Biography of Charles Wheatstone, British Inventor and Entrepreneur

Sir Charles Wheatstone

London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

Charles Wheatstone (February 6, 1802–October 19, 1875) was an English natural philosopher and inventor, perhaps best known today for his contributions to the electric telegraph. However, he invented and contributed in several fields of science, including photography, electrical generators, encryption, acoustics, and musical instruments and theory.

Fast Facts: Charles Wheatstone

  • Known For: Physics experiments and patents applying to sight and sound, including the electric telegraph, the concertina, and the stereoscope
  • Born: February 6, 1802 at Barnwood, near Gloucester, England
  • Parents: William and Beata Bubb Wheatstone
  • Died: October 19, 1875 in Paris, France
  • Education: No formal science education, but excelled in French, math, and physics at Kensington and Vere Street schools, and took an apprenticeship in his uncle's music factory
  • Awards and Honors: Professor of Experimental Philosophy at King's College, Fellow of the Royal Society in 1837, knighted by Queen Victoria in 1868
  • Spouse: Emma West
  • Children: Charles Pablo, Arthur William Fredrick, Florence Caroline, Catherine Ada, Angela

Early Life

Charles Wheatstone was born on February 6, 1802, near Gloucester, England. He was the second child born to William (1775–1824) and Beata Bubb Wheatstone, members of a music business family established on the Strand in London at least as early as 1791, and perhaps as early as 1750. William and Beata and their family moved to London in 1806, where William set up shop as a flute teacher and maker; his elder brother Charles Sr. was head of the family business, manufacturing and selling musical instruments.

Charles learned to read at age 4 and was sent to school early at the Kensington Proprietary Grammar School and Vere Street Board School in Westminster, where he excelled in French, math, and physics. In 1816, he was apprenticed to his Uncle Charles, but by the age of 15, his uncle complained that he was neglecting his work at the shop to read, write, publish songs, and pursue an interest in electricity and acoustics.

In 1818, Charles produced his first known musical instrument, the "flute harmonique," which was a keyed instrument. No examples have survived.

Early Inventions and Academics

In September 1821, Charles Wheatstone exhibited his Enchanted Lyre or Acoucryptophone at a gallery in a music store, a musical instrument that appeared to play itself to amazed shoppers. The Enchanted Lyre was not a real instrument, but rather a sounding box disguised as a lyre that hung from the ceiling by a thin steel wire. The wire was connected to the soundboards of a piano, harp, or dulcimer played in an upper room, and as those instruments were played, the sound was conducted down the wire, setting off sympathetic resonance of the lyre's strings. Wheatstone speculated publicly that at some time in the future, music might be transmitted in a similar manner throughout London "laid on like gas."

In 1823 acclaimed Danish scientist Hans Christian Örsted (1777–1851) saw the Enchanted Lyre and convinced Wheatstone to write his first scientific article, "New Experiments in Sound." Örsted presented the paper to the Académie Royale des Sciences in Paris, and it was eventually published in Great Britain in Thomson's Annals of Philosophy. Wheatstone began his association with the Royal Institution of Great Britain (also known as the Royal Institute, founded in 1799) in the mid-1820s, writing papers to be presented by close friend and RI member Michael Faraday (1791–1869) because he was too shy to do it himself. 

Early Inventions

Wheatstone had a wide-ranging interest in sound and vision and contributed many inventions and improvements on existing inventions while he was active.

His first patent (#5803) was for a "Construction of Wind Instruments" on June 19, 1829, describing the use of a flexible bellows. From there, Wheatstone developed the concertina, a bellows-driven, free-reed instrument in which each button produces the same pitch regardless of the way the bellows are moving. The patent was not published until 1844, but Faraday gave a Wheatstone-written lecture demonstrating the instrument to the Royal Institute in 1830.

Academics and Professional Life

Despite his lack of a formal education in science, in 1834 Wheatstone was made a Professor of Experimental Philosophy at King's College, London, where he conducted pioneering experiments in electricity and invented an improved dynamo. He also invented two devices to measure and regulate electrical resistance and current: the Rheostat and an improved version of what is now known as the Wheatstone bridge (it was actually invented by Samuel Hunter Christie in 1833). He held the position at King's College for the remainder of his life, although he continued working in the family business for another 13 years.

In 1837, Charles Wheatstone partnered with inventor and entrepreneur William Cooke to co-invent an electric telegraph, a now-outdated communication system that transmitted electric signals over wires from location to location, signals that could be translated into a message. The Wheatstone-Cooke or needle telegraph was the first working communication system of its kind in Great Britain, and it was put into operation on the London and Blackwall Railway. Wheatstone was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) that same year.

Wheatstone invented an early version of the stereoscope in 1838, versions of which became a very popular philosophical toy in the later 19th century. Wheatstone's stereoscope used two slightly different versions of the same image, which when viewed through two separate tubes gave the viewer the optical illusion of depth.

Throughout his professional life, Wheatstone invented both philosophical toys and scientific instruments, exercising his interests in linguistics, optics, cryptography (the Playfair Cipher), typewriters, and clocks—one of his inventions was the Polar Clock, which told time by polarized light.

Marriage and Family

On February 12, 1847, Charles Wheatstone married Emma West, the daughter of a local tradesman, and they eventually had five children. That year he also stopped working in a significant way at the family business to concentrate on his academic research. His wife died in 1866, at which point his youngest daughter Angela was 11 years old.

Wheatstone gleaned a number of important awards and honors throughout his career. He was elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1859, made a Foreign Associate of the French Academy of Sciences in 1873, and became an honorary member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1875. He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1868. He was named a Doctor of Civil Law (DCL) at Oxford and a doctor of law (LLD) at Cambridge.

Death and Legacy

Charles Wheatstone was one of the most inventive geniuses of his generation, combining combined science-based publication with business-focused patent applications and serious research with a playful interest in philosophical toys and inventions.

He died of bronchitis on October 19, 1875, in Paris while he was working on yet another new invention, this one for submarine cables. He is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery near his home in London.

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