Biography of Alexander Bain

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Alexander Bain, a Scottish clock and instrument maker, invented the first electrical clock, patented the basics of facsimile, developed chemical telegraph receivers and punch-tapes to speed up telegraph transmission. He was an all-round inventor and technician who later installed the first telegraph lines alongside the railway between Edinburgh and Glasgow.

A plaque to Alexander Bain in Wick

Alexander Bain and his twin sister Margaret were born in October 1811 of humble parents near Watten, between Thurso and Wick in Caithness, at the extreme north of Scotland. Their dad was a crofter, and he had six sisters and six brothers. They grew up in a remote stone cottage at Leanmore, a few miles north of Wick. The vast expanse of peaty countryside has only occasional scattered cottages, and the Bain house, close to a small wood, became a sheep byre, and is now little more thanan outline of low stonewalls. In the winter Sandy walked a mile or two to school in Backlass; in the summer he worked as a shepherd.

He was bottom of his class in school, and was a poor shepherd too, because he was always dreaming. But he was fascinated by clocks, and actually made himself a model clock using heather for the spring and the cogwheels, so his sympathetic father got him apprenticed to a clockmaker in Wick. In January 1830 he walked 21 miles through the snow from Wick to Thurso to hear a penny lecture on science: “Light, heat, and the electric fluid”. The lecture changed his life, for he decided immediately that electricity was the stuff to work with.

Learning the art of clockmaking, Bain went to Edinburgh, and subsequently in 1837 removed to London, where he obtained work of a journeyman in Clerkenwell, then famed for its clocks and watches. He attended lectures at the Polytechnic Institution and at the Adelaide Gallery, and was particularly attracted by the demonstrations of electromagnetism. Bain succeeded to organize his own workshop for building electro-mechanical instruments. He began inventing electrical devices, including various types of automatic telegraph, an electric clock, an earth battery, insulation for electric cables and an electric fire alarm.

He took out patents on all these, and also on inkstands, ink holders and a ship’s log. In his own words, written in 1852, he noted: “For many years I have devoted myself to rendering electricity practically useful, and have been extensively engaged, not only in this country, but in America and on the Continent, in the construction and working of the Electric Telegraph; while at the same time, the employment of electricity in the measurement of time has also engaged my attention”. In the latter regard, Bain is considered as the pioneer of electrical timekeeping in a book celebrating a century of electrical clocks. A plaque over the door of his Edinburgh workshop was unveiled in the same year.

The plaque above the door that was Bain’s workshop in Edinburgh, probably between 1844 and 1847; it was then at 11 (now 21) Hanover Street. The plaque was unveiled in 1940, to celebrate the centenary of his invention of the electric clock.

Bain’s first patent is dated January 11th, 1841, and is in the name of John Barwise, chronometer maker, and Alexander Bain, mechanist, Wigmore Street. It describes his electric clock in which there is an electromagnetic pendulum, and the electric current is employed to keep it going instead of springs or weights.

The Wall Clock, 1867, shown here has been made by S. A. Kennedy (New York). S.A. Kennedy patented this first American electric clock in 1867. It has an electromagnet, pendulum driven movement, although originally it was recommended that it run on a wet cell battery. The clock has remarkable similarities to Alexander Bain’s original electric clock of 1841.

Bain’s “earth battery”

Bain improved his electrical clock in following patents, and also proposed to derive the motive electricity from an “earth battery,” by burying plates of zinc and copper in the ground. “If we place a sheet of zinc and another of copper in the ground a little distance from each other, and a few feet deep, so that they are perfectly imbedded in the moist soil, we have, by this simple arrangement, a source of electricity, and if the sheets of metalare about two square feet each we shall have amply sufficient to work a clock.” (Alexander Bain: A Short History of the Electric Clock, 1852) Gauss and Steinheil had priority in this device which, owing to ‘polarisation’ of the plates and to drought, is not reliable.

