Feb 062016


Today is the birthday of Sir Charles Wheatstone who became famous for his many scientific explorations and advances in the Victorian era. Although much work attributed to him, especially the Wheatstone bridge, built directly on the pioneering work of others, he is rightly celebrated for being the inventor of the English concertina. That’s how I know about him – I’ve always wanted a Wheatstone concertina – but on exploring further I must admit that I find his entire life and work fascinating.

Wheatstone was born in Barnwood, Gloucester. His father was a music-seller in the town, who moved to 128 Pall Mall, London, four years later, becoming a teacher of the flute. Charles, the second son, went to a village school, near Gloucester, and afterwards to several institutions in London. He was not happy in school, though, so 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 books better. His father encouraged him in this, and finally took him out of the uncle’s charge.

At 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. 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 on 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, until 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.

Though silent and reserved in public, Wheatstone was a clear and voluble talker in private. 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!’ said Palmerston. ‘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.’

Sir Charles Wheatstone

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. In 1836 he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1859 he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and in 1873 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 19 October 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, (marked by a blue plaque today) and buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.

Here’s a brief epitome of Wheatstone’s achievements:


1827 Kaleidophone. Wheatstone introduced a device for rendering the vibrations of a sounding body apparent to the eye. It consists of a metal rod, carrying at its end a silvered bead, which reflects a ‘spot’ of light. As the rod vibrates the spot is seen to describe complicated figures in the air, like a spark whirled about in the darkness. His photometer was probably suggested by this appliance. It enables two lights to be compared by the relative brightness of their reflections in a silvered bead, which describes a narrow ellipse, so as to draw the spots into parallel lines.

1827 Microphone. Wheatstone devised a simple instrument for augmenting feeble sounds, to which he gave the name “microphone.” It consisted of two slender rods, which conveyed the mechanical vibrations of sounds to both ears. This instrument is quite different from the electrical microphone we now know, but the word was his.

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1829 Concertina. The Wheatstone concertina is an outgrowth from a kind of mouth organ he developed. The mouth organ had free reeds on the inside like a conventional one, but you blew into it and changed the pitch by pressing buttons on the side (instead of moving your mouth). This led to replacing the mouthpiece with bellows for generating the air pressure needed to sound the reeds. The Wheatstone concertina is a univocal instrument (same note when you push or pull the bellows), and is fully chromatic, producing 4 octaves in some instruments. So it is very versatile.

Wheatstone and his brother founded a company that manufactured concertinas which is still going strong although current models are not as good as older ones (and very expensive). In Wheatstone’s day the concertina was primarily used for classical music, and there were whole orchestras of players with instruments of different sizes and tones. In my 20s I met a number of aging people who had played in concertina orchestras in England in the early part of the 20th century. But in the early 1960s the concertina was adopted by the folk revival in England. Here’s Alf Edwards, who was an early advocate, playing to accompany Ewan MacColl.


1831 Enchanted Lyre. Wheatstone exhibited the ‘Enchanted Lyre,’ or ‘Aconcryptophone,’ at the music-shop in Pall Mall and in the Adelaide Gallery. It consisted of a mimic lyre hung from the ceiling by a cord, and emitting the strains of several instruments – the piano, harp, and dulcimer. In reality it was a mere sounding box, and the cord was a steel rod that conveyed the vibrations of the music from the several instruments which were played out of sight and ear-shot.

1834 Speed of electricity. Wheatstone used revolving mirrors to measure the speed of electricity traveling through nearly 8 miles of wire. Although his calculations mistakenly led him to the conclusion that electricity travels faster than light, his ingenious experiment corrected the common belief of the time that electricity traveled instantaneously. His results gave a calculated velocity of 288,000 miles per second, i.e. faster than what we now know to be the speed of light (299,792.458 kilometers per second (186,000 mi/s)), but were nonetheless a decent approximation for the time.


1834 Rheostat and Wheatstone bridge. Charles Wheatstone was appointed professor of experimental physics at King’s College in London, where he conducted pioneering experiments in electricity and invented an improved dynamo, and two devices to measure and regulate electrical resistance and current: the rheostat and the Wheatstone bridge (based on an earlier invention by Samuel Hunter Christie).


