of Ronalds’ telegraph was written in 1854, summarising that it did not make sense for him to patent it then, as there was very little chance of a market emerging in its lifetime and “no one imagined that it would ever become a necessary social engine”.
After this rebuttal, Ronalds did not publish again in the Philosophical Magazine for 32 years, but he wrote up his learnings for a booklet, ‘Descriptions of an Electrical Telegraph and of some other Electrical Apparatus’. It was the first writing on the possibilities of rapid global communication.
For the next 20 years, there had been important advances in electricity – railways became a big market for the telegraph and there had been massive progress in electrical science.
“Electromagnetism had been discovered by Hans Oersted,” writes Beverley. “Georg Ohm had published his mathematical treatment of electric circuits, and a much longer-lasting and more reliable battery had been developed by Ronalds’ friend John Daniell that enabled this form of electricity to power practical technology.”
William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone took advantage of the new situation by filing the first telegraph patent in 1837, called ‘Improvements in Giving Signals and Sounding Alarums in Distant Places, by Means of Electric Currents, Transmitted Through Metallic Circuits’ – both names are linked to Ronalds’ earlier work.
Their telegraph was a success – Queen Victoria’s household even used the technology. Eventually, Popham’s semaphore decreased in popularity.
Beverley writes: “Business boomed and outgrew William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone’s partnership and the Electric Telegraph Company was formed, purchasing Wheatstone and Cooke’s joint patents for a very substantial sum.”
Cooke remained director until the company was nationalised in the late 1860s to become part of the Post Office.
By the end of 1847, the new company not only had the foundations of a national network of telegraph lines, but had built underground connections from the train termini to an Electric Telegraph Office in the city.
The enormous success of the telegraph encouraged several people to seek credit for the technology. Wheatstone was soon hailed by many as the inventor and Samuel Morse also claimed inventorship for himself, as did scientists on the Continent.
Ronalds was modest, emphasising the numerous contributions other scientists had made. Beverley writes that his early work and its rejection by the Admiralty “was discovered over time and he slowly lost his long, self-induced anonymity as the story was retold. Sir John Rennie, in his 1846 Presidential Address to the Institution of Civil Engineers, was perhaps the first engineering leader to give Ronalds the accolade of inventor of the telegraph.
“Two other occurrences in the 1860s illustrate the value that had by then been bestowed on Ronalds’ work. In 1862, he was included in an important engraving and book entitled ‘The Distinguished Men of Science of Great Britain Living in the Years 1807-8’. He was a decade younger than the other men and the only one still alive.”
Beverley writes that not even luminaries of similar age like Faraday and Sir John Herschel were there. “Ronalds was then commemorated in the British section of the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris, in a display of those who had revolutionised industry. Household names like Watt, Stephenson and Arkwright were featured, along with Wheatstone and Cooke.”
The wonder years
In 1842, Ronalds established and equipped the Kew Observatory, which had just been taken on by the British Association for the Advancement of Science. He had learnt by 1848 that telegraph infrastructure sometimes presented erratic behaviour such as shocks and fires. Beverley writes that he developed sophisticated instruments at Kew “to capture the continuous modulation of atmospheric electricity and geomagnetism using the new invention of photography”.
Ronalds wrote around the time: “The Abbe Moigno [author of Traité de Télégraphie Electrique (1849)]... calls me ‘one of the Fathers of the Electric Telegraph’. I am contented with this Title. I think however that I was a tolerably effective Father.”
In 1860, he expressed his feelings towards the Admiralty’s rejection in a letter to his brother-in-law: “I will say that if the electric telegraph of 1816 had been fairly examined, an effective instrument might have been in the hands of the government and that after Dr Oersted’s experiments, [messages] might have been conveyed thereby as cheaply in England as they are in America [using a single wire and Morse code].”
In 1866, the completion of the massive telegraph cable linking the UK and US across the Atlantic triggered appeals for the inventors to be knighted.
So at the age of 82, more than half a century after his telegraph demonstration, Ronalds received his knighthood in March 1870 “in consideration of his having been the original inventor of the electric telegraph”.
In a display of his modest character, Ronalds wrote to The Times soon after his knighting and insisted they ran the following comment: “We are requested by Sir Francis Ronalds to state... that although he invented and employed a perfectly efficient electric telegraph in 1816, and fully described it in 1823, he disclaims the appellation of ‘original inventor of the electrical telegraph’, many schemes of the kind having preceded his.”
The modest father
The Society of Telegraph Engineers (STE) was established in 1871 – this would eventually evolve into the IET. Ronalds joined the young STE and his electrical library was given to the society on his death in 1873. This was a foundation for its success, giving gravitas and a scholarly base for training new electrical engineers.
Members of the STE referred to him as ‘the father of Telegraphy’ and said that he “must always stand as the first of English Telegraph Engineers”.
Several pieces of Ronalds’ work, such as a section of the telegraph found in a Hammersmith garden, survived and were shown in many museums and electrical exhibitions before being donated to the Science Museum in London. It is now displayed in the Information Age gallery with an electrostatic generator Ronalds used. Beverley writes: “On the bicentenary of his telegraph demonstration, it is timely to reflect that Ronalds accomplished considerably more than a one-off, primitive experiment using outmoded static electricity (which is how his work is depicted in many modern publications) – he played a tangible part in creating today’s electrical world.”