Long afterwards Mr. Jones of Chester succeeded in regulating timepieces from a standard astronomical clock by an improvement on the method of Bain. On December 21, 1841, Bain, in conjunction with Lieut. Thomas Wright, R.N., of Percival Street, Clerkenwell, patented means of applying electricity to control railway engines by turning off the steam, marking time, giving signals, and printing intelligence at different places. He also proposed to utilise ‘natural bodies of water’ for a return wire, but the earlier experimenters had done so, particularly Steinheil in 1838.

The most important idea in the patent is, perhaps, his plan for inverting the needle telegraph of Ampere, Wheatstone and others, and instead of making the signals by the movements of a pivoted magnetic needle under the influence of an electrified coil, obtaining them by suspending a movable coil traversed by the current, between the poles of a fixed magnet, as in the later siphon recorder of Sir William Thomson. Bain also proposed to make the coil record the message by printing it in type; and he developed the idea in a subsequent patent.

The most amazing idea he had was for what he called the electrochemical telegraph, which we would call a fax machine. However; before he had a chance to develop it, he ran into an unpleasant spot of trouble in London. In 1840 Bain was desperate for money to develop his clocks and his fax machine; he talked about his financial problems to the editor of the Mechanics Magazine, who introduced him to the well-known and highly respected Professor Sir Charles Wheatstone.

Bain took his models to demonstrate at Wheatstone’s house. Wheatstone watched Bain’s gadgets with fascination, and then, when asked for his opinion, said “Oh, I shouldn’t bother to develop these things any further! There’s no future in them.” Bain went away disconsolate, but three months later Wheatstone went to the Royal Society and before the leaders of the scientific establishment demonstrated an electric clock, claiming it was his own invention. Luckily, Bain had already applied for his patent.

Professor Sir Charles Wheatstone had all the advantages of rank and social position, and did his level best to block Bain’s patents. He failed, and rumors of his skullduggery began to circulate. So when Wheatstone organised an Act of Parliament to set up the Electric Telegraph Company,the House of Lords summoned Bain to give evidence, and eventually compelled the company to pay Bain $10,000 and give him a job as manager. Wheatstone resigned in a huff.

In 1841 Bain made a new kind of electric telegraph, the first of three devices he dreamed up to send pictures or printed words along telegraph wires. This was an idea decades ahead of its time: in those days messages were sent by Morse code – people had to wait thirty years for the telephone – so even a skilled operator could send only a few words a minute. Bain’s machine was to change all that. Bain had already worked out how to set up a system of clocks that would remain exactly synchronised.

He put a master clock in the railway station in Edinburgh, and another clock in the railway station in Glasgow. Then he arranged that every time the Edinburgh pendulum swung it sent a pulse of electricity along the telegraph wires, which drove a solenoid in Glasgow and pushed the Glasgow pendulum at exactly the same time. Bain’s electrical mechanism didn’t just make the clocks run at the same rate, it forced the pendulums to stay precisely in step.

When he wanted to send a picture along the wires, he made a copy of it in copper, and etched away everything but the lines he wanted. Then he arranged for a metal needle or stylus to swing across the picture. Each time it touched copper it made contact and sent a pulse along the telegraph wire. The needle was attached to the pendulum of the clock at each end, so the positions of the contacts were faithfully reproduced at the receiving end by a matching stylus running across electro-sensitive paper; whenever there was a blip of current the stylus left a black mark on the paper, corresponding to the position of the line in the original picture.

Finally he arranged for both pictures – the one being sent and the one being received – to drop down by a millimetre at every swing of the pendulum. Thus the outgoing picture was gradually scanned by the stylus swinging across it and moving down line by line, and at the receiving end the new copy picture was gradually built up.

There were no photoelectric devices then, of course, but Bain suggested that the sending machine would trace over raised metal type, identical to that used in printing. The scanning contact would make electrical connection with the raised type-faces, and each pulse would then travel through the chain of relays and wires to a synchronised printer at the other end.

By this time scientists and technologists had discovered that paper soaked with potassium iodide was sensitive to electricity. The chemical broke down into components easily, and the iodine darkened the paper under even a tiny current flow. This method of reproduction was easier to implement than the ink-wheel printing systems used by Samuel Morse, however the need for wet paper was always a problem until dry-fax paper was invented in 1934.

