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In the Beginning ...

Sir Charles Wheatstone

Image of Sir Charles Wheatstone in small wire-framed glasses seated with his left elbow resting on a small wooden tableSir Charles Wheatstone, Professor of Experimental Philosophy, King's College London, 1834-1875 Sir Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875) was Professor of Experimental Philosophy at King's College London.

Some while ago Wheatstone was the subject of a foyer exhibition created by the Archives.  The online exhibition, Professor Sir Charles Wheatstone, is informative about his time at King's.

The self-taught son of a London-based musical instrument maker, Wheatstone conducted early experiments into acoustics and the transmission of sound. His first paper on the subject was published in 1823.

Having inherited the family business, he went on to invent numerous new musical instruments and devices including the kaleidophone and, famously, patenting the concertina in 1829. Wheatstone was a polymath and a successful businessman fascinated by all aspects of physics, electricity, acoustics and optics, and in their application to industry.

He began studying electricity and electromagnetism around 1830. His focus at this time was in seeking to measure the velocity of electricity.

Wheatstone joined King's in 1834 and with the support of the Royal Society and the College Council laid down a circuit of copper wiring in the basement of the building to refine the experimental data.

Along with his King's colleague, the chemist John Daniell, Wheatstone sought new means of generating large quantities of electricity. During the later 1830s and early 1840s, they both developed designs of cell or battery and early magneto-induction devices.

Wheatstone went on to patent a number of electric motor systems, including a pioneering early design of linear induction motor, and coining the term 'rheostat' to define his design of variable resistance control. He also developed various measurement devices, the most famous of which was the so-called 'Wheatstone Bridge' to calculate electrical resistance, variants of which are still in use today.

Perhaps Wheatstone's two key achievements whilst at King's were in inventing the stereoscope and perfecting a practical version of the telegraph.

Two photographs of a victorial family placed in front of heavily curtained French windows including Wheatstone, hiw wife andn three childrenWheatstone's family in stereo - circa 1851-1852Stereoscopy - creating the illusion of 3D from flat images - preceded the invention of photography. Wheatstone was quick to spot the potential of the new medium, however, after having produced the first working model and coining the term 'stereoscope' at a public unveiling at the Royal Society in 1838. The device soon became popular with Victorian families with the invention of photography and the mass-production of stereoscopic picture cards depicting life-like images in realistic situations.

Primitive electrical telegraphic apparatus had been developed during the 18th and early 19th century by the likes of Baron Pawel Schilling and Hans Christian Orsted. The pace of invention quickened in the 1830s with Faraday's discovery of electromagnetic induction and the work of Samuel Morse in the US, Edward Davy in London and Karl Gauss and Wilhelm Weber in Germany.

Wheatstone collaborated closely with William Fothergill Cooke to submit the first patent for a practical telegraph in 1837, the so-called 'five-needle telegraph'. Its functionality was demonstrated in an experiment to the directors of the London-Birmingham Railway and in a line laid alongside the Great Western Railway from Paddington to West Drayton and Slough.

Wheatstone went on to refine his invention with the important ABC telegraph of 1840 and the automatic high speed telegraph of 1858 with its sensitive contact mechanism, while he was one of the first to recognise the potential of a network of submarine telegraphy cables in European and transatlantic waters.

Wheatstone's contribution to telegraphy undoubtedly lay in his eminently practical designs suitable for industry and close working relationship with the nascent railway industry and its pioneers including Brunel. Both academic and businessman, Wheatstone possessed a genius for original experimental insight coupled with pragmatic refinement marketed in the interests of commercial improvement.

Wheatstone was in regular contact with the leading scientific minds of the day in Britain, Europe and America, and was active at a time when King's was a centre of excellence in the fields of physics with arguably the first experimental laboratory in the country.

A rather diffident lecturer, Wheatstone called upon one of his most learned friends, Michael Faraday, to deliver a number of his early lectures to the Royal Institution. Wheatstone was anxious to popularise international developments in science in translation and was an enthusiastic exponent of the agreement of international units of electrical measurement.

Wheatstone died in France while on business in 1875 and was commemorated by King's in the physical laboratories that bore his name and the naming of the Wheatstone Chair of Physics.

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