Charles Wheatstone

Charles Wheatstone from Anne E Keeling's Great Britain and Her Queen, 2nd ed.1897, available on Project Gutenberg. Click on thumbnail for larger image.

Charles Wheatstone was born in Barnwood, Gloucester as the son of a shoemaker with connections to the music business (see Rycroft 127, 125). In 1806 the family moved to London, where Wheatstone's father both made and taught musical instruments — one of his pupils was Princess Charlotte, the only child of the Prince of Wales. Wheatstone's uncle had a similar concern in the Strand, and in due course the boy was apprenticed to him. He quickly became fascinated by the wonders of sound and its transmission, and returned to his father to pursue his own interests in these, publishing his first paper on his experiments as early as 1823. Before long, Wheatstone began to make his name with various inventions. One, which he later perfected, was the bellows-blown English concertina still in use today, and still made by the firm of Wheatstone and Co. This was an area in which he remained interested for the rest of his life. But he had developed an interest in optics as well, and in 1838 invented the stereoscope for giving depth to images, a viewing device which turned out to be "one of the most popular scientific toys of the nineteenth century" (Bowers 3).

First invited to King's College London in 1834 as a Professor of Experimental Philosophy, Wheatstone was granted permission by the college council in 1836 to lay down "a series of iron and copper wires in the vaults of the college for the purpose of trying some experiments in electricity on account and at the expense of the Royal Society" (qtd. in Hearnshaw 111). Wheatstone and his collaborator William Fothergill Cooke, an ex-Indian Army officer who had seen experimental telegraphic apparatus in Heidleberg, patented the electric telegraph in June 1837, the very month and year of Queen Victoria's accession; it was tried out in the July of that same year along the new railway track between Euston and Camden, with Robert Stephenson himself in attendance at the Camden end. The new system's practical application for sending messages from station to station or to signalling-points along the lines was quickly established.

Despite its religious orthodoxy, King's was, as Basil Mahon points out, a modern university," which aimed right from the start "to give young people an education to fit them for working life in a rapidly developing world" (91). Hence, in 1838 a prospectus for a new civil engineering department appeared, listing "electricity etc." as one of the subjects to be taught, and the professor to teach it as "C. Wheatstone" (Hearnshaw 147). Wheatstone was, in fact, the star attraction. On one occasion, the Anglican polemicist Edward Copleston, then a member of the council at King's, was absolutely bowled over by his findings on electricity and its application to telegraphy. "It far exceeds even the feats of pretended magic, and the wildest fictions of the East," Copleston wrote in his diary in February 1840, foreseeing clearly how it would revolutionise our lives: "Happy am I," he concluded, "in having commenced my sixty-fifth year with this bright vision, which promises to introduce a wonderful reality, and an accession to our intellectual dominion boundless both in extent and value" (qtd in Hearnshaw 150). When Prince Albert visited King's in 1843, he was conducted to the terrace of Somerset House to witness one of the famous professor's experiments. A spark from a galvanic battery inside King's was meant to initiate the firing of a cannon from the top of the old shot tower on the other side of the Thames. Sadly, this particular experiment failed, but the prince was kind enough to accept the principle involved!

As the telegraph network spread, so did its effects. For instance, "it was the telegraph which brought a true revolution in news production and distribution in the nineteenth century," writes Jerry White. "The first cable under the channel was laid in 1851 and Paul Julius Reuter moved his news agency from Aachen to London that same year. His office at 5 Lothbury dominated the world supply of telegraphic intelligence for the rest of the century" (227). Nor was telegraphy just a matter of daily news. With cables being laid not only across the channel but also under the Atlantic (1866), and soon to all corners of the globe, London became the manufacturing centre for cables. This brought control over the Malaysian forests that produced the gutta-percha needed to insulate them. "More generally, the worldwide communications system enormously consolidated the British dominance of world trade," writes Adam Hart-Davis (102). Meanwhile, women found new employment opportunities as telegraphic clerks, because of their greater dexterity and patience. In short, Bishop Copleston had been right in foreseeing that the early experiments in "electricity etc." would revolutionise our lives.

