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Sir Charles Wheatstone



Sir Charles Wheatstone (February 6, 1802 - October 19, 1875) was a British scientist and inventor of many scientifical breakthroughs of the Victorian era, including the English concertina, the stereoscope (a device for displaying three-dimensional images), and the Playfair cipher (an encryption technique). However, Wheatstone is best known for his contributions in the development of the Wheatstone bridge, originally invented by Samuel Hunter Christie, which is used to measure an unknown electrical resistance.

He was a major figure in the development of telegraphy and a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Charles Wheatstone was born near Gloucester. His father was a music-seller in the town, who, four years later,
removed to 128 Pall Mall, London, and became a teacher of the flute. He used to say, with not a little pride, that he had been engaged in assisting at the musical education of the Princess Charlotte. Charles, the second son, went to a village school, near Gloucester, and afterwards to several institutions in London. One of them was in Kennington, and kept by a Mrs. Castlemaine, who was astonished at his rapid progress. From another he ran away, but was captured at Windsor, not far from the theatre of his practical telegraph. As a boy he was very shy and sensitive, liking well to retire into an attic, without any other company than his own thoughts. When he was about fourteen years old he was apprenticed to his uncle and namesake, a maker and seller of musical instruments, at 436 Strand, London; but he showed little taste for handicraft or business, and loved better to study books. His father encouraged him in this, and finally took him out of the uncle's charge.

Charles Wheatstone's portrait circa 1870sAt the age of fifteen, Wheatstone translated French poetry, and wrote two songs, one of which was given to his uncle, who published it without knowing it as his nephew's composition. Some lines of his on the lyre became the motto of an engraving by Bartolozzi. Small for his age, but with a fine brow, and intelligent blue eyes, he often visited an old book-stall in the vicinity of Pall Mall, which was then a dilapidated and unpaved thoroughfare. Most of his pocket-money was spent in purchasing the books which had taken his fancy, whether fairy tales, history, or science. One day, to the surprise of the bookseller, he coveted a volume on the discoveries of Volta in electricity, but not having the price, he saved his pennies and secured the volume. It was written in French, and so he was obliged to save again, till he could buy a dictionary. Then he began to read the volume, and, with the help of his elder brother, William, to repeat the experiments described in it, with a home-made battery, in the scullery behind his father's house. In constructing the battery, the boy philosophers ran short of money to procure the requisite copper-plates. They had only a few copper coins left. A happy thought occurred to Charles, who was the leading spirit in these researches, 'We must use the pennies themselves,' said he, and the battery was soon complete.

At Christchurch, Marylebone, on February 12, 1847, Wheatstone was married. His wife was the daughter of a Taunton tradesman, and of handsome appearance. She died in 1866, leaving a family of five young children to his care. His domestic life was quiet and uneventful.

Though silent and reserved in public, Wheatstone was a clear and voluble talker in private, if taken on his favourite studies, and his small but active person, his plain but intelligent countenance, was full of animation. Sir Henry Taylor tells us that he once observed Wheatstone at an evening party in Oxford earnestly holding forth to Lord Palmerston on the capabilities of his telegraph. 'You don't say so!' exclaimed the statesman. 'I must get you to tell that to the Lord Chancellor.' And so saying, he fastened the electrician on Lord Westbury, and effected his escape. A reminiscence of this interview may have prompted Palmerston to remark that a time was coming when a minister might be asked in Parliament if war had broken out in India, and would reply, 'Wait a minute; I'll just telegraph to the Governor-General, and let you know.'

Wheatstone was knighted in 1868, after his completion of the automatic telegraph. He had previously been made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. Some thirty-four distinctions and diplomas of home or foreign societies bore witness to his scientific reputation. Since 1836 he had been a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1873 he was appointed a Foreign Associate of the French Academy of Sciences. The same year he was awarded the Ampere Medal by the French Society for the Encouragement of National Industry. In 1875 he was created an honorary member of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He was a D.C.L. of Oxford and an LL.D. of Cambridge.

While on a visit to Paris during the autumn of 1875, and engaged in perfecting his receiving instrument for submarine cables, he caught a cold, which produced inflammation of the lungs, an illness from which he died in Paris, on October 19, 1875. A memorial service was held in the Anglican Chapel, Paris, and attended by a deputation of the Academy. His remains were taken to his home in Park Crescent, London, and buried in Kensal Green.


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