Historical Account of the Introduction of the Galvanic and Electro-Magnetic Telegraph into England/Comments thereon by William Fothergill Cooke

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Introduction of the Galvanic and
Electro-Magnetic Telegraph”

The “Historical Account of the Introduction of the Galvanic and Electro-Magnetic Telegraph,” lately published in England, by Dr. Hamel, of St. Petersburgh, is a work of permanent historical value.

It has been written with the declared object of claiming for his countryman, Baron Schilling, and for his country, Russia, the honour of the first realization of the idea of an electric telegraph. Dr. Hamel might have made a like, and much stronger claim in behalf of Dr. Soemmering, of Munich; for he proves him to have invented and made in 1809 the first galvanic telegraph on record; and it appears to have been this invention which stimulated Schilling to enter upon the same field of experiment. But neither Soemmering or Schilling succeeded, in the long period of twenty-seven years, between 1809 and 1836, in giving to their ideas a practical character; and no part of the inventions or apparatus of either of those pioneers in electric telegraphy was ever employed in England.

As the sight of Soemmering’s telegraph of 1809 stimulated Baron Schilling to invent his needle telegraph, between 1825 and 1830; so the sight of a model of Schilling’s telegraph, in February 1836, stimulated another mind to devote itself to the same object. But it is submitted that the facts which Dr. Hamel has collected with so much patient research, and narrated with such clearness and accuracy, do not at all bear out his claim on behalf of Baron Schilling.

He describes (at page 40), a telegraphic instrument invented by Baron Schilling, about 1830; and tracks Baron Schilling and his instruments to a meeting of the German naturalists, held in 1835, at Bonn. At this meeting, he says, Baron Schilling “exhibited his telegraph before the section of Natural Philosophy and Chemistry; over which George Wilhelm Muncke, Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, presided. Muncke was much pleased with Schilling’s instrument, and he determined at once to get one for exhibition at his lectures.”—(Pp. 43, 44.)

Accordingly, Professor Muncke exhibited in his lecture-room at Heidelburg a copy of Schilling’s instrument. This instrument Dr. Hamel has lately found there, after a lapse of twenty-three years (p. 43), and he proceeds to show that W. F. Cooke saw the same in operation in March, 1836.

Dr. Hamel devotes ten pages from 47 to 57, to “details from his own investigation,” “carried on at Heidelberg recently,” relating to the march of the electro-telegraph idea, from its experimental application, in Muncke’s lecture-room at Heidelberg in 1836, to its realization on the London and Birmingham Railway in 1837. He states that in the beginning of March, 1836, William Fothergill Cooke, an English officer, on leave of absence from India, was residing at Heidelberg, engaged in studying anatomy, and in modelling his dissections for the museum of his father, who was Professor of Medicine at the University of Durham. This young soldier and amateur anatomist, accidentally heard of the telegraph models in Professor Muncke’s possession, and became “curious to see the telegraphing out of one room into another.” “When Mr. Cooke saw the telegraphing, and was told the instrument could work through great distances, the idea struck him that such a thing might be useful in England, particularly in tunnels along the railroads.” His prompt activity in realizing this idea are then traced by Dr. Hamel down to the date of the first English patent in June 1837.

But how does this make out Dr. Hamel’s claim in favour of Baron Schilling? No part of the Baron’s invention, which is accurately detailed by Dr. Hamel at page 40), has even been in use in England.

It is true that Muncke’s model exhibited to Mr. Cooke Ampère’s long known idea of giving signals by a magnetic needle under the influence of a voltaic current,[1] but this idea had already been made widely known and had reached England at an earlier date.

Dr. Hamel alleges—

First.—That Cooke introduced the electric

telegraph into England, immediately after seeing at Heidelberg Muncke’s copy of Schilling’s


Herein the testimony of Dr. Hamel agrees with that of Mr. Cooke, except that Mr. Cooke erroneously ascribed the origin of Muncke’s model to Gauss.— (Hamel, p. 50.)

Secondly.—Dr. Hamel asserts that it was merely a

copy of Schilling’s telegraph that Cooke so


Mr. Cooke’s volumes, above noticed, refute this statement; for they contain drawings of Muncke’s model and of his own first telegraph. To these drawings Dr. Hamel, who had recently found Muncke’s original models at Heidelberg, refers at page 54 as correct.[2] Moreover, Mr. Hoppner (a gentleman named by Dr. Hamel at page 45) bore evidence to the accuracy of the drawings before Sir I. Brunel and Professor Daniell, in an arbitration Cooke v. Wheatstone, in 1841; the papers relating to which are contained in Cooke’s 2nd volume.