1835 Spectroscopy. John Munroe wrote, “In 1835, at the Dublin meeting of the British Association, Wheatstone showed that when metals were volatilised in the electric spark, their light, examined through a prism, revealed certain rays which were characteristic of them. Thus the kind of metals which formed the sparking points could be determined by analysing the light of the spark. This suggestion has been of great service in spectrum analysis, and as applied by Robert Bunsen, Gustav Robert Kirchhoff, and others, has led to the discovery of several new elements, such as rubidium and thallium, as well as increasing our knowledge of the heavenly bodies.”


1837 Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph. Wheatstone collaborated with William Cooke to patent a telegraph system which used a number of needles on a board that could be moved to point to letters of the alphabet. The patent recommended a five-needle system, but any number of needles could be used depending on the number of characters it was required to code. A four-needle system was installed between Euston and Camden Town in London on a rail line being constructed by Robert Stephenson between London and Birmingham. It was successfully demonstrated on 25 July 1837. The train carriages were detached at Camden Town and travelled under gravity into Euston. A system was needed to signal to an engine house at Camden Town to start hauling the carriages back up the incline to the waiting locomotive. This system was eventually superseded by Samuel Morse’s telegraph.


1838 Stereoscope. Wheatstone invented the stereoscope that showed three-dimensional photographs. Three-dimensional or stereo photography had the optical illusion of real depth by presenting slightly different images to each eye of the viewer.

1840 Chronoscope. Wheatstone introduced an instrument for measuring minute intervals of time, which was used in determining the speed of a bullet or the passage of a star. In this apparatus an electric current actuated an electromagnet, which noted the instant of an occurrence by means of a pencil on a moving paper. It is said to have been capable of distinguishing 1/7300 part of a second (137 microsecond), and the time a body took to fall from a height of one inch (25 mm).

1854 Playfair Cipher. Wheatstone invented this encryption technique, named after Lord Playfair who promoted it. The technique encrypts pairs of letters (bigrams or digrams), instead of single letters as in the simple substitution cipher and the rather more complex Vigenère cipher systems then in use. The Playfair system is difficult to break because the frequency analysis used for simple substitution ciphers does not work with it. The frequency analysis of bigrams is possible, but very difficult.

There’s much more but I won’t wear you out. Wheatstone was an experimental scientist and not an entrepreneur. He had no interest in turning his inventions and discoveries into marketable products, and so they were often used by others, or improved upon, and, in consequence he is now largely forgotten although in his day he was famous. Let’s turn now to a suitable dish to celebrate his birthday. His native Gloucestershire is famous for many foods, notably cheese and dairy products https://www.bookofdaystales.com/edward-jenner-and-smallpox/ It is also well known for the rearing of sheep (originally milked for cheese production). Here’s Gloucester squab pie, which, despite the name, is made from mutton (or lamb). It’s similar to a shepherd’s pie in that the “crust” was originally made from mashed root vegetables, but the filling uses layers of apples and onions. Well worth a try. I use the English word “swede” here for what transatlantic types call rutabaga. It’s also known as wax turnip (because of the waxy skin) or Swedish turnip – or, in Scotland, ‘neeps. Sometimes now the pie is made with a short crust in place of the veggies.


Gloucestershire Squab Pie


1lb/450g leftover cooked lamb
1lb/450g potatoes, peeled and diced
1lb/450g onions, sliced
8oz/225g swedes, peeled and diced
2 cooking apples, peeled cored and sliced
5fl oz/150ml lamb stock
2oz/50g butter
salt and pepper


Preheat the oven to or 400°F/200°C.

Peel and dice the potatoes and swede, place into a large pan of cold water, bring to the boil and simmer for until tender (about 25 minutes). Drain and mash with half the butter plus salt and pepper to taste.

Grease an ovenproof dish and place in it alternate layers of lamb and apple and onion mix.

Pour the stock over the layers, but do not cover the meat. Top with the swede and potato mash. Dot the top of the mash with the remaining butter, then bake in the oven for 50 minutes, or until golden brown.