Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875)

Charles Wheatstone was born in Barnwood, Gloucester on 6 February 1802. He made numerous discoveries and inventions in the fields of optics, acoustics and electricity, but is best known for his pioneering work on telegraphy.

Wheatstone was born to a family of musical instrument makers and dealers. As a young boy he moved to London and was apprenticed to his uncle, an instrument maker, in 1816. During this time Wheatstone read extensively on scientific topics and became fascinated by the wonders of sound.

Aged only 16 he produced his first new musical instrument, the ‘flute harmonique’, and went on to design and patent a number of other instruments, including the concertina. The concertina belongs to a class of instruments known as ‘free reed’ instruments, which also includes accordions and harmonicas.

Wheatstone later became interested in optics. His research led to the invention of the stereoscope, which demonstrated how pictures could be visually combined to create the illusion of depth.

In 1834 Wheatstone was appointed Professor of Experimental Philosophy at King’s College, London. Owing to his shyness and ineffective public speaking style, Wheatstone’s first programme of lectures on sound was a complete failure. However, he felt at home in the laboratory and soon confined his duties to demonstration. Wheatstone had a lifelong friendship with the physicist Michael Faraday, who delivered Wheatstone’s lectures on sound and acoustics at the Royal Institution.

Wheatstone is most famous for two inventions: the Cooke-Wheatstone telegraph and the Wheatstone bridge. The telegraph was the original idea of Sir William Fothergill Cooke, who appealed to Wheatstone for scientific advice after encountering a series of problems with his original designs. Together, Cooke and Wheatstone patented a five-needle telegraph in 1837 and over the next few years they developed the needle telegraph into a practical working system. Wheatstone separately worked on alphabetical or ‘ABC’ telegraphs and later designed an automatic Morse system which used punched paper tape for transmission.

Wheatstone refined and popularised the Wheatstone bridge - an electrical circuit for measuring resistance - from an original concept proposed by Samuel Hunter Christie in 1833.

Wheatstone won many awards, including several in France, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1836. He died in Paris in 1875.