The Bicentenary of the Electric Telegraph:
The Beginnings of Today's World of Telecommunication
Sir Francis Ronalds' home on Hammersmith Mall, which now holds the Kelmscott House Museum. The plaque commemorating his telegraph is at the top of the former stable on the left
Sir Francis' revolving alphanumeric dial to communicate messages
Sir Francis' subterranean telegraph system (1816). The testing post on the left enabled a failure in the buried cable to be pinpointed. The electrostatic generator is on the right and the alphanumeric dial is near the centre
Two hundred years ago, Sir Francis Ronalds imagined a new era powered by electricity:
"electricity, may actually be employed for a more practically useful purpose than the gratification of the philosopher's inquisitive research… it may be compelled to travel… many hundred miles beneath our feet… and… be productive of… much public and private benefit…
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…
give me materiel enough, and I will electrify the world."
In 1816, Sir Francis demonstrated that messages could be transmitted quickly over long distances using electric signals, and created a working telegraph in the garden of the family's home on the Hammersmith Mall in London.
He built an overhead wire telegraph 13 km long as well as a complete subterranean cable system in a 160 m long trench. Information was transmitted using a rotating dial at each end, marked with letters of the alphabet, numbers and useful messages. A testing post was also incorporated, where the wire rose out of the ground for access to help locate any failure along the line.
Part of the system is on display in the Science Museum in South Kensington and a short segment of the buried cable complete with its insulation is held at the Kelmscott House Museum. Another section survives at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Sir Francis' main theoretical contribution to the telegraph was in explaining the risk of signal retardation, which is caused by induction through the cable insulation. The revered scientist Michael Faraday described this phenomenon again many years later after several early telegraph systems had failed.
The best-known part of the story is that Sir Francis' invention was rejected out of hand by the British Government on 5 August 1816, for the reason that a telegraph was "wholly unnecessary".
When the electric telegraph did begin to be commercialised more than 20 years later, several elements of his original design were borrowed. One telegraph engineer wrote in 1875 that Sir Francis' work "might almost serve for a description of a telegraphic system at the present day". Indeed testing posts are seen today at regular intervals along sidewalks and still have the same purpose.
The UK had the foundation of a national telegraph network by 1848 and was linked with the Continent in 1851. The first messages across the USA were transmitted in 1861. A successful transatlantic link was in place in 1866 and Australia was connected to London via Singapore and India in 1872.
In 1870, more than 50 years after his demonstration, Sir Francis was knighted by Queen Victoria as "the original inventor of the electric telegraph".
Sir Francis Ronalds' Descriptions of an Electrical Telegraph (1823)
Sir Francis Ronalds: Father of the Electric Telegraph (2016) - published by Imperial College Press
Bicentennial of Francis Ronalds's Electric Telegraph (2016) - published by the American Institute of Physics
Sir Francis Ronalds and the Electric Telegraph (2016) - published by the Newcomen Society
Francis Ronalds (1788-1873): The First Electrical Engineer? (2016)
- published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (USA)
The First Internet: How the Victorians wired the world - a blog
Sir Francis Ronalds was way ahead of Faraday - a blog
The First Electric Telegraph - published by Nature
Dot-Dash to Dot.Com (2011) - a general history of telecommunications