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No history of electric telegraphy can ignore Alexander Bain, who lived from October 1810 until January 2, 1877. He was the son of John and Isabella Bain of Leanmore farm at Watten in Caithness in the far north of Scotland. His principal contributions to telegraphy were his improvements to the electric clock and to the chemical telegraph. Bain was a watchmaker by profession, being apprenticed initially, between 1829 and 1830 to John Sellar, a clockmaker in Wick, Caithness, and then in Edinburgh, and was a prolific inventor of electrical and other instruments active at the same time as Cooke and Wheatstone. By all accounts he was a difficult man to negotiate with and according to some a ferocious drunk. He was, unfortunately, intemperate to excess; contriving disputes with Wheatstone over electric clocks, with Bakewell over copying telegraphs and with Shepherd, another patentee of clocks, as well as with the Morse Syndicate in America. Bain died in relative poverty and is commonly portrayed as a Celtic martyr impoverished by class prejudice.

In truth Bain’s principle character weakness was an inability to collaborate with his peers; a plain mechanic, he never had a scientific or technical mentor, nor an education that would have allowed him to appreciate the work of others. Moreover, he was unable to maintain any of the professional partnerships that he attempted with which to channel his ideas into consistent reality. He seems to have gone out of his way to give offence to potential allies.

The level of Bain’s contrived ill-will may be judged by his continued antipathy to Wheatstone. Alone among the professor’s many “mechanical” collaborators, who included William Reid, Louis Lachenal, Nathaniel Holmes, Augustus Stroh and Robert Sabine, Bain passed himself into posterity as a victim of his evil machinations. All the others co-operated and flourished alongside of Wheatstone for several decades.

Bain, as will be seen, created many ingenious devices in a great many fields; the electric clock and the chemical telegraph had lasting impacts on technology. Unfortunately his temperament was such that these achievements gave him little but sorrow and disappointment.

Bain Clock 1848
An electric register clock widely used in the telegraph stations
of the Electric Telegraph Company

The Electric Clock
Bain’s first accomplishment was his electric clock, which he patented on January 11, 1841 with the London watch- and clock-maker John Barwise, of 25 St Martin’s Lane, Charing Cross. This used an electrically-regulated pendulum to propel the time- keeping movement, with a galvanic source made from metallic plates buried in damp soil. It was not the first galvanic clock; this had been devised by Carl August von Steinheil in Munich in 1839.

Bain Pendulum 1848
The two forms of the electric pendulum, on the left the electro-magnet is
wrapped around the armature, on the right the pendulum swings within
a pair of circular electro-magnets.
The “switches” above on the long shaft.
The arrows show the circuit of electricity from Bain’s ground plate cells.

Bain Clockwork 1848
Left are the works that converted the pendulum action into rotary movement by striking a small lever at the base.  

Bain Companion Clock 1848
Right is a back view of a “slave” dial, much smaller than the master clock.

The partnership managed to produce sixty of Barwise & Bain’s electric clocks, “working at the expense of 2d a week”, for exhibition at the Royal Polytechnic Institution, 309 Regent Street, London, during July, August and September 1841. These were made at Alexander Bain’s Electric Clock & Telegraph Manufactory, 11 Hanover Street, Edinburgh.

As well as devising several forms of electric pendulum or ‘master’ clock, which included a simplified mechanism for converting the swing action into rotary motion, Bain placed many much smaller ‘companion’, now known as ‘slave’, dials in the same circuit. Adjusting the master simultaneously corrected the companions which worked in precise synchronicity. More than that in 1848 he had a master clock in Edinburgh regulate a small companion forty-six miles away in Glasgow with a circuit along the railway between the two cities.

It proved to be the first of many missed opportunities in Bain’s life; the partnership failed and Barwise went on to found the British Watch Company in 1843, the first attempt to factory-make timepieces in volume.

Bain was not alone in investigating the use of electricity to propel clock movements. As well as Steinheil in Munich, Charles Wheatstone had already determined the principles of what he called the Magnetic Clock. In 1840 he installed an electric master movement and six connected ‘slave’ dials at King’s College, London. The master device and the small, neatly-cased Magnetic Clocks were made by the eminent clockmaker E J Dent of 82 Strand, almost adjacent to the College. Claiming that his, or more accurately Steinheil’s, concept had been copied; Bain never forgave Wheatstone for ‘stealing his thunder.’ One of Wheatstone’s clocks of 1840 still exists.

Bain type-printing telegraph 1841
An electrically-controlled mechanical telegraph.
It used the rotating indicator to print numbers spirally on the upper drum.
An improved version was devised by 1844, see below

The Mechanical Telegraph
By August 1841 Bain had moved on and the electric clocks at the Polytechnic Institution were joined by the first display of Bain’s electro-magnetic printing telegraph. It had been patented, along with other devices, on April 21, 1841. To finance this, the first of his many telegraphs, Bain secured the support of Lieutenant Thomas Wright, RN, living ashore at Chelsea in London. This was one of a number of mechanical signal and printing telegraphs, some of such complexity as to be best described as contraptions, devised by Bain before completing his chemical telegraph patent.

The mechanical telegraphs used galvanic electricity to manage power produced by clockwork. In Bain’s first telegraph pulses of electricity created by rotating a dial over contact points were used to release and stop a type-wheel turned by weight-driven clockwork; a second clockwork mechanism rotated a drum covered with a sheet of paper and moved it slowly upwards so that the type-wheel printed its signals in a spiral. The critical issue was to have the sending and receiving elements working synchronously. Bain attempted to achieve this using centrifugal governors to closely regulate the speed of the clockwork.

Bain Controller 1841

Bain electro-magnetic railway controller 1841
It connected two locomotives, a pilot-engine and a train engine, for safety.
Above, on the train engine, the dial on the firebox for the driver
and the "leg" connecting to the conductors between the rails.
Below, on the pilot-engine, the belt-driven governor that collapsed
and broke the circuit when the engine stopped, making the warning signal

In the same patent of 1841 Bain and Wright introduced the electro-magnetic railway controller, an apparatus intended to signal between two moving trains. A pilot engine ran a mile-and-a-half or so in front of another locomotive hauling a train. A current between the pilot engine and the train engine was carried by insulated conductors running along the centre of the railway, with a “leg” beneath the locomotives making the electrical connection. Should the pilot engine stop or the current between the pilot and the main engine be disrupted a visible signal was given on the footplate. If that was ignored a whistle, gong or other alarm was sounded, if this too were ignored the apparatus turned off the steam and applied the brakes of the locomotive.

A centrifugal governor linked to the wheels of the pilot engine by a belt was employed to break the current should engine stop, causing a needle on a telegraph dial on the following locomotive to indicate “dangerous” and also to set off clockwork that rang an alarm bell and then released a weighted lever to shut off the steam. The clockwork was wound automatically by the motion of the locomotive. It was only made as a  table-top model.

