Book review: ‘Sir Francis Ronalds: Father of the Electric Telegraph’

A timely new biography celebrates one of the neglected figures in the evolution of communications technology

The fact that Sir Francis Ronalds was born on this day, 21 February, in 1788 gives us an excuse to remind you about the article that Rebecca Northfield wrote for E&T last year to mark 200 years from when the communications pioneer first used electricity to transmit messages over a significant distance.

Ronalds was in his twenties when he constructed the prototype telegraph in the back garden of his family’s home alongside the River Thames in Hammersmith, London. The mechanism consisted of a single wire encased in glass tubing, which was then placed in a wooden trough in a trench filled with earth. The wire was kept charged using a friction machine. At each end, clockwork dials were used to indicate the letter or figure being transmitted. It was slow, but it worked.

This milestone that was later commemorated with a plaque installed by the IET’s predecessor organisation, the Institution of Electrical Engineers. Ronalds’ links with the IEE saw an extensive collection of his books and papers left in trust to the IEE’s Archives after his death.

That resource and the IET’s archivists, get an acknowledgement for the valuable input they provided to a new biography, written by retired professional engineer and academic Beverley Ronalds, a descendant of Sir Francis whose interest in family history has inspired her to tell her great great great uncle’s story.

‘Sir Francis Ronalds: Father of the Electric Telegraph’ (Imperial College Press, £40, ISBN 9781783269174) brings an extraordinary legacy to life through material written by people who were close to the man himself, many of which have never before been published.

Sir Francis’s inventions, covering areas as diverse as electrical devices, weather forecasting, photography, art, mass production, and even fishing, are interwoven with his personal story shedding new light on developments that were a foundation stone for the technological revolution of the 21st century.

The second of 11 children, Ronalds was left to run the family cheesemonger business at the age of 19 when his father died. Pursuing his interest in electricity in his spare time, his experiments led to the garden telegraph which he didn’t patent, but offered it to the Admiralty for government use.

Failing to see how it could improve on the established semaphore system, they rejected the idea, but it was taken on by others and by the time he died in 1873 Ronalds had been knighted in recognition of this pioneering work and his other discoveries.

For anyone interested in Victorian science and how it provided the basis for today’s high-tech world, this thorough and readable biography is an unprecedented look at the life of one of the period’s great figures.

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