At pages 40 and 41, Dr. Hamel describes Baron Schilling’s telegraph in these words:—“He now used for it the deflection of the needle, which he placed within the multiplier of Scweigger, horizontally, on a light vertical axle hanging on a silken thread, and bearing a circular disc of paper coloured differently on each side. To make the needle move steadily, and to prevent oscillations Schilling had fixed to the lower extremity of its axle a thin platina plate, and immersed it in a cup of mercury.”

This description is in exact agreement with that given by Mr. Cooke (vol. 2, pp. 14 and 15) as follows:—

“Professor Muncke’s experiment was at that time the only one upon the subject that I had seen or heard of. It showed that electric currents being conveyed by wires to a distance could be there caused to deflect magnetic needles and thereby to give signals. It was, in a word, a hint at the application of electricity to telegraphic purposes, but nothing more—for it provided no means of applying that power to practical uses. His apparatus consisted of two instruments for giving signals by a single needle, placed in different rooms, with a battery belonging to each; copper wires being extended between these two termini. The signals given were a cross and a straight line, marked on the opposite sides of a disc of card fixed on a straw, at the end of which a magnetic needle was suspended horizontally in galvanometer coils by a silk thread. The effect of this arrangement was, that if a current was transmitted from either battery, when the opposite ends of the wires were in connexion with the distant telegraphic apparatus, either the cross would be there exhibited by the motion of the needle one way, or the line by its motion the other way, according to the direction of the current. The apparatus was worked by moving the ends of the wires backwards and forwards between the battery and the coils.”

Dr. Hamel’s third point is, that Muncke’s copy of Schilling’s telegraph was imported by Cooke into England, and there adopted. This seems to be the Doctor’s chief error. For as regards the form and arrangement of the instrument as described by himself, or others, no one detail of it has ever been in use in England. And although in exhibiting signals by means of the deflection of a magnetic needle, Schilling[3] had applied a suggestion of Ampère’s, which is also embodied in the English telegraph, yet Schilling’s telegraph did not contain any one of those practical arrangements which gave to the first English telegraph its practical utility.[4]

The distinction between Schilling’s model and Cooke’s earliest instrument is thus stated in Cooke’s 2nd vol. (pp. 15 and 17):—

“Within three weeks after the day on which I saw the experiment, I had made, partly at Heidelberg and partly at Frankfort, my first electric telegraph, of the galvanometer form, which is now at Berne. It has been written for and shall be laid before the arbitrators. I used six wires forming three metallic circuits and influencing three needles. I worked out every possible permutation and practical combination of the signals given by the three needles, and I thus obtained an alphabet of twenty-six signals. I had invented the instrument which I called the detector; by means of which injuries to the wires, whether from water, fracture, or contact, are readily traced; an instrument which, in practice, is never out of my hand, and without which the electric telegraph would be impracticable. But my principal improvement was that my telegraph did not merely send signals from one place to another, but that it was even at that early period a reciprocal telegraphic system, by which a mutual communication could be practically and conveniently carried on between two distant places; the requisite connections and disconnections being formed by pressing the fingers upon keys, and the signals being exhibited to the person sending as well as to the person receiving the communication. This improvement was effected by placing a system of keys permanently at each extreme end of the metallic circuit, and by providing each circuit with a cross piece of metal for completing the continuity of the wires when signals were being received from the opposite terminus. The two signal apparatuses being thus thrown into the course of the metallic circuit, every signal was given at both ends concurrently; and the cross piece was made to restore the circuit for a reply on the first communication being completed. This united and reciprocal property is the basis of the electric telegraph, and is inseparable from the practical system. It has been my leading principle throughout, and has impressed itself even upon the forms of my instruments; their distinguishing characteristic from first to last being that my keys and signals have always been joined together into one instrument, and the several instruments into one reciprocal system. In a word, the arbitrators will here recognize the earliest form of the reciprocal communicator, the fundamental condition of the electric telegraph under every varied mode of its operation.