Bain’s Telegraph scheme

There were two pendulums involved in Bain’s telegraph, one for transmitting and one for receiving. The text of the message to be sent was set up in raised metal type, like that used for printing. At the end of the transmitting pendulum was a sharp metal point or a fine metal brush. As the pendulum swung to and fro, with each swing taking the same time as the others, just as in an old-fashioned clock, the metal point was swept over the type. Whenever the point was in contact with the type, electricity could flow through the type and the pendulum and along the telegraph wire.

Whenever there was a gap in the shape of the type, no current could flow. Each time the pendulum made one swing, the metal type was moved upwards slightly, so that the point of the pendulum swept over a different part of the type. In this way, the shape of the whole piece of type was eventually scanned by the pendulum. At the other end, a similar pendulum swept over a piece of paper that had been soaked in potassium iodide, which changes colour when an electrical current passes through it, leaving a brown stain.

This too was moved upwards with each swing of the pendulum. Current coming in along the telegraph wire passed through the swinging pendulum and marked the paper. The result was that on the paper an image built up of the metal type at the transmitting end. There was a special arrangement to keep the second pendulum swinging in synchronization with the first, by restraining its movement if it got ahead.

But unlike Morse telegraphy, there was the possibility of substituting for the metal type a raised metal replica of handwriting or drawing, and so being able to send simple images. Alexander Bain received a British patent on 27 May, 1843 for “improvements in producing and regulating electric currents and improvements in timepieces and in electric printing and signal telegraphs.

” Hence, Bain designed a device to scan a two-dimensional surface and sent it over wires. Thus, the patent for the fax machine was granted 33 years before the patent was given for the telephone. Bain himself never performed a fax transmission, but it is clear from his patent application that his invention made facsimile transmission entirely feasible.

Proof that Bain’s principle was sound was eventually provided by Frederick Blakewell, an English physicist, who demonstrated a working facsimile machine at the World Exhibition of 1851, the largest exhibition of new technology ever held. His device was based on the same principle as Bain’s design, also using rotating cylinders and styluses for recording and writing. So Queen Victoria could indeed have sent a fax, had she been so inclined, when she visited the exhibition in the huge Crystal Palace!

Historians normally associate Bain’s idea’s with the modern day facsimile (fax) machine. Bain is also credited with the idea of scanning an image, so it can be broken up into small parts for transmission. His invention also drew attention to the need for synchronisation between the transmitter and the receiver in order for the transmission system to work. In fact, Alexander Bain is rightly credited with inventing both the fax and also the television approach to scanning images progressively.

On December 31st, 1844, he projected a mode of measuring the speed of ships by vanes revolving in the water and indicating their speed on deck by means of the current. In the same specification he described a way of sounding the sea by an electric circuit of wires, and of giving an alarm when the temperature of a ship’s hold reached a certain degree. The last device is the well-known fire-alarm in which the mercury of a thermometer completes an electric circuit, when it rises to a particular point of the tube, and thus actuates an electric bell or other alarm.

In 1846 Alexander Bain greatly improved the speed of telegraph transmission by using punched paper tape to send messages. The perforated tape is nicknamed ‘ticker tape’ because of the ticking sound the telegraph made. This procedure will speed up the transmission of information very much. Until well into the 20th century companies will use this method for transmitting information. These perforated tapes, or punch tapes, will also be adopted for the output of computer data. It will be like this for decades to come, because the teletype (telex) terminals, accept only this kind of tape and are the sole way to communicate with computers.

On December 12, 1846, Bain, who was staying in Edinburgh at that time, patented his greatest invention, the chemical telegraph, which bears his name. He recognised that the Morse and other telegraph instruments in use were comparatively slow in speed, owing to the mechanical inertia of the parts; and he saw that if the signal currents were made to pass through a band of travelling paper soaked in a solution which would decompose under their action, and leave a legible mark, a very high speed could be obtained.

The chemical he employed to saturate the paper was a solution of nitrate of ammonia and prussiate of potash, which left a blue stain on being decomposed by the current from an iron contact or stylus. The signals were the short and long, or ‘dots’ and ‘dashes’ of the Morse code.

