Sir Charles Wheatstone (1802 - 1875)

Telegraph and other Inventions

an accordion
Charles Wheatstone invented an improved accordion. Getty Images/Stockbyte

English physicist and inventor, Charles Wheatstone is best known for his invention of the electric telegraph, however, he invented and contributed in several fields of science, including photography, electrical generators, encryption, and acoustics and music.

Charles Wheatstone and the Telegraph

The electric telegraph is a now outdated communication system that transmitted electric signals over wires from location to location that translated into a message.

In 1837, Charles Wheatstone partnered with William Cooke to co-invent an electric telegraph. The Wheatstone-Cooke telegraph or needle telegraph was the first working telegraph in Great Britain, put into operation on the London and Blackwall Railway.

Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke used the principles of electromagnetism in their telegraph to point a needle at alphabetic symbols. Their initial device used a receiver with five magnetic needles, but before the Wheatstone-Cooke telegraph would be used commercially several improvements were made, including reducing the number of needles to one.

Both Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke viewed their device as an improvement to the existing electromagnetic telegraph, and not as a totally new device. The Wheatstone-Cooke telegraph was discarded after American inventor and painter, Samuel Morse invented the Morse Telegraph that was adopted as the standard in telegraphy.

Charles Wheatstone - Other Inventions & Achievements

  • 1821 - Charles Wheatstone invents the Enchanted Lyre.
  • 1827 - Charles Wheatstone was the first person to coin the phrase "microphone.
  • 1829 - Charles Wheatstone invented an improved accordion.
  • 1834 - Charles Wheatstone used revolving mirrors to measure the speed of electricity traveling through nearly 8 miles of wire. Although his calculations mistakenly lead him to the conclusion that electricity travels faster than light, his ingenious experiment corrects the common belief of the time that electricity traveled instantaneously.
  • 1834 - Charles Wheatstone was appointed a 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 an improved Wheatstone bridge.
  • 1838 - Charles 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.
  • 1854 - Charles Wheatstone invented the Playfair Cipher, an encryption technique.

Studies in Sound and Music

Charles Wheatstone was born into a very musical family and that influenced him to pursue an interest in acoustics, beginning in 1821 he began classifying vibrations, the basis of sound. Wheatstone published his first scientific publication based on those studies, entitled New Experiments in Sound. He was reputed to have made various experimental instruments and started his working life as a musical instrument maker.

Enchanted Lyre

In September of 1821, Charles Wheatstone exhibited his Enchanted Lyre or Aconcryptophone at a gallery in a music store. The Enchanted Lyre was not a real instrument, it was a sounding box disguised as a lyre that hung from the ceiling by a steel rod, and emitted the sounds of several instruments: piano, harp, and dulcimer. It appeared as if the Enchanted Lyre was playing itself. However, the steel rod conveyed the vibrations of the music from real instruments which were played out of view by real musicians.

Symphonion with Bellows - An Improved Accordion

The accordion is played by pressing and expanding the air bellows, while the musician presses buttons and keys to force the air across reeds that produce sounds. Charles Wheatstone was the inventor of an improved accordion in 1829, which he renamed the concertina in 1833.

Patents for Musical Instruments

In 1829, Charles Wheatstone received a patent for "Improvements to musical instrument", a keying system and keyboard layout.

In 1844, he received a patent for "An Improved Concertina" for a duet keyboard systems, that included: the ability to tune the reeds externally with a watch key and a flap valve arrangement that allowed the same reed to be used for either movement of the bellows. It directed the air to pass through the reed in the same direction for press or draw.