London Blog

The Scientific Tourist In London: #13 The First Electric Telegraph

Westbound this week, to one of my favourite parts of town: the riverine stretch between Hammersmith and Chiswick. Here, among the heritage pubs and dunking cormorants, you will find the home of cheesemonger-turned-inventor Sir Francis Ronalds (1788-1873). In the back garden of this squat house, the first real demonstration of electrical telegraphy was achieved.

Although completely superseded by modern comms, the telegraph was a game-changing technology in its day, allowing near-instantaneous communication over great distances. Previously, the only way to impart urgent news was by sending a rider, who might take weeks to cross a continent. Ancient expedients such as the carrier pigeon and hill-top beacons, and latterly semaphore systems, were of limited practicality. The electric telegraph gave a vast improvement in speed and reliability, eventually bequeathing the telephone, cable TV and the internet.

The invention of electrical telegraphy cannot be attributed to any one person, but to a gradual accumulation of improvements and modifications from many contributors. But Francis Ronalds stands out from the crowd with his pioneering experiments here at 26 Upper Mall, Hammersmith. In 1816, Ronalds looped 13 kilometres of wire, encased in glass tube, around trenches in his back garden. He was able to demonstrate a signal after applying static high voltage electricity to the cable. Dials marked with numbers and letters at either end enabled messages to be passed along the wire.

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For some reason, Ronalds chose not to patent the invention. He approached the British Admiralty with his device, styled as “a mode of conveying telegraphic intelligence with great rapidity, accuracy, and certainty, in all states of the atmosphere, either at night or in the day, and at small expense”. The navy chiefs had little interest, having invested in the semaphore light system. Ronald’s telegraph was never developed further, and it took over 20 years before Sir William Fothergill Cook and Charles Wheatstone (and Samuel Morse in the USA) were able to commercialise a similar technology. Even so, Ronalds went on to live a comfortable and successful life, receiving a knighthood towards the end of his days for his part in ushering in this powerful technology.

The riverside property seems to attract genius. William Morris, one of the most influential designers of any age, lived (and died) in the same building in the final years of his life, opening the Kelmscott Press within. Today, the house is occupied by the William Morris Society, who can be visited on appointment. They’ve produced a book about the house for anyone who wants to learn more.

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