Bain Gauci Inkstand

Bain & Gauci Patent Ink-stands 1841

A range of complex mechanical desktop vessels for keeping writing inks

On June 21 of the same year, 1841, Bain took out another patent, this time in association with the artist Paul Joseph Gauci, for “ink-stands and ink-holders”. These were complex desk-top reservoirs for writing ink into which steel-nibbed pens, which replaced quills, were dipped. There were several sorts, including ones with miniature pumps and others with rotating bodies to prevent the elements of the ink separating. He returned several times over the years to improving these devices.

The Chemical Telegraph
As with the electric clock, Bain did not invent the principle of the chemical telegraph, in which paper or cloth is treated to make it sensitive to marking by an electric current; in England this originated with Edward Davy’s patent of 1838, but Bain certainly made the principle, which he called ‘electro-chemical decomposition’, practical in his English patent of May 27, 1843. The original version was an adaptation of his complex mechanical telegraph of 1841, writing its dot and dash cipher in a spiral on a paper cylinder wrapped around a revolving brass drum.

The famous chemical engineer, Isham Baggs, had also patented a “method of printing colours by electricity” on January 23, 1841. This used electro-chemical decomposition to form images on both paper and cloth.

 Bain Chemical Telegraph 1843
Clockwork-driven, with a centrifugal governor to regulate the roller that
moves the paper tape. In this model, one of many, the sending and receiving
instruments were identical, exchanging the roll of punched tape used to send
messages for damp electro-sensitive paper to receive.
It was not used commercially until it was much simplified 

The perfected Bain chemical telegraph of 1843 consisted of a finger pedal or on-off key to make and break the circuit and a roll of electrically-sensitive paper fed by clockwork between a brass roller and a single metal feeler as part of the circuit. The current caused a mark to be made on the paper in a series of dots and dashes interpreted into the roman alphabet in so-called “Bain Code”. In its essence it was remarkably simple, and also silent in operation, but Bain would not leave it alone in its simplicity.

A much more elaborate pattern of chemical telegraph also introduced in 1843 had identical mechanically-driven sending and receiving instruments. This had a rotary sender using punched tape, on the Jacquard principle, running under two metallic feelers to make and break the electrical circuit; to receive messages the punched paper tape roll was replaced by strips of chemically-sensitive paper, which had to be kept damp, running under the metal points to cause the marks. The need for precise synchronisation defeated this first effort at automatic telegraphy, despite the use of ever larger centrifugal governors on each instrument.

In the version utilised on the circuits of the Electric Telegraph Company “a strip of paper is drawn off a small gutta-percha bobbin placed inside a short brass cylinder, and over a drum whose surface is silvered; the latter is rotated by clockwork having a fan brake or governor. The clockwork is started or stopped by a small lever working between two stops and when in the running position makes contact with the earth terminal. A small wooden roller can be pushed into contact with the silvered drum to keep the paper stretched and at the same time bring the style down to the paper. The style is made from iron or steel and is connected with the line wire terminal, while the drum against which it is kept pressed is in connection with the earth terminal. The paper tape was soaked in a mixture of one volume of a saturated solution of potassium ferro-cyanide, one volume of a saturated solution of ammonium nitrate, and two volumes of water; the latter salt being deliquescent served to keep the paper damp. When a current passes, the iron decomposes the electrolyte, uniting with the acid radical to form Prussian blue; other solutions, such as potassium iodide, can be used, the iodine liberated from which colours a starch solution. The Steinheil code, dots in two parallel lines, was originally used. A gutta-percha trough was used for damping the rolls of paper tape.”

Bain also devised, in July 1843, a ‘Voltaic Governor’ to manage the current for electrotyping, the creation of precise copies of metallic illustrations and type. It used clockwork moderated by an electro-magnet to lower the plates into an electric cell to maintain a steady current and even thickness of metal deposit.


Bain improved I & V Telegraph 1845
The drop handle is spring-loaded to return to the mid-point
As used on the Stockton & Darlington Railway   

The I & V Telegraph
Bain created an ingeniously simple instrument in May 1843, the so-called I & V telegraph, using a single wire circuit, in direct competition with Cooke & Wheatstone. It was included as an afterthought to his patent for the chemical telegraph and its principle was to be widely used in Austria, as well as briefly in 1845 between Edinburgh and Glasgow. It was similar in appearance to the Cooke & Wheatstone single-needle telegraph, but with the needle on the dial of the “indicator” worked left (I) or right (V) by two vertical semi-circular electro-magnets, as the polarity of the current was altered by twin finger pedals or keys. The code for this device was based on numerical combinations of 1 and 5, the roman I and V.

It was described at the time as: “Mr. Bain’s single-index telegraph, which was the instrument proposed by him for practical use, consisted of two hollow cylindrical coils of wire, placed horizontally a short distance apart, with their axes in the same line. Between them a small bar magnet was fixed across a delicate spring, which in front passed through the dial-plate of the instrument, and was turned up to form an index. The two coils were connected, so that an electric current entering from the line wire would pass through both. When this was the case, the bar magnet would be attracted towards one coil, while at the same time it would be repelled by the other. These actions tended to carry the magnet to the same side, as far as the spring to which it was attached and a fixed stop would allow of its moving. The reversal of the current inverted the effects of the coils, and the magnet would then pass to the other side. The combinations of these two movements represented the various letters and signals, being denoted to the observer by the index on the dial of the instrument. The movement of the index to the left denoting the letter I, and to the right the letter V, this instrument obtained the name of ‘I and V Telegraph.’”

He simplified the I & V telegraph in his patent of 1845 by substituting a single drop-handled current-reversing commutator for the double-pedals or keys, and legally also protected the I & V code. This was the apparatus used on the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway.

Bain completed his first line of electric telegraph alongside of the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway in December 1845. It ran for forty-six miles as a single iron wire carried atop nine foot high larch poles on “porcelain knobs”, the poles set 200 feet apart. There were seven telegraph stations, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cowlairs, Kirkintilloch, Castlecary, Falkirk and Ratho, opened to the public from June 6, 1846. The circuit cost £50 a mile to construct, or in total £2,400 – including the galvanic batteries and eight Bain instruments. The apparatus was the I & V single-needle telegraph that worked two codes, one for commercial messages, the other for specialist railway traffic. On April 29, 1846 Bain used this single wire circuit to demonstrate the utility of his electric clocks, a master timepiece in Edinburgh was connected to a small companion dial over the forty-six miles and synchronised their timekeeping electrically. In December of that year he used the same two clocks for a public demonstration in Glasgow.

