Genius of a Crofter Boy
This article appears in Celtic Heritage Fall 2005 Edition, and is reprinted with the kind permission of the Author, Ian Samson, and the Editor of Celtic Heritage.
The Man who invented the fax
by Ian Samson "But it was his 1843 patent for the sensational electro-chemical telegraph that revealed his true genius. He demonstrated nothing less than the principle of the future fax machines."
Nearly 200 years ago, the young herdsman son of a Caithness crofter dreamed of better things as he tended his cattle. His name was Alexander Bain. If the inscription on his memorial at the end of his life is anything to go by, he richly fulfilled his ambitions: "He thought above himself and helped to secure a great and better world."
Alexander was born in 1810, in the parish of Watten, Caithness, to a family of 13 children. By all accounts, he spent much of his early days day-dreaming out of the school windows. His dismal reports proved just how poor an academic he was. But he did display one remarkable passion - for clocks. So much so, he gathered up anything he could lay his hands on around the croft to fashion into clock springs and crude mechanisms. He even resorted to carving heather and animal bones to turn his young ideas into reality. Not surprisingly, his enthusiasm for timepieces impressed his father, who managed to scrape up enough money to arrange an apprenticeship for him with a clock-maker in Wick.
Once established, it was not long before Alexander heard about a technical lecture in nearby Thurso. The prospect of attending the talk so fired him up, he walked over 20 miles from home there and back, to be present. The next morning, he faced another eight-mile trek to his job in Wick.
New found excitement from this insight into the cutting edge technology of his day did nothing to settle Alexander in his routine work in Wick. It was just the kind of state-of-the-art knowledge his apprenticeship to a small time clockmaker had no way of offering. His frustration smouldered. In the end, it got the better of him and he walked out of his indenture, publicly disgracing himself in the process, and trekked off to Edinburgh in search of a brighter opportunity to make his dreams come true.
Yet even in Edinburgh his drive for better things pursued him and not long after he moved again. This time to London. On this occasion, he was well rewarded. In the capital, the technology of the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and he was free to revel in lectures at the city's leading institutions.
Soon he was applying electrical principles - the new science - to the working and regulation of his cherished timepieces. He even devised his own battery to run his clocks and the remarkable printing telegraph he was in the process of designing.
Alexander made his home in London's Cavendish Square and there he exhibited models of his inventions. In 1840, he won a patent for the first electric clock and some two years later, he gained another patent for the electric printing telegraph.
But it was his 1843 patent for the sensational electro-chemical telegraph that revealed his true genius. He demonstrated nothing less than the principle of future fax machines. A pendulum arrangement was set up to scan metal letters. The resulting electrical impulses, sent by wire to a receiver, caused a second pendulum moving in time over recording paper, to leave marks in the pattern of the original letters. Strips of perforated paper were used to send the message.
Over the next half-century, innovations were added to this design for the telegraph. But the major feature - Alexander Bain's scanning method - remains basically unaltered. While the telegram, teleprinter and Telex systems grew and flourished, the facsimile machine slumbered - a sleeping giant. Only in 1902 did the breakthrough come, with photoelectric scanning.
Now 34 years old, Alexander moved back to Edinburgh. There, at a Society of Arts meeting, he described his telegraph as by far the simplest invented. In 1846 he erected a telegraph for the railway line between Glasgow and Edinburgh, the first of its kind in Scotland. Its cost was a mere third of that for lines later built in England. The arrangement illustrated his work on synchronized systems in a spectacular display. He set up an electric clock in Glasgow and arranged its pendulum in Edinburgh. Connecting the two was a single line. The electric pendulum's movement was transmitted through the line and activated the Glasgow mechanism in perfect harmony. Separated by a distance of nearly 50 miles, the two clocks were acting as one.
His vision was for a Scotland linked by telegraph wires, since there was nothing to prevent a single pendulum regulating clocks all over the country. And if Scotland and England were to establish a united network of telegraph connections, a single pendulum in Greenwich could provide standard time throughout the two countries.
By 1852 he had been granted several additional patents for his inventions.
(Much more recently, when modern fax machines hit the markets and overnight became the symbol of high-flying efficiency, articles honouring Alexander Bain appeared in respected publications acknowledging him as the pioneer of high-speed telegraphy and the new business necessity - the fax.)
In the years to come, Alexander Bain took his electro-chemical telegraph to the United States, where he erected telegraph lines in the New York-Boston area. Despite opposition from the powerful Morse Company, he was granted a patent. However, continued pressure from the American company resulted in a ruling that the award of this patent was an infringement of a patent granted to Morse several years previously. By the time Alexander returned to Britain he had been devastated financially by the long and exhausting litigation.
He had married and had fathered twin sons and two daughters but now his wife was dead and his surviving children had emigrated. His health began to fail although he continued to practise as a clockmaker in Scotland.
Alexander Bain died, a poor man, in 187 and was buried in Kirkintilloch.
That year, The Scotsman newspaper praised his versatile mind and valuable discoveries, commending him as a public benefactor. Other documents pay tribute to his pioneering work as the springboard for the inventiveness of future generations.
It is a measure of the stature and genius of Alexander Bain that the name of this self-taught dreamer from a poor Highland croft appears again and again alongside the leaders of his profession on both sides of the Atlantic. Two centuries on, it still inspires admiration and respect.