Wheatstone was always better at enthusing one person than many. Shy since childhood and to a large extent self-taught, he found it so hard to face an audience that his lectures for the Royal Institution were generally delivered by his lifelong friend, Michael Faraday. When James Clerk Maxwell joined the science department at King's in 1860, Wheatstone "had been in the post 26 years but for the last 25 of those had spent his time on research and inventions and given no lectures"; by now he "played little part in College life" (Mahon 92). But he had been an excellent tutor, and according to F. J. C. Hearnshaw was "the first of a notable series of great men associated with King's College who gradually converted the institution from a mere higher grade school, concerned only to purvey existing knowledge, into a true university wherein not only is the known imparted, but the unknown explored" (149).

Wheatstone won many awards, including several in France, and was knighted in 1868. His name is not as well known now as Samuel Morse's, for, while Wheatstone and Cooke were the first to demonstrate and patent a commercially viable telegraphic system, and while the "automatic transmitting and receiving instruments by which messages were sent with great rapidity over the telegraph system in the last third of the nineteenth century were designed by Wheatstone alone" (Thompson), it was the American system that became standard. Ironically, Wheatstone is known today largely because of the Wheatstone Bridge, a circuit used for measuring electrical resistance — ironically, because this was something he developed rather than invented. However, to grasp the possibilities of inventions was his strong point, and it is to his credit that he saw and worked out their practical applications.

Beyond the bare facts that Wheatstone married rather late, in his mid-forties, and that his wife Emma bore him five children before leaving him a widower in 1865, not a great deal is known about his personal life. But "[b]ehind the sombre figure of the man of science totally engrossed in his work, we have glimpses of a keen sense of fun, a delight in harmless pranks and a man who could be the life and soul of a private party, although painfully shy in public"( Bowers 2). One such glimpse includes another apparently sombre Victorian figure: in 1846, Wheatstone was at a gathering at the home of Florence Nightingale's father, and picked Florence herself as an accomplice for a party trick. Later he told a fellow guest, "Oh! If I had no other means of living I could go about the fairs with her and pick up a good deal of money" (qtd. in Bowers 2). What a strange picture this conjures up!*

Although he ceased to draw a salary, Wheatstone never formally retired, so he was attached to King's College for over forty years. In 1875, ten years after his wife's death, he died of bronchitis on a trip to Paris. He had gone there to work on the reception of telegraphs transmitted by submarine cables. After a memorial service at the Anglican Chapel, his remains were brought back and he was buried, like so many other well-known figures, at Kensal Green cemetery. His grave there is not far from Brunel's. Wheatstone left his personal library and instruments, comprising some 2000 items, to King's.

* Interestingly, only seven years later the young woman with good fairground potential was asked to set up a nurses' training school at King's College Hospital. Although the outbreak of the Crimean War prevented her from doing so, the institute she later set up at St Thomas's would indeed become a part of King's one day.

Sources

Bowers, Brian. Sir Charles Wheatstone FRS, 1802-1875. London: Science Museum, 2001.

Hart-Davies, Adam. What the Victorians Did For Us. London: Headline, 2001.

Hearnshaw, F. J. C. The Centenary History of King's College, London, 1828-1928. London: Harrap, 1929.

Klein, Alexander. ""Sir Charles Wheatstone". Viewed 22 February 2007.

Mahon, Brian. The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell. London: Wiley, 2003.

Rycroft, David. "The Wheatstones." The Galpin Society Journal. Vol. 45, Mar. 1992: 123-130.

Thompson, S. P, revised by Brian Bowers. "Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875)," The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition. Viewed 21 February 2007.

White, Jerry. London in the Nineteenth Century: "A Human Awful Wonder of God". London, Cape, 2007.

See also ""Sir Charles Wheatstone and the Wheatstone Collection". This is an excellent site with useful links.


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Last modified 15 August 2014