The I & V telegraph was also installed to manage traffic on the single-track 1,540 yard Shildon Tunnel of the Stockton & Darlington Railway. The railway agreed to pay Bain £50 to use his patent rights and for erecting wires, batteries, and so on, on August 4, 1846. They were installed in “cabins” at either end of the long tunnel. The Shildon telegraph was in use until 1868, and at least one of the two instruments still exists.

Bain Austria Code

Bain Code used with the I & V Telegraph in Austria 1850

The Bain I & V Code used on the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway was as follows: I – A; II - B; III - C; IIII - D; VI - E; VII - F; VIII - G; IVI - H; VVI - I; IVVI - L; VVII - M; VVVI - N; VIVI - O; IV - P; IIV - Q; IIIV - R; VIV - S; VV - T; IVIV - U; IVV - V; VVV - W; IVVV - X; VIVV - Y; VVIV - Z; V - (End); VIIV - (Stop); I - 1; II - 2; III - 3; IV - 4; V - 5; VI - 6; VII - 7; VIII - 8; VIV - 9; VV - 10.

On the Stockton & Darlington Railway in England there was a variant in use: I - A; II - B; III - C; IIII - D; V - E; VV - F; VVV - G; VVVV - H; IV - I; IIV - J; IIIV - K; VI - L; VII - M; VIII - N; IVI - O; IVII - P; IIVI - Q; VVI - R; IVV - S; VIV - T; VVVI - U; IVVV - V; VIVV - W; VVII - Y; VIVI - Z; IVIV - (Stop). This may have been adapted from the original I & V code over the years.

Front View
Bain Copying Telegraph 1850

An adaptation of an earlier patent, with two rotating drums worked by clockwork,
one for sending copies of writing and drawings, one for receiving.
The synchronicity of the apparatus is governed by the massive spherical
pendulum at its head.
A reaction to Bakewell's single-drum copying telegraph patent of 1848.

Side View
Bain Copying Telegraph 1850

The Copying Telegraph
It is commonly averred that Bain invented the facsimile machine; one version of his chemical telegraph of 1843 was indeed enabled to copy solid metallic type by using a swinging arm carrying an electrical feeler, scarcely something for public or even commercial use. It was Frederick Bakewell, a writer and engineer, who patented the first copying telegraph in 1848 designed to transmit hand-writing or a drawing over distance and perfected it in 1851. It has to be said in Bain’s defence that he had allowed Bakewell access to his workshops in 1847 and contemplated employing him to “prepare a full description of his electrical inventions”. However when Bain was out of the country in the spring of 1848 Bakewell patented his simple copying telegraph using a single rotating drum and a metallic feeler to send and receive messages, the original message written in varnish on foil, replaced with electrically- sensitive paper to receive, and announced it loudly in the ‘Spectator’ magazine that he edited.

Bain, as usual, gave in to one of his rages and attacked Bakewell in the press over several years, going to the trouble of making his own, extremely complex, version of a copying telegraph in 1850. This had two drums and two electrical feelers, one for sending one for receiving, all driven by clockwork and held synchronous by a massive centrifugal governor. It seems that he eventually came to some sort of business arrangement with Bakewell; he acquired a one third share of a patent the latter obtained for a soda-water making machine for £200, and they had adjacent stands showing copying telegraphs at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

It has to be added, too, that the Electric Telegraph Company, by then the owners of the Bain telegraph and clock patents, notoriously litigious in protecting its rights, did not challenge the originality of the copying principle introduced by Bakewell in 1848, and, in fact, co-operated with him. On September 22, 1848 the Company allowed Bakewell to use a single wire circuit between its office at Seymour Street in London and the “Telegraph Cottage” in Slough to try his new “small instruments”.

William Carpmael, the leading patent lawyer of the time, who was also a qualified engineer, stated to Bakewell in the summer of 1848 that “The copying of writing has never been attempted before - the field is quite open to you.”

It was Bakewell who wrote, not unreasonably, that “Mr Bain has in several instances introduced complex mechanisms for effecting the simplest purposes”; an observation with which anyone reading these pages must undoubtedly agree.

The Navigator
On December 31, 1844 Bain patented a complex process for registering the direction and distance travelled by ocean-going ships, and for remote measurement of temperature and speed, the elements all using electricity. The patent was in five parts, 1) registering the direction of a ship’s course over distance using a magnetic compass and a rotary log, 2) registering the direction of a ship’s course over distance at certain intervals of time as in 1) by the addition of a chronometer 3) printing the direction of a ship’s course and the distance travelled, 4) ascertaining the temperature in the holds of ships and 5) taking soundings at sea. In effect the “Bain Navigator” consisted of a magnetic compass, a chronometer and a speed and distance log, electrically monitored and recording data constantly on a paper disc moved by clockwork. One of Bain’s most original, creative and potentially most useful concepts, it was, sadly, never perfected.

The Navigator aside; the electric clock and telegraph business was good: during April 1845 Bain had to advertise in Glasgow for instrument makers for his Edinburgh workshops, and again at the end of December for cabinet makers to case his telegraphs and clocks.

On September 25, 1845, on December 12, 1846 and again on February 19, 1847 Bain patented additional improvements to both his clocks and telegraphs.

Perspective, Highton on Bain
Edward Highton, an early telegraph engineer, published one of the first analyses of the industry in 1850. He treats Bain’s innovations and his activities up to that year in the following manner:

“We will now pass on to the patents of Mr Alexander Bain.

“Mr Bain, in 1845, opposed the Bill of the old Electric Telegraph Company, when before Parliament. The result was a compromise between the parties, and the purchase by that Company of the patents of Mr Bain.

“The first [telegraphic] patent of Mr Bain was sealed December 21, 1841 [Patent 9,204]. This patent  relates to a telegraph applicable to locomotive engines. With regard to that part which has more immediate reference to the electric telegraph, Mr Bain proposed to have the coil moveable, and the magnet stationary; Cooke and Wheatstone's plan being the reverse of this, viz., the coil being stationary, and the magnet moveable.

“Mr Bain proposed to apply this mode of obtaining motion both to ordinary telegraphs as well as to a new form of printing telegraph. This printing telegraph was an extremely ingenious one at the time. A modification of it was afterwards at work for some time over a few miles on the South Western Railway.

“In this patent also was included a mode of insulating wires by means of bitumen.

“A second patent was taken out by Mr Bain in 1843 [Patent 9,745].

“This patent contains improvements on the foregoing plans, besides several other new arrangements, and also a plan of lowering the plates of a battery by means of clock-work mechanism and an electro-magnet, so as to keep the power employed always of the same strength.

“The patent has also inventions with respect to electric clocks, and describes as well a mode of producing copies of type by means of electro-chemical decomposition.