“My earliest apparatus thus comprised, in a complete though improvable form, two essential parts of my system of a practical electric telegraph, viz., the detector and the reciprocal communicator: a third of equal importance is the alarum, without which the electric telegraph would require to be constantly watched, like ordinary telegraphs.

“Before the end of March, 1836, I had invented the alarum, which is still extant in my first mechanical telegraph. It was one of ordinary construction, worked by clockwork mechanism on the removal of a detent. My invention consisted in placing a voltaic magnet in such proximity to an armature of soft iron forming the tail end of a lever detent, that when an electric current passed round the voltaic magnet, the magnetism which was for the moment excited in it attracted the tail end of the lever, and by so doing drew its detent end out of the clockwork; but on the temporary magnetism ceasing with the cessation of the current, the attraction of the tail end of the lever ceased also, and the detent end of it was then replaced in the clockwork by a reacting spring or balance weight.”

Dr. Hamel gives the following well-ascertained dates:[5]

1809. 8th July (p. 7.)—Soemmering invented his plan for telegraphing by evolution of gas.
1810. 13th August (p. 13.)—Showed it to Baron Schilling at Munich.
1802. May.—Grandominico Romagnosi discovered that

the magnetic needle was deflected by galvanic currents, and in August in the same year

published the discovery at Trent.—(P. 33.)
1812. “Baron Schilling’s operations with a subaqueous

galvanic conducting cord, through the river

Neva, at St. Petersburgh.”—(P. 16.)
1815. 3rd August (p. 34.)—Baron Schilling

communicated to Soemmering the “Manuel du Galvanisme,” a book printed at Paris in 1805,

mentioning Romagnosi’s discovery.

Baron Schilling may, therefore, be supposed to have known from this date the fact, that a galvanic current deflected a magnetic needle; although Dr. Hamel comes to the conclusion (p. 34), that neither Soemmering or Schilling had any idea of a practical application of Romagnosi’s discovery until 1825 or 1826, five years after Ampère’s suggestion.

1820. Oersted directed the attention of the scientific

world, more effectually than Romagnosi had done, to the influence of a voltaic current on a magnetic needle. Dr. Hamel supposes him to have been acquainted with Romagnosi’s

discovery of 1802.—(P. 35.)
1820. Ampère suggests “that it might be possible to

make use of the deviation of the needle for

telegraphic purposes.”—(P. 40.)
1824. Scweigger invents the multiplier coil.
1830. April.—Is the first clear date given by Dr. Hamel

in connexion with Baron Schilling’s needle telegraph, when it was shown to the Emperor Nicholas, “who (he adds) had been pleased to notice it in its earlier stage.”—(P. 41.) But at p. 66, the Doctor speaks vaguely of “above a dozen years previous” to 1837 as the date of

Schilling’s invention.

In 1830, Baron Schilling had known for twenty years the details of Soemmering’s telegraph; and for, at least, 15 years, the deflective power of the galvanic current on the magnetic needle.

1835. Schilling shows his telegraph at Bonn, simplified to a single needle and multiplier.—(P. 43.
1835. Muncke exhibits at Heidelberg a model of Schilling’s telegraph.—(P. 43.)
1836. March.—Cooke sees Muncke’s model of Schilling’s one needle telegraph.—(P. 49.)
1836. March.—Cooke makes two instruments (p. 53)

shown in the Drawing, Part B., Vol. II., of Cooke’s work, at the end, where they are

compared with Muncke’s models.
1836. March.—Cooke invents the mechanical telegraph and alarum, in which signals and sounds are given by the removal of the detent of clockwork by the voltaic magnet.—(P. 53.) Also the detector.
1836. April 22nd.—Cooke returns to England to work out his scheme of realizing the old idea of an electric telegraph.—(P. 53.)
1837. January.—Negotiates with the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Company for the use of his "so-called mechanical telegraph."—(P. 53.)
1837. May.—The first electro-telegraphic patent applied for by Cooke and Wheatstone for their joint inventions.— (P. 55.)
1837. "Baron Schilling ordered a sub-marine cable to be made to unite Cronstadt with the capital, through the Gulf[6] of Finland, for telegraphic correspondence." (?) (P. 67.)
1837. 25th July.—"A trial was made at the terminus of the London and Birmingham Railway, then constructing, one mile and a quarter in length,

from Euston Square to Camden Town. This was the first instance of out-door telegraphing in England with a galvanic apparatus.” “Mr. Cooke had been permitted, at the Euston Square terminus, in a large building (the carriage house), to suspend many miles of wire, along which the current was made to pass, besides the wires in the open air to Camden Town.”—(Pp. 55.)