The speed of marking was so great that hand signalling could not keep up with it, and Bain devised a plan of automatic signalling by means of a running band of paper on which the signals of the message were represented by holes punched through it. Obviously if this tape were passed between the contact of a signalling key the current would merely flow when the perforations allowed the contacts of the key to touch. This principle was afterwards applied by Wheatstone in the construction of his automatic sender.

Bain developed two types of chemical recorders. One was the tape method, mentioned above, for general use; the other, for major terminals, consisted of a treated paper disk, rotating on a phonograph-like brass plate, the recording stylus moving out from the center. This system seemed immune from infringement upon Morse’s patents and Bain received his own patent in 1849. He also perfected his own code for representing letters and numbers.

The chemical telegraph was tried between Paris and Lille before a committee of the Institute and the Legislative Assembly. The speed of signalling attained was 282 words in fifty-two seconds, a marvellous advance on the Morse electro-magnetic instrument, which only gave about forty words a minute. In the hands of Edison the neglected method of Bain was seen by Sir William Thomson in the Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia, recording at the rate of 1057 words in fifty-seven seconds.

In England the telegraph of Bain was used on the lines of the old Electric Telegraph Company to a limited extent, and in America about the year 1850 it was taken up by the energetic Mr. Henry O’Reilly, and widely introduced. But it incurred the hostility of Morse, who obtained an injunction against it on the slender ground that the running paper and alphabet used were covered by his patent.

By 1859, as Mr. Shaffner tells us, there was only one line in America on which the Bain system was in use, namely, that from Boston to Montreal. Since those days of rivalry the apparatus has never become general, and it is not easy to understand why, considering its very high speed, the chemical telegraph has not become a greater favourite.

In 1847 Bain devised an automatic method of playing on wind instruments by moving a band of perforated paper which controlled the supply of air to the pipes; and likewise proposed to play a number of keyed instruments at a distance by means of the electric current. Both of these plans are still in operation.

These and other inventions in the space of six years are a striking testimony to the fertility of Bain’s imagination at this period. But after this extraordinary outburst he seems to have relapsed into sloth and the dissipation of his powers. We have been told, and indeed it is plain that he received a considerable sum for one or other of his inventions, probably the chemical telegraph.

But while he could rise from the ranks, and brave adversity by dint of ingenuity and labour, it would seem that his sanguine temperament was ill-fitted for prosperity. He went to America, and what with litigation, unfortunate investment, and perhaps extravagance, the fortune he had made was rapidly diminished.

Whether his inventive genius was exhausted, or he became disheartened, it would be difficult to say, but he never flourished again. The rise in his condition may be inferred from the preamble to his patent for electric telegraphs and clocks, dated May 29, 1852, wherein he describes himself as ‘Gentleman,’ and living at Beevor Lodge, Hammersmith. After an ephemeral appearance in this character he sank once more into poverty, if not even wretchedness.

Moved by his unhappy circumstances, Sir William Thomson, the late Sir William Siemens, Mr. Latimer Clark and others, obtained from Mr. Gladstone, in the early part of 1873, a pension for him under the Civil List of $80 a year; but the beneficiary lived in such obscurity that it was a considerable time before his lodging could be discovered, and his better fortune take effect. The Royal Society had previously made him a gift of $150.

In his latter years, while he resided in Glasgow, his health failed, and he was struck with paralysis in the legs. The massive forehead once pregnant with the fire of genius, grew dull and slow of thought, while the sturdy frame of iron hardihood became a tottering wreck. He was removed to the Home for Incurables at Broomhill, Kirkintilloch, where he died on January 2, 1877, and was interred in the Old Aisle Cemetery. He was a widower, and had two children, but they were said to be abroad at the time, the son in America and the daughter on the Continent.

Bain’s tombstone in the Old Aisle Cemetery, Kirkintilloch. It was said to be in a state of disrepair in the early twentieth century and was restored in 1959. The date of death had initially been carved erroneously as 1876, but this was later corrected to 1877.

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