Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/January 1876/Sketch of Sir Charles Wheatstone

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PSM V08 D270 Charles Wheatstone.jpg


CHARLES WHEATSTONE was born in the city of Gloucester, England, in 1802. In boyhood he attended a private school in his native town, but, while still a lad, he quit school and devoted himself to mechanical pursuits, adopting the trade of a maker of musical instruments. At about the age of twenty-one years he went to London, and there set up in business on his own account. Here the young tradesman evinced a strong liking for scientific research, endeavoring to find out the principles involved in the various forms of musical instruments. He was thus led to the study of acoustics, a branch of science which he cultivated with rare success. His singular mechanical ingenuity enabled him to repeat and extend the experimental results of prior investigators, and the first fruits of his scientific researches were communicated, in 1823, to the Annals of Philosophy in a paper entitled "New Experiments on Sound." Other essays on the phenomena of sound were published by him from time to time; thus, in 1827, he contributed to the Quarterly Journal of Science two papers, the one "Experiments on Audition," the other a "Description of the Kaleidophone." In 1828 he published in the same journal a paper entitled "Resonances of Columns of Air;" in 1831, "Transmission of Sounds through Solid Linear Conductors" (Journal of the Royal Institution); and the same year read at the meeting of the British Association papers on "Purkinje's Figures," and on "Bernouilli's Wind Instrument." These were followed by papers on "Chladni's Figures" (1833, "Philosophical Transactions"), and "Imitation of Human Speech by Mechanism" ("British Association Report," 1835).

The numerous analogies between the phenomena of sound and those of light early led him to the study of the latter subject. Here, again, his remarkable ingenuity as a mechanician came into play. He undertook to measure the velocity of electricity, and for this purpose he invented the method of revolving mirrors; in this way it was shown that the electric current travels at the rate of 288,000 miles per second. These results were published in the "Philosophical Transactions" in 1834. While engaged in these researches he observed that the sparks emitted from different metals under the influence of electricity differed from one another in color, "thus shadowing forth," says M. Dumas, "the discovery of the spectroscope." In the "British Association Report" for 1835 is a paper by Wheatstone on "Prismatic Decomposition of Electric Light," and in the Philosophical Magazine (1837) one on the "Thermo-electric Spark." He had been appointed Professor of Experimental Philosophy in King's College, London, in 1834, and in June, 1836, in his lectures on the velocity of electricity, which were illustrated by experiments with a circuit of copper wire nearly four miles in length, he proposed to convert this apparatus into an electric telegraph. At this time Wheatstone was not aware that Prof. Joseph Henry had five years previously transmitted signals by means of an electro-magnet through a wire more than a mile long, causing a bell to sound at the farther end of the wire. In May, 1837, Charles Wheatstone and William Fothergill Cooke (afterward knighted) took out a patent "for improvements in giving signals and sounding alarms in distant places by means of electric currents transmitted through metallic circuits." The first public line of telegraph was constructed on the Blackwall Railway in the following year.

While investigating the laws of light, Wheatstone was very naturally led to consider the phenomena of vision, and in 1838 he published in the "Philosophical Transactions" two papers entitled "Physiology of Vision" and "Binocular Vision." In the latter he explained the principles of an instrument invented by himself, the stereoscope. This invention was by no means the result of chance, but the fruit of profound study of the physiology of vision. In this matter Wheatstone's merit is unquestioned. Other papers on the phenomena of vision are, "Juxtaposition of Several Colors" (1844); a second communication on "Physiology of Vision" (1852); "Binocular Microscope" (1853); "Fessil's Gyroscope" (1854).

In the "Proceedings of the Royal Society" (1840) is an article by Wheatstone, on an "Electro-magnetic Clock," in which he shows how a number of clocks, situated at a distance from one another, may be actuated by one central clock. In Comptes Bendus (1845), he explained the principle of an electro-magnetic chronoscope. Subjects connected with telegraphy and electricity are treated in papers entitled "Electro-magnetic Telegraph" (1 840); "Constants of Voltaic Circuit" (1843); "Meteorological Registers" (1844); "Submarine Cable of the Mediterranean" (1854-55); "Aluminium in Voltaic Series" (1854-55); "Automatic Telegraphy" (1859). To complete the list of his papers, we name a "Letter to Colonel Sabine on Meteorological Instruments" (1842); "Determination of Solar Time by Polarization" (1848); "Foucault's Rotation of the Earth" (1851); "Powers for Arithmetical Progression" (1854-'55); "Report on Captive Balloons" (1863).

Wheatstone was chosen Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1836. He was a juror in the class for heat, light, and electricity in the Paris Exposition Universelle, 1855, and was then appointed a knight of the Legion of Honor. In 1868 he received the honor of knighthood from Queen Victoria, and the same year was awarded the Copley medal by the Royal Society for his researches in acoustics, optics, electricity, and magnetism. He was made LL. D. by Edinburgh University in 1869. In 1873 he was elected a corresponding member of the Paris Académie des Sciences, in the place of Baron Liebig, deceased. He was also a member of the chief scientific associations and academies of Europe.

Prof Wheatstone was married in 1845, His death took place at Paris, on the 19th of October, 1875. He left a numerous family.

In a brief memoir published in the Academy, Mr. C. Tomlinson, who was an intimate friend of Wheatstone, states that the latter never obtained eminence either as a writer or as a lecturer: before a large audience he was nervous and hesitating, but in familiar conversation his ideas "would flow so pleasantly and so lucidly, that one could not help reflecting that, if all this had been put into a lecture, Wheatstone might have become a successful rival even of Faraday." On such occasions he spoke unreservedly of the scientific work in which he happened to be engaged, and in this way other men often pilfered his ideas, and took the credit to themselves. On one occasion at least, Wheatstone recognized his error, for he paid ten guineas for a piece of apparatus for the purpose of stopping the inventor's mouth, said "inventor" having derived the idea of it from Wheatstone himself.