“The telegraph known as Bain’s I and V telegraph (so called from the particular figures which were employed in forming words and sentences) is fully described in the Specification.

“Mr Bain also, in the same Specification, describes his mode of burying in the earth a mass of copper at one terminal station, and a mass of zinc at the other, and joining, when desired, these metals by the line-wire. A current of electricity could of course flow through the wire, and this electricity was to produce the necessary signals.

“To those versed in the science of electricity, it will be evident that this arrangement was but the using of one large cell, in which the mass of copper and of zinc formed the plates, the earth the jar or cell, and the moisture in the earth the exciting liquid.

“The practical objections to this arrangement consist in the want of intensity in the electricity generated, and in the motion of a magnetic body being obtained only in one direction.

“A third patent was taken out by Mr Bain in 1845. This patent was sealed on the 25th September [Patent 10,835].

“The first part refers to suspending wires in a kind of fence railing, and also a peculiar mode of suspending wires on posts.

“Another part refers to the handle apparatus of a telegraph for transmitting currents of electricity. There is nothing new in the principle herein employed, but the mechanism differed from that in use at the time.

“There are also modes of sounding alarums, and also improvements on codes to be used with the I and V telegraph.

“Improvements are also set forth in step-by-step movement telegraphs, and in printing or dotting telegraphs. Several improvements in electric clocks are also described.

“A fourth patent was taken out by Mr Bain in 1846. This patent was sealed on the 12th of December [Patent 11,480]. The first part refers to the mode described of a one-wire chemically marking telegraph. A circular wheel, with moveable projecting pins, was employed. When the pins were pulled out as the wheel revolved, they came into contact with other spring pins, and thus caused currents of electricity to be transmitted from a battery, producing thereby corresponding chemical marks on chemically prepared paper at the distant station.

“Another plan consisted in cutting out slits of different lengths in a long strip of paper at the transmitting station, and allowing this perforated strip to pass uniformly over a metal cylinder with a pin or spring pressing on the top of the paper. Whenever, therefore, a hole in the paper passed under the pin, the pin came into metallic contact with the cylinder underneath, and allowed a current of electricity to pass through the line wire. All the holes in the paper, and their length, were therefore proportionably represented at the distant station by chemical marks of corresponding lengths on the prepared paper at that station. This form of telegraph is the quickest at present invented. It does not, however, seem suited to ordinary communications, but only to the transmission of very long documents on extraordinary occasions.

“If one person only is employed to punch holes in the paper, it is evident that, instead of making a hole in the paper, a current of electricity might as readily be sent, and a chemical mark made at the distant station, and thus the message might actually be sent in the same time as that required for cutting the paper. But this remark applies only to the case where there is but one attendant for a wire. If a number of men be employed at each station, then, by dividing the message into parts, and each man punching out his part, the whole paper can be perforated in less time than one man could send the message. On uniting this perforated paper, and applying it to a machine, and on turning the cylinder round, corresponding chemical marks may be made at a distant station with very great rapidity. The commercial question is therefore, where ordinary communications are alone required, one of large working expenses versus a rather larger outlay of capital in the first instance. The plan proposed, however, is most ingenious, and the instrument will form a good adjunct to the other instruments at very important stations.

“This same patent also includes a form of telegraph post. This is composed of four thin slabs of timber fastened together in the manner of a box, the interior being hollow. The author is not aware that this plan of post has ever been adopted.

“Owing to the fact that no publication of the Specifications of these patents has yet been made, the author is unable to give drawings of the same, or to refer more fully thereto. These telegraphs show very great ingenuity in their various parts, as also in the mechanical details employed.”

Highton in his chronology misses out some of Bain’s other patents, including those for the electric clock and its improvements, but makes the important point in culmination that Bain avoided publishing the details of many of his ideas until they were proven to work, which they often did not. The sheer volume of Bain’s ideas at this time is remarkable, particularly as he chose to work entirely alone in developing them.

Bain Motor
Bain Electric Motor
A Bain design model, an iron "bit" on a central rod is alternately attracted by
two pairs of electro-magnets to work a crank shaft

Bitter Revilings
Early in 1842 Bain had acquired a patron, John Finlaison, of Alghers House, Loughton, Essex, who had seen his clocks at the Polytechnic. Finlaison was a man of some wealth, eminent in the insurance industry, Actuary of the National Debt and Government Calculator. The association initially came about from their common origin in the north of Scotland. Finlaison was generous, providing Bain with funds, assistance in publicising his devices and allowing the grounds of his house in Essex to be used for experiments. Bain was also to meet Matilda Bowie, the widowed sister of Finlaison’s wife, at Loughton and was to marry her in 1844, adopting also her six year old daughter.

Finlaison was sufficiently impressed with Bain’s work to loan him £3,000 in 1846 to complete his principal telegraphic work, the circuit between Edinburgh and Glasgow. This was used to demonstrate both his I & V telegraph and the transmission of time using his electric clock. He also paid to have a large electric clock installed in the new Church of St John the Baptist, in Church Lane, Loughton in 1848. It proved unreliable and was replaced in 1850, by which time John Finlaison had moved to Lower Mead, Richmond-upon-Thames, Surrey and Bain was in America.

It was John Finlaison’s substantial, even lavish pamphlet of 1843 giving a partial view of Bain’s dispute with Charles Wheatstone over the electric clock that has affected all subsequent views of the inventor’s grievances. Although Wheatstone chose to ignore “the bitter revilings” contained in the paper, others at the time were more forthcoming with their opinions. C V Walker, the electrician of the South Eastern Railway, wrote in ‘The Electrical Magazine’ of October 1843, “We are quite sure that the great want of courtesy displayed in every page of Mr Finlaison’s work will induce many to close the volume without doing justice to the young man, in whose behalf it is penned. The author has been ‘zealous overmuch;’ in his ardour to maintain the rights of his fellow-townsman, he has outstripped his better self, and has so interwoven the plain statement of the case with sarcasm and ‘railing accusation.’”

The relationship between Finlaison and Bain does not seem to have survived beyond 1850.

Bain Wimbledon

Bain Electric Printing Telegraph 1844
The trial mechanical instrument at Nine Elms railway station in May 1844.
The double electro-magnet at the head, the dial with a constantly rotating hand
below, the rising printing cylinder and the tubular mercury key to the left.
The two weights power the rotation of the dial and the printer

Biter Bit
Bain was to construct an experimental circuit alongside the London & South Western Railway in April 1844, in competition with Cooke & Wheatstone. This was the route of a planned telegraph for the Admiralty from London to the naval port of Portsmouth. Rather than his new, untried chemical telegraph he installed two mechanical printers on a trial line between Nine Elms and Wimbledon in London, a distance of nine miles.

