20 MARCH 1915, Page 16


fan on Barron or ram "Elswrnroe."I Sza,—The principle adopted in the review of Mr. E. L. Morse's book in the Spectator of February 20th—munely, that the public, "which usually goes to the root of the matter," is rightly held to be the final judge in conferring the title of " inventor" of great. inventions—bee no doubt its advantages, but one result of its adoption necesaarily is to limit that title to names widely known and connected with forms of the invention in general usu. It would, for instance, probably give telegraphs to Morse, telephones and phonographs to Edison, and wiseless telegraphy to Marconi.

The word "invention"- is, as your reviewer truly says, a composite one. It hes, hewever„tero distinct elements: (1) the first idea, and (2) the first. preetical application of the idea in. a form capable of general use. Leaving aside the first idea, for which in the case of the electric telegraph we should have to search the records of the experiments and correspondence of European scientific men irons the middle of the eighteenth century, let use come tee the second element, the application of the idea. Before acceding to the claim of America to Ike earliest of these applications of electricity it might he well to refer to dates, if the first public application of the idea on which telegraphy is based is to be allowed to went, as in common fairness it ought to be. On this basis England, not America, comes first. Cooke and Wheatstone's first patent wan in 1837 ; Morse's first siammis in getting his telegraph adopted by Congress was in 1843.

If it is allowable, as it surely is, to go a step further and ask who first invented and made an efficient working telegraph capable of general use, it is England again, for while Cooke and Wheatatone were boys and twenty years before their first patent, while Morse was a young painter and twenty-seven years before his telegraph was taken up by Congress, an English man of science, well known in his day, devised and set up in his garden an efficient electric telegraph more than eight miles long, complete in all its parts, with reciprocal, alphabetic, and numeric codes and insulated wire both above and below the ground. It is true that this telegraph did not come into public use, and the reason of this misfortune was a very remarkable one. It is welt known to those scientific men who are familiar with these matters that the inventor of this telegraph, conscious of its value, was anxious that the Government of the day should inspect it with a view to its taking the place of the existing clumsy, inefficient, and expensive series of semaphore stations which then formed the only means of rapid communication between the Admiralty and Portsmouth. On requesting an inspection that he might explain his invention, he was told by the Secretary to the Admiralty that "telegraphs of any kind are now wholly un- necessary, and no other than the one now in use will be adopted."

Francis Ronalds, to whom this official snubbing was given, was then a young man, but already eager in the pursuit of science, to which he entirely devoted the whole of his long life. He had no desire for wealth or notoriety, being of a most modest and retiring disposition; and discouraged by his treatment, instead of taking out a patent, be turned to other cognate branches of science, in which he bad great success, but not until he had given a full account of his invention to the public and those who might wish to make improvements in his telegraph in a most interesting book published, with plates, in 1823. In this book he showed a very extraordinary foresight as to the future of the telegraph. " Why," he says, "should not our Government govern at Portsmouth almost as promptly as in Downing Street ? Why should our defaulters escape by default of our foggy climate? Let us have electrical conversasione offices all over the kingdom." That his telegraph would have fulfilled his expectation of supplanting, with great benefit to the nation, the existing semaphores cannot be a matter of doubt. That which acted with perfect success over eight miles of wire could easily have been adapted to some sixty or seventy miles. His own opinion is known to have been that this could have been done, and he deals with the Subject in his book. Had it been accepted by the Government there can be no doubt that the whole history of telegraphy, with its marvellous improvements and extensions, would have been accelerated some twenty years.

Ronalds took no part in the somewhat acrimonious con- troversies between Cooke and Wheatstone, though his name and book were referred to in them. He never claimed to have been the first to experiment with electricity as a means of communication, but what he did claim, or, rather, reluctantly allowed his friends to claim for him, was to have been the first to invent, devise, and construct an efficient electric tele- graph complete and fitted for public use. This claim remained unrecognized until in 1870, in his eighty-third year, a knight- hood was bestowed on him in acknowledgment, as Mr. Gladstone, then Prime Minister, wrote, "of your early and remarkable labours in telegraphic investigations." Ronalds, who was elected a member of the Royal Society in 184t, died in 1873. A email portion of his telegraph is deposited by the Post Office at the South Kensington Museum, his portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, his /ire and work are described in the Dictionary of National Biography, and his unique library of some thirteen thousand books and MSS. relating to electricity and cognate subjects is in the possession of the Institute of Electrical Eugineera, of which he was an original member.

I trust that I have now shown that the claim repeatedly made on behalf of America to the " invention " of the electric telegraph is without solid foundation.—I am, Sir, Ac., P.S.—As your reviewer calls in aid a poet to support his judgment as to the invention, may I also give a poet's name in connexion with the subject of my letter ? The house at Hammersmith in the garden of which Ronalds erected his telegraph was subsequently occupied by William Morris, the

poet, who renamed it Kelinsoott House. During his occupa- tion request was made to him by the writer to allow a terra- cotta tablet to be placed on the wall of an outbuilding stating that "the first electric telegraph, eight miles long, was con- structed here in 1816 by Sir F. Ronalds." The author of The Earthly Paradise was much annoyed, and, walking rapidly up and down, said: "I have often doubted which has been the greatest curse to mankind—railways or telegraphs." He, however, eventually consented reluctantly to the request, and the tablet is there.