Sir Francis Ronalds and his Family

Sir Francis Ronalds: Father of the Electric Telegraph

This portrait of Sir Francis Ronalds was painted by his nephew Hugh Carter. The original is held by the National Portrait Gallery and a later version by the same artist is at the IET in London

Sir Francis' picture of a Neolithic Dolmen at Carnac, Brittany (1834) made using his perspective drawing instrument; also probably lithographed by him

Sir Francis' picture of Ramsgate Harbour (1829) using his perspective drawing instrument; also probably engraved and printed by him. From his book Mechanical Perspective

Sir Francis Ronalds' signature. IET

Sir Francis Ronalds FRS (1788-1873) was a scientist and inventor whose achievements span the disciplines of electricity, meteorology, photography, mechanics, optics and more. He may be called the first electrical engineer.

A handful of his many discoveries have had broad and lasting impact on the world. Sir Francis' most noticed invention, his electric telegraph, was demonstrated two centuries ago in 1816. In creating it he was not only envisaging a future electrical age, but even a world of "electrical conversations" somewhat similar to we enjoy today.

The previous year, 1815, saw his publication of the first electric clock. Thirty years later, while Director of the Kew Observatory, he built the first successful "movie camera" to capture the continual variations of natural phenomena like air temperature and geomagnetic forces. His cameras aided in developing of the science of weather forecasting at the new UK Met Office and were used in observatories around the world until well into the 20th century.

In between he invented a range of mechanical devices, including the hinged tripod stand that still steadies cameras and theodolites; an attachment for the lathe that helped instigate the mass production of furniture; and a "fire finder" for pinpointing the location of a fire that was reinvented in the 20th century. His explanation of the window of vision in fishing for his brother Alfred's book The Fly-fisher's Entomology is revered in the sport.

Sir Francis in addition found time to build a successful business producing his patented drawing instruments, and to use them to survey ancient monuments in England and abroad. His last documented invention, in his seventies, was the concept of a combined propeller and rudder for ships that has also since seen widespread application.

Perhaps Sir Francis' biggest contribution of all was to compile and donate a complete electrical library to help educate the first generation of electrical engineers and sustain their new professional body.

Fortunately, many of the family's papers survive, which illuminate the personalities, social lives and professional interactions of Sir Francis, his siblings and cousins. They show him to have been warm-hearted, generous and extremely modest about his many accomplishments.


Further Information

Sir Francis Ronalds: Father of the Electric Telegraph (2016)
- published by Imperial College Press
- and Review - published by the IET

Francis Ronalds (2017)
- published in the Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography

Francis Ronalds (1788-1873): The First Electrical Engineer? (2016)
- published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (USA)

Remembering the First Battery-operated Clock (2015)
- published by the Antiquarian Horological Society

Commemorative plaques on two of Sir Francis' London homes

Sir Francis' entry in the Dictionary of National Biography (1897)

Original letters and manuscripts are held in numerous archives and museums. The most important collections are:
- Ronalds Archive at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) in London England - deposited by Samuel Carter
- Ronalds Family Papers in the Harris Family Fonds at Western Archives, Western University, in London Ontario - preserved by Lucy Harris
- Ronalds Papers at UCL - donated by Edmund Ronalds' granddaughter