This telegraph was, according to Alexander Bain, demonstrated “before the Lords of the Admiralty and several hundred visitors”. This was his first great opportunity to enter the new market for electrical communication; the first long line of electric telegraph to be built in Britain. It would show to the government and, more importantly, to the railway companies which had access to all the cities and town of Britain, that his apparatus had the potential to work effectively over long distance. Bain got it all wrong.

Bain’s electric printing telegraph was a small but complex machine mounted on a tall table. The two instruments were precisely similar, connected by a single copper wire in a thin layer of asphalt. At Nine Elms, imbedded in the earth, and attached to the apparatus by a copper wire was a plate of copper one foot square; and, at Wimbledon, a plate of zinc, also one foot square, these, which with the action of the earth’s moisture, formed a natural or telluric battery.

They were mechanical telegraphs, each containing two clockwork mechanisms, one to propel the message function, the other the printing function, worked by two large weights; “electricity being employed merely as the agent of setting the apparatus in motion and stopping it at the points required”.

The Control Dial of Bain’s Electric Printing Telegraph
It rotated continuously until stopped by a tubular mercury switch or key
Only twelve numbers or figures were indicated

Communication was undertaken by freeing the hand on the dial and allowing it to rotate, simultaneously with a separate print-wheel, by the first clockwork, the speed and action controlled by centrifugal governors. When the hand reached the appropriate figure or number on the dial the operator pressed down on a tubular mercury-filled switch to complete the electric circuit and stop the rotation. The stopping and collapse of the centrifugal governor triggered the second clockwork, propelling the print mechanism, to press the still print wheel against a vertical cylinder carrying the paper, through a double ink ribbon. Once the mark was made the print mechanism rotated the cylinder one character and moved fractionally upwards on a spiral shaft.

Bain Printhead

Left: The rotating print head and rising printing cylinder of Bain’s electric printing telegraph 1844

The message was read at both instruments on the dial and was printed spirally around the rising cylinder. Twelve figures or numbers were used for signalling, not the roman alphabet. For special messages a slip of paper could be inserted between the pair of ink ribbons to make an additional, removable copy. A spiral metallic rod alarm or sounder was also included to warn of a message, “much the same as is used in clocks on the Continent..., producing a sound as distinct as a bell, but of a much more mellow and musical note.”

“Such is its velocity, that when this telegraph shall be laid down the entire line, the time occupied in the transit of a message, from Nine Elms to Portsmouth, and receiving the answer in town, will not exceed two minutes and a quarter.”

The extreme complexity of the clockwork-driven electric printing telegraph, the frailty of its line-side circuit and the unreliability of the telluric or earth battery, militated against its adoption. Cooke & Wheatstone won, and completed the very first long line of electric telegraph in Britain between London and Portsmouth on February 1, 1845 using their two-needle system.

Bain Chemical Telegraph 1848
The original version used by the Electric Telegraph Company
A simple clockwork tape receiver with a metal style on a metal wheel, top,
and an even simpler “finger pedal” sender at right

Bought Out
The Bain chemical telegraph was purchased by the Electric Telegraph Company in Britain by an agreement dated June 8, 1846, and used between 1848 and 1862 on its longest and busiest circuits, and for the intense traffic between its West End office in the Strand and its Central Station at Founders’ Court. He improved this apparatus during 1848 to create the fast telegraph - where the ‘finger pedal’ was replaced by a small manual hole-punch and strips of paper that were fed into a rotary transmitter. The Company also used his ‘Bain code’ in these circuits, and bought his clock patent, intending to manufacture them in Edinburgh for sale throughout Britain.

Latterly the crude small hole-punch worked by a rubber hammer was replaced by two machines. In the first, “two handles are fixed to levers with which circular punches are connected; the levers, by a ratchet and pawl, feed the tape from a reel through the instrument. The lever on the right actuates the feed motion without punching, so giving spaces between letters and words; the combinations of circular perforations give the code”. A later punch, designed by Latimer Clark of the Electric Telegraph Company and made by Meinrad Theiler in 1855, had three levers: one for moving the tape, one for punching dots and one for punching dashes for the “European Alphabet”.

Bain received 150 shares in the Electric Telegraph Company, taken as fully paid-up, with a nominal value of £3,750 on July 1, 1847. He had disposed of them all by December 1848.

Bain had previously licensed, for a handsome fee, the entire French rights for the chemical telegraph to William Boggett, a button manufacturer, of 50 St Martin’s Lane, Charing Cross, an electrical dilettante who corresponded with Michael Faraday. It was tried over ever longer distances and at remarkable speeds but was not adopted in France.

Although it was extremely sensitive, requiring relatively little galvanic energy in its circuits, the chief disadvantage of the chemical telegraph was the need for the marking paper to be kept damp in use, which made it frail and malodorous. It was also vulnerable to disruption by ‘atmospheric electricity’. When used in America Bain’s chemical-paper rolls were replaced by more durable flat disks of treated paper on a metal plate, twenty-inches in diameter, rotated by a clockwork-driven roller, and the receiving wire caused to move spirally across the disk on a metal arm from a central spindle in the manner of a gramophone needle.

Bain Alphabet

Bain Alphabet or Telegraph Code 1848
Used  with the chemical  telegraph in Britain and  Europe

The Bain telegraph was used in the Electric’s domestic circuits until replaced by the American telegraph in 1862 and later by Charles Wheatstone’s automatic telegraph. Both of these substituted more stable electro-magnetic ‘writers’ using ink on a plain-paper tape for chemical elements.

The Electric Telegraph Company paid Bain £7,500 for his initial clock and telegraph patents in Britain and allowed him £2,500 contingent on his services to the firm in 1846. He became a director of the Company for a short while. When he patented the fast telegraph in 1848 the Company purchased the rights for Britain for £13,250, half in cash, half in shares. Bain was also scrupulous in simultaneously patenting his clock and telegraphs throughout Europe and America.

The Electric Telegraph Company formed a separate Clock Department under Bain’s management and initially displayed his electric clocks at their show- and news-rooms at 142 Strand, opposite their first chief office at 345 Strand. They retained Bain’s clock manufactory at 11 Hanover Street, Edinburgh until 1848 when it was closed and the work contracted out to William Reid in London. In April 1847 the manufactory was developing an electric chronometer, to keep perfect time at sea, using salt water to produce a continuous source of galvanic energy.

The electric clocks were extremely expensive, selling for £16 16s for ‘master’ time- pieces and £10 10s for each ‘companion’ dial. Running costs were high, too: 1d a week using a single small Smee zinc-silver cell, which lasted just fourteen days. Despite this several hundred were made between 1845 and 1848, and serially numbered; they were marked on the dial “Electric Telegraph Compy. No. XXX. A. Bain Invenit.”