These facts and dates together will, perhaps, indicate to what countries, and in what relative proportions the realization of the galvano-electric telegraph is really due. In Cooke’s second volume, p. 119, the question of invention is thus viewed:—“If the electric telegraph were to be described generally in a few words, how would you describe it? Might it not be called an application of a few known principles, by means of a few simple contrivances to produce a practical result, which the experiments of scientific men, though their attention had been directed to the subject for a long series of years, had failed to produce?”

Thus Soemmering took up the idea of an electric telegraph, and experimented with the decomposition of water by the galvanic current. Schilling, after contemplating these contrivances for fifteen or twenty years, adopts Romagnosi’s discovery, at Ampère’s suggestion of the practicability of the magnetic needle telegraph; fortifies himself with Scweigger’s multiplier of force; and invents a simple and striking instrument, which appears under various modifications in lecture-rooms and scientific journals, for six or seven years, at the end of which it dies out. The very sight of this instrument in operation instantaneously excites another mind to devote itself to the realization of the long barren idea.

To continue the foregoing quotation:—“The merit of the invention must, therefore, consist, in a very great degree at least, in the practical realization of that which had before been an idea or an experiment:”—and this practical realization belongs to England.[7]

W. F. C., Oaklands, Nov., 1859.

  1. Mr. Cooke states to Sir T. Brunel and Professor Daniell, in 1841, arbitrators between himself and Professor Wheatstone—“About the 6th of March, 1836, a circumstance occurred which gave an entirely new bent to my thoughts. Having witnessed an electric telegraphic experiment, exhibited about that day by Professor Muncke, of Heidelberg, who had, I believe, taken his ideas from Gauss, I was so much struck with the wonderful power of electricity, and so strongly impressed with its applicability to the practical transmission of telegraphic intelligence, that from that very day I entirely abandoned my former pursuits, and devoted myself thenceforth with equal ardour, as all who know me can testify, to the practical realization of the electric telegraph, an object which has occupied my undivided energies ever since.” The Electric Telegraph, was it invented by Professor Wheatstone? By W. F. Cooke, in two vols., W. H. Smith and Son, London, 1856, vol. 2, page 14.
  2. Plate 1, parts A and B, Cooke’s second volume at the end.
  3. Messieurs. Cooke and Wheatstone’s apparatus “was, in the essential part, founded on the same principle as Baron Schilling’s, namely, the deflection of needles hy multipliers.”—Hamel, p. 56.
  4. The effect produced by the practical Electric Telegraph on an intelligent mind, long accustomed to the Electro-telegraphic Experiments of a lecture-room, is depicted with great naivete by the late Professor Daniell of King’s College, in a letter, written, after seeing for the first time, Cooke and Wheatstone’s Electric Telegraph in operation between Euston Square and Camden Town; in this letter, Professor Daniell says, he “cannot refrain from expressing,” instantly in writing, the pleasure he has felt at “witnessing” the “complete success” of the “Electro-magnetic Telegraph.” He is “quite surprised at and almost at a loss to account for the different effect produced upon” his “mind by believing and seeing.” Although “he has followed all Mr. Wheatstone’s experiments from the beginning, and is intimately acquainted with both the principle and construction of his apparatus,” Professor Daniell “has been struck as with something quite new.” It has produced in him “something of the feeling of magic.” He is now satisfied that the telegraph must be “adoptod on all railroads immediately,” as well as “upon an extensive scale for private communications.” Such was the “magical” difference between “believing and seeing!”—between believing in the ideal invention and seeing the realization of the idea in Cooke and Wheatstone’s practical telegraph at Euston Square!”—Cooke’s 1st vol. pp. 59 & 158.
  5. The earlier dates of the Telegraphic idea, by frictional electricity, go back to the middle of the last century; and are accurately traced in an article on the Electric Telegraph in the “North British Review” (January, 1855), to a Scotchman in 1755.
  6. This is a remarkable statement of Dr. Hamel's, and should be well vouched for, as it would make Baron Schilling the father of submarine telegraphy.
  7. Vide opinions of Sir Isambard Brunel and Professor Daniell, given in their Award (after P. 73).