Sir Francis Ronalds FRS (21 February 1788 – 8 August 1873) was an English scientist and inventor, and arguably the first electrical engineer. He was knighted for creating the first working electric telegraph.
Upbringing and family
Born to merchants Francis Ronalds and Jane née Field at their cheesemonger business in Upper Thames Street, London, he attended Unitarian minister Eliezer Cogan's school before being apprenticed to his father at the age of 14. He ran the large business for some years. The family later resided in Highbury Terrace Islington, at Kelmscott House in Hammersmith, Queen Square in Bloomsbury, at Croydon, and on Chiswick Lane.
Several of Ronalds’ eleven brothers and sisters also led noteworthy lives. His youngest brother Alfred authored the classic book The Fly-fisher's Entomology (1836) before migrating to Australia and their brother Hugh was one of the founders of the city of Albion in the American Midwest. Their sisters married Samuel Carter – a railway solicitor and MP – and sugar-refiner Peter Martineau of the famous Martineau family. Another sister Emily epitomised the family's interest in social reform through her collaborations with early socialists Robert Owen and Fanny Wright.
Chemistry professor Edmund Ronalds and artist Hugh Carter are two of Ronalds' nephews and his nurseryman uncle Hugh Ronalds published the revered book Pyrus Malus Brentfordiensis: or, a Concise Description of Selected Apples (1831).
Early electrical science and engineering
Ronalds was conducting electrical experiments by 1810: those on atmospheric electricity were outlined in George Singer's text Elements of Electricity and Electro-Chemistry (1814). He published his first papers in the Philosophical Magazine in 1814 on the properties of the dry pile, a form of battery that his mentor Jean-André Deluc helped to develop. The next year he described the first electric clock.
Other inventions in this early period included an electrograph to record variations in atmospheric electricity through the day; an influence machine that generated electricity with minimal manual intervention; and new forms of electrical insulation, one of which was announced by Singer. He was also already creating what would become the renowned Ronalds Library of electrical books and managing his collection with perhaps the first practical card catalogue.
His theoretical contributions included an early delineation of the parameters now known as electromotive force and current; an appreciation of the mechanism by which dry piles generated electricity; and the first description of the effects of induction in retarding electric signal transmission in insulated cables.
Ronalds’ most remembered work today is the electric telegraph he created at the age of 28. Foreshadowing both a future electrical age and mass communication, he wrote:
electricity, may actually be employed for a more practically useful purpose than the gratification of the philosopher's inquisitive research… it may be compelled to travel… many hundred miles beneath our feet… and… be productive of… much public and private benefit…
why… add to the torments of absence those dilatory tormentors, pens, ink, paper, and posts? Let us have electrical conversazione offices, communicating with each other all over the kingdom…give me materiel enough, and I will electrify the world.
He complemented his vision with a working telegraph system built in and under the family's garden at Hammersmith. It was infamously rejected on 5 August 1816 by Sir John Barrow, Secretary at the Admiralty, as being "wholly unnecessary". Commercialisation of the telegraph only began two decades later in the UK, led by William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, who both had links to Ronalds’ earlier work.
The period 1818–20 was Ronalds’ "Grand Tour" to Europe and the Near East. Embarking on his trip alone, he met up with numerous people along the way, including his friend Sir Frederick Henniker, archaeologist Giovanni Battista Belzoni, artist Giovanni Battista Lusieri, merchant Walter Stevenson Davidson, Revd George Waddington, Italian numismatist it:Giulio Cordero di San Quintino and Spanish geologist es:Carlos de Gimbernat. Ronalds’ travel journal and sketches have been published on the web. On his return, he published his atmospheric electricity observations made in Palermo, Sicily, and near the erupting crater of Vesuvius.