During 1847 there was a major effort to publicise the electric clocks. In February, the parish church in Leeds in Yorkshire installed one in its tower, followed by another at Great Wenham in Suffolk in April. The latter had two dials each four feet in diameter and was still going well, according to the Ipswich newspapers, in the autumn. In August the Electric Telegraph Company installed one in the window of the offices of the ‘Manchester Times’ and was rewarded amply with column inches of publicity. The Exchange in Manchester also possessed an electric clock in 1847, which the other newspapers diligently covered in their columns. The Company promoted them as “the Electric Clock with Perpetual Motion”, as it relied on a telluric or earth battery buried deep in the ground; adding “there is not a single spring in this clock”.

The Electric company had severe financial problems in the late 1840s and was unable to proceed with the marketing of electric clocks. It is likely that Bain was disillusioned with this; but he had also failed to use his period with the Electric to build any peer relationships. The company’s engineers, rather than Bain, had to adapt the fast telegraph into an effective device.

He proved resentful of the company’s lack of resource in promoting the clocks and was to oppose their interests subsequently in public and in law.

Whatever his other business commitments were in that hectic period Bain found time to devise a “musical instrument”. It was actually a musical box with a pneumatic source modulated by holes in a tape, obviously based on the tape transmitter of his chemical telegraph, which he patented on October 7, 1847.

Bain Austria 1848

The Austrian Bain I & V Telegraph System 1846
An adaptation of the principles used on the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway
to make both an acoustic and an indicating instrument.
It used double pedals or keys to move the needle / hammer left or right

The Hofkammer or Privy Council of the Imperial Royal Austrian government appointed a technical commission to examine electric telegraphy in 1845. It was led by Hofrat or Privy Councillor Andreas Baumgartner who had wide experience in business as a director of the state porcelain works, the factories of the tobacco monopoly, and of the Kaiser Ferdinand Nordbahn, Austria’s first railway. One member of the commission visited France and another, Baumgartner, went to Britain to review telegraphic progress.

Baumgartner was to visit, among other sites of interest, the telegraph installed on the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway, which worked Alexander Bain’s novel I & V single-needle telegraph with a single overhead wire. After comparing his report on the I & V telegraph with other British, French and German systems the Austrian technical commission agreed to adopt Bain’s principles for their national network.

Alexander Bain is uncharacteristically reticent in regard to Austrian adoption of the I & V telegraph in 1846. It appears that the commission bought the patent right for the instrument’s principles and implemented its use and development without further consultation. There is no evidence that Bain visited Austria.

However subsequent history shows that the I & V telegraph had considerable utility and its extension was only brought up short by the need to standardise on a single system in the German-speaking world rather than by any technical deficiency.

A short experimental Bain line was laid by the rails of the Nordbahn on the section between Vienna and Floridsdorf in 1845 to demonstrate the new system. It was to be extended to the rest of its network in the following years, which connected Vienna with Brünn for Prague, and Oderberg for Prussian Silesia and Russia.

On January 16, 1847 a decree of the Privy Council created the kaiser königlichen Staats-Telegraph or Imperial Royal State Telegraph as a monopoly of the government. It adopted Bain’s apparatus as the basis of its system.

Although based on Alexander Bain’s principles, using his rotating double-horseshoe armature, the Austrian Technical Commission created a unique pattern of telegraph and adopted it as their own. Instead of vertical needles the Austrian telegraph ‘Indicator’ had a horizontal needle that also struck two bells of differing tones. The ‘Communicator’ was a pair of wooden finger pedals or keys, with brass counter- weights rather than springs to operate the current-reversing levers. It retained the Bain I & V code, with 16 alphabetic letters and 10 numeric letters, and could transmit 30 letters a minute, about the same as the German dial telegraphs, but much less than the 100 letters a minute by the recently introduced American telegraphs used between Hamburg and Cuxhaven. To compensate for this apparent slowness the simple Alphabetic Signals were supplemented by Code Signals using a phrase book.

Bain I & V Alphabet
Austria 1846

                                            A             = 12                         1 = 11
                                            C or Z     = 21                        2 = 15
                                            I or Y     = 16                        3 = 51
                                            O             = 61                         4 = 55
                                            U or W  = 25                         5 = 12
                                            B or P    = 22                         6 = 21
                                            V or X    = 26                        7 = 16
                                            D or T    = 52                         8 = 61
                                            F or V    = 56                         9 = 25
                                            G or K    = 65                         0 = 52
                                            H or CH = 15
                                            L             = 62
                                            M            = 66
                                            N             = 11
                                            R             = 51
                                            S              = 55

Formed from combinations of numbers 1 and 5 (I and V) on the receiver.
As used by the k.k. Staatstelegraph, taking into account letter usage
in the German language

The initial Austrian Bain instruments were made by Johann Michael Ekling in Vienna, and later by the k.k. Telegraphenwerkstätte Wein, the Imperial Royal Telegraph Workshops Vienna. Each apparatus comprised two communicators or receivers, one double key, one Steinheil galvanic alarm, one electro-magnet, one resistance, and one box with a worktop, holding a battery in the base. The whole set cost 97.20 florins, a little less than £10. They were worked with eight Smee silver-zinc cells on short lines, and up to 24 Smee cells on the longest lines, these also originating in Britain.

The line wire was of copper, one Viennese “line” (2.4 mm) in gauge, supported on wooden poles between 9 and 14 Viennese feet high, and 80 Viennese feet apart (1 Viennese foot = 31.61 cm), topped with small zinc-metal “roofs” to deflect rain. The pottery insulators were of a novel semi-circular pattern with a hole for the line wire, made by the k.k. Porzellanfabrik in Vienna, stapled to each side of the pole, much like W F Cooke’s first ceramic insulator. 

There were four Bain circuits built in Austria for the k.k. Staatstelegraph: the Northern line from Vienna to Prague, by way of Prerau and Olmütz, (164 km), and the alternate Vienna to Prague route via Lundenburg and Brünn (150 km); the Eastern line from Vienna to Pressburg (11 km); and the exceptionally long and difficult Southern line from Vienna to the port of Trieste on the Adriatic coast (954 km). A planned Western line running from Vienna to Linz and Salzburg in 1849 was not built as a Bain circuit.

By 1849 the k.k. Staatstelegraph worked 1,667 km of Bain line, with 23 stations employing 94 “manipulators” and 55 line-men.

Although the Austrian Bain system was abandoned by the k.k. Staatstelegraph with the adherence of Vienna to the German-Austrian Telegraph Union in 1850 which standardised on the American telegraph, the Kaiser Ferdinand Nordbahn retained it in service on its railway network to Silesia and Russia until 1886.

The writer thanks Prof Franz Pichler of the Johannes Kepler University, Linz, Austria, for introducing him to his works ‘Elektrisches Schreiben in die Ferne’, and ‘Telegraphen-Apparate’ on which this section is based.

Bain Printer 1855

Bain Chemical Printer 1855
A late model of Bain's receiver with a water tray to damp the chemically-
impregnated paper tape, making it receptive to electrical marking

It was in May 1848 that Bain made his first “flying visit” to America, staying a few weeks to commence his claim for a United States patent. He returned to New York in late August 1848 by the Cunard steamer Cambria from Liverpool, intending to proceed immediately to Washington to complete the patent negotiations. His arrival was enthusiastically reported by the ‘Scientific American’ magazine, anticipating a competitor to the overweening Morse Syndicate.

A mammoth battle then commenced in the courts, where the Morse Syndicate used its financial influence to affect the law officers and the patent office in its favour. It took many years to secure Bain’s patent right for the chemical telegraph.

Bain left England after commuting his payment from the Electric Telegraph Company, receiving instead the residual rights to the electric clock patent and the chemical telegraph rights for British North America. The Company also lent him £1,000 at 4% interest. On his arrival he licensed his American patent for the chemical telegraph to Henry Rogers & Company of Baltimore, Maryland, to be used in a 250 mile line between New York and Washington, by way of Philadelphia and Baltimore, challenging the Morse Syndicate over that route. Shortly after Bain entered into another licensing agreement with Henry O’Rielly, who had been previously a Morse licensee, who undertook to make 800 miles of telegraph line a year working his patents. Bain was to receive $30 per mile and 25% of the paid-up stock of these new main lines, and 10% of the stock for all branch circuits. O’Rielly constructed six Bain lines; 1] from Boston to New York; 2] from Buffalo to New York; 3] from Boston to Portland, Maine; 4] from Boston to Burlington in Vermont; 5] from Louisville, Kentucky, to New Orleans, Louisiana; and 6] minor lines in Massachusetts and Vermont.

Henry O’Rielly was to be driven into bankruptcy by the Morse Syndicate in 1851 and his interest in the Bain patents and his 2,000 miles of line in the United States passed to Marshall Lefferts. Not long after this, with Bain back in England, Lefferts came to an agreement with the Syndicate to merge their competing interests.

Bain Chemical Telegraph 1848
The first version demonstrated in the United States
Clockwork-driven receiving and recording drums covered in sensitive paper
in the box and a rotary transmitter using tape at the front

Bain initially took rooms at 128 Broadway, New York, the office of his lawyer W H Allen, where he displayed his electric clocks and the chemical telegraph. The version of the latter he presented in October 1848 was quite different from his British version: it had a rotary sender using punched paper tape attached to a box which held two metallic receiving drums covered with chemically sensitive paper propelled by clockwork. A fine metallic feeler rested on each drum to create the circuit, one of which recorded the sent message, the other received messages. The messages were “written” spirally around the drum as the sender was cranked by hand. It was demonstrated as sending 1,200 letters a minute.

This elaborate device was replaced in actual service by a simple on-off finger pedal or key for transmitting and a flat rotating circular plate with the electric feeler on a swivelling arm to “write” or receive the novel Bain Code of dots and dashes helically on a damp paper disk. The receiver was propelled by clockwork. The alarm used was electro-magnetic with a glass sounder.

By 1850 there were 2,012 miles of electric telegraph in the United States worked under Bain's patents.

During October 1848 ‘Scientific American’ lauded Alexander Bain as “the first electrical engineer in the World”. The reaction of S F B Morse to this accolade is not recorded.

Bain Chemical Telegraph 1850
This wrote Bain Code spirally on to a damp paper disk.
On the unusually ornamental table are, from the left, the receiving disk
and writing arm, the large clockwork mechanism to turn the disk,
the sending "pedal" or press-key to the front, and Bain’s
glass-plate alarm on the right.
This is the commonest of Bain's telegraphs; widely used in the
United States from 1850 to 1868

In 1850 Bain had returned to Europe; on February 23 he was a witness for the defendant in London in a patent case prosecuted by his former employers and benefactors, the Electric Telegraph Company. His elaborate, hostile testimony lasted four hours and required the use of models and drawings.

During May 1850 Bain presented a new automatic telegraph to la Société d’encouragement pour l’industrie nationale in Paris, France. This comprised, as with his fast telegraph, a small punch making long and short holes in a long paper tape which was rolled on to a wooden cylinder. The second component was a sending apparatus that fed, by means of a hand crank, the punched paper between four metallic feelers and a metallic cylinder creating a circuit. The final part, a clockwork- driven receiver, had a rotating metallic disk covered with a circular sheet of chemically-damped paper. A screw carrying an electrical feeler spanned the radius of the disk, as the disk rotated, “turning with great quickness”, so the screw moved the feeler which lay on the damp paper from its rim to its axis writing a spiral of long and short dashes. When the apparatus was tested by the assembled scientists it chemically printed 1,200 ‘letters’ in forty-five seconds.

Subsequently this Bain automatic telegraph was given a more robust trial on the circuit between Paris and Lyons. The two wires of this line were joined at Lyons creating a 336 mile circuit back to Paris, to which were added wire coils to extend the length to 1,082 miles. A message of 282 words was then transmitted and received on the adjacent disk in fifty-two seconds.

Despite this success the French selected the American telegraph in place of their Breguet needle apparatus.

Bain Band Telegraph 1852

Bain "Band" Telegraph 1852
The transmitting finger-pedal at right, the receiver a moving cloth fringe
that the current shifted behind or in front of a long plate

What was almost Bain’s last telegraph patent in England was granted on May 29, 1852 for further “Improvements in Electric Telegraphs”. In this the sender was the common on-off “finger pedal”; the receiver was a unique contrivance that used an endless narrow cloth band several feet in length with a loose hanging fringe, moved horizontally by clockwork. The current was used to deflect the fringe either side of a long plate that paralleled the endless band; by this means the clerk could read the message as it travelled along the plate from whether the fringe was in front or behind it.

Bain American Key

Bain "Finger pedal" or Key
Copied from an American model, it appears in most of his later British patents

Living Large
Alexander Bain, inventor, had a stand in the galleries of the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition of 1851. He exhibited according to the descriptions in the catalogue:

Patent electric clocks, suitable for halls of mansions, offices, steeples, &c., kept in action by a small galvanic battery, or the electricity of the earth
Time-ball, to be discharged by electricity sent by an ordinary regulator clock
Pair of electro-chemical telegraphs, stated to be capable of transmitting and recording communications at the rate of 1,000 letters, or even 1,000 words, per minute
Patent electro-chemical copying telegraph, said to be capable of copying any figure, such as profiles, autographs, stenography, &c.
Patent electric telegraph for printing all the letters of the alphabet in the roman character.