Mechanical design and manufacture
Ronalds next focussed on mechanical and civil engineering and design. Two surveying tools he designed and used to aid the production of survey plans were a modified surveyor's wheel that recorded distances travelled in graphical form and a double-reflecting sector to draw the angular separation of distant objects. He also invented a forerunner to the fire finder patented in 1915 to pinpoint the location of a fire and various accessories for the lathe. Some of these devices were manufactured for sale by toolmaker Holtzapffel.
Perspective machines and tripod stand
In 1825, he patented two drawing instruments for producing perspective sketches. The first produced a perspective view of an object directly from drawings of the plan and elevations. The second machine enabled a scene or person to be traced from life onto paper with considerable precision; he and Dr Alexander Blair used it to document the important Neolithic monuments at Carnac, France, with "almost photographic accuracy". He also created the ubiquitous portable tripod stand with three pairs of hinged legs to support his drawing board in the field. He manufactured these instruments himself and several hundred of them were sold. One of his first customers was mining engineer John Taylor.
In 1842, Ronalds set up the Kew Observatory for the British Association for the Advancement of Science and he remained Honorary Director of the facility until late 1853. It was through the quality of his achievements there that Kew survived its early years and it went to become one of the most important meteorological and geomagnetic observatories in the world. This was despite ongoing efforts by George Airy, Director of the Greenwich Observatory, to undermine the work at Kew.
Continuously recording camera
Ronalds’ most noteworthy innovation at Kew, in 1845, was the first successful camera to make continuous recordings of an instrument 24 hours per day. The British Prime Minister Lord John Russell gave him a financial award in recognition of the importance of the invention for observational science.
He applied his technique in electrographs to observe atmospheric electricity, barographs and thermo-hygrographs to monitor the weather, and magnetographs to record the three components of geomagnetic force. The magnetographs were utilised by Edward Sabine in his global geomagnetic survey while the barograph and thermo-hygrograph were employed by the new Met Office to assist its first weather forecasts. Ronalds also supervised the manufacture of his instruments for other observatories around the world (the Radcliffe Observatory under Manuel John Johnson and the Colaba Observatory in India are two examples) and some continued in use until late in the 20th century.
Meteorological instruments and observations
Further instruments created at Kew included an improved version of Regnault's aspirated hygrometer that was employed for many years; an early meteorological kite; and the storm clock used to monitor rapid changes in meteorological parameters during extreme events.
To observe atmospheric electricity, Ronalds created a sophisticated collecting apparatus with a suite of electrometers; the equipment was later manufactured and sold by London instrument-makers. A dataset of five years’ duration was analysed and published by his observatory colleague William Radcliffe Birt.
The phenomenon now known as geomagnetically induced current was observed on telegraph lines in 1848 during the first sunspot peak after the network began to take shape. Ronalds endeavoured to employ his atmospheric electricity equipment and magnetographs in a detailed study to understand the cause of the anomalies but had insufficient resources to complete his work.
Ronalds’ final foreign sojourn in 1853-62 was to northern Italy, Switzerland and France, where he assisted other observatories in building and installing his meteorological instruments and continued collecting books for his library. Some of his ideas documented in this period concerned electric lighting and a combined rudder and propeller for ships that was honed in the 20th century.
He died at Battle, near Hastings, aged 85, and is buried in the cemetery there. The Ronalds Library was bequeathed to the newly formed Society of Telegraph Engineers (soon to become the Institution of Electrical Engineers and now the Institution of Engineering and Technology) and its accompanying bibliography was reprinted by Cambridge University Press in 2013.
Ronalds had a very modest and retiring nature and did little to publicise his work through his life. During his last years, however, his key accomplishments became well known and revered in the scientific community, aided in particular by his friends Josiah Latimer Clark and Edward Sabine and his brother-in-law Samuel Carter. He was knighted at the age of 82. Colleagues at the Society of Telegraph Engineers regarded him as “the father of electric telegraphy”, while his continuously recording camera was noted to be “of extreme importance to meteorologists and physicists, and… employed in all first-rate observatories”. His portrait was painted by Hugh Carter. Commemorative plaques have been installed on two of his former homes and a road was named after him in Highbury.