Bain Electro-Chemical Telegraph 1850
The clockwork disk recorder now with a fixed writing arm, left, married
with a manual rotary sender using punched tape, right.
After being demonstrated in France it was shown at the Great Exhibition
in London during 1851

The Great Exhibition occupied much of Bain’s time and energy during 1851, in preparation for the event and in attending the display stand between May 1 and October 15. The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park proved not to be the best venue to show his electric clocks, movement of insubstantial floor boards of the galleries caused their pendulums to quiver. The ‘Morning Chronicle’ reported that of the four he displayed on the first Wednesday, two had stopped by Saturday, and the other two “varied by some minutes” for this reason.

When Alexander Bain returned to London in 1850, he was, apparently, comfortably off, living with his wife, Matilda, in a large house in Hammersmith, a small, smart suburb of London, on the river Thames, with five servants and a teacher for their six children. One of his neighbours there was Charles Wheatstone. His chemical telegraph patent in America was validated, despite the attacks of the Morse Syndicate; over two thousand miles of circuits had been built using his rights. At this time Bain still possessed valid, and possibly valuable, patents in British North America, France, Belgium and Austria for the chemical telegraph; in England for a musical instrument and for the electric ship’s log; and in France for the electric clock. Bain also claimed to possess 100 shares in the Mississippi & Illinois Telegraph Company, 1,354 shares in the People’s Telegraph Line (Louisville to New Orleans), 100 shares in the Ohio, Indiana & Illinois Telegraph Company, 225 shares in the Vermont & Boston Telegraph Company and 71 shares in the New York State Telegraph Company; all of some value in America.

Previously, in 1848, the Electric Telegraph Company had returned his patent rights to the electric clock, all their stock and the implements for their manufacture. Bain had neglected his “first child” for the telegraph, now with the pressure of the Great Exhibition past he took up electric timekeeping once gain and, on April 30, 1852 he opened a fine shop, with showrooms and manufactory, at 43 Old Bond Street, Mayfair, London, large premises lately occupied by Henry and William Powell, coach-builders, four doors from Piccadilly, to retail his clocks. It was, interestingly, just a few minutes’ walk from Wheatstone Brothers, musical instrument makers, at 20 Conduit Street, Mayfair.

However, all was not what it seemed. Henry Fletcher, a bookseller, had advertised in the London newspapers in October 1851 that he had money to invest in a new business. Bain borrowed £1,000 from Fletcher, his life savings, offering 5% interest and a salary of £250 a year to be his Manager. Andrew Bonar, an Edinburgh merchant of some means living in London, was also induced to advance Bain £1,770 at 5% and £300 a year “for his influence in favour of ‘the clocks’” in 1852.

A handsome illustrated pamphlet, ‘A Short History of the Electric Clocks’ was published by Chapman & Hall in concert with the new venture. The author was Alexander Bain, “the Patentee.” Advertisements announcing the opening of the showroom were taken in the London papers, ‘The Times’, the ‘Daily News’ and the ‘Morning Chronicle’.

Bain electric clocks 1852
Powered by a telluric or earth battery, the one on the left a master clock
driving several small companion pieces

Bain Advert May 1852

Advertisement in the Daily News, May 21, 1852
Click on image for larger version, click on Previous Page to resume

Bain electric companion clocks 1852
A selection of small electric clocks that Bain sold from his short-lived Bond Street
shop, each one precisely synchronised with a tall master clock

Utterly Reckless
On December 3, 1852 Alexander Bain, electric clock maker, was declared bankrupt, owing £12,422 to unsecured creditors with just £932 in assets.

When his accounts were examined, they ran only from January 1, 1852 until December 3, 1852, and eventually balanced it was revealed that in January 1852 Bain was already £4,393 in debt, and was relying entirely on credit for his existence. He claimed as assets the residual rights to his several patents in Europe, £16,300, and property in America, comprising clocks and telegraph models, half of the chemical patent right and stock in telegraph companies, £22,350. Even before he left for America in 1848 the money he received from the Electric Telegraph Company in 1846 for the British rights to the chemical telegraph, £10,000, had all gone – mainly to pay his legal and parliamentary costs in fighting the same company.  The values put on the European rights and American assets were illusory. In the weeks previous Bain had despatched his solicitor to New York in an attempt to redeem his assets there; he came away with nothing. Marshall Lefferts had already sold his controlling interest in the rights to the Morse Syndicate rendering Bain’s portion, claimed as half, worthless.

The trading accounts of the shop were disastrous. Cash sales in 1852 were £1,200, profit was £70. Bain’s expenses included £599 for his house, £520 for law costs, £347 for staff wages, and £206 for interest on loans. The sums borrowed exceeded £4,200. Bain had been lavish with other people’s money.

The few timepieces sold at the shop were marked on the silvered dial “Alexr Bain’s Patent Electric Clock”.

In addition to these woes the very short-lived Electric Time Company intended to promote a Bill for an Act of Parliament to acquire the residue of Bain’s clock patent and to manufacture his timepieces. The Bill authorised its provision of timepieces and its charging for supplying time by electricity, as well as powers to open up roads, streets and highways in England and Wales for its time circuits. The Bill was deposited on November 1, 1852, but then almost immediately abandoned. Apart from Bain it is not known who the promoters were. The Time company failed miserably, not making a single electric clock and leaving Bain with liabilities of £4,364.

The bankruptcy court pointedly observed that his borrowings of Fletcher, who was reduced to penury, and Bonar had funded a substantial lifestyle rather than improving the clock business. It also catalogued his previous, and equally unfortunate, financial backers, Barwise, Wright, Boggett and Finlaison.

He appeared before the court on December 16, 1852 and several times during the spring of 1853. There were three classes of bankruptcy certificate, the first was granted almost immediately if it came about through unavoidable losses or misfortunes; the third if there were wilful or criminal intent, and was a “stigma for life”; Bain fell into the second class, between the two, although described as “utterly reckless as to the consequences” of his borrowing in mitigation he had given up all he had, his shares and his patents, to his creditors, and there was no fraud or preference in his accounting. He was given a year in April 1853 to co-operate and settle with his deeply suspicious creditors with an allowance of £3 a week from the estate. Bain was finally discharged from bankruptcy on May 11, 1854. Two dividends were eventually paid, 8d in the pound on June 28, 1853, and 11/12d (0.91d) in the pound on December 6, 1859, 3¾ % in all.

His large family were compelled to move from the house by the river Thames at Hammersmith to Westbourne Park Road in slightly less congenial Paddington in 1853. Their story after 1856 is vague, however on August 14 of that year Matilda Bain died at the house of John Finlaison, her elderly brother-in-law and Bain’s former patron, in Richmond, Surrey. What happened subsequently does not reflect well on Alexander Bain. It is not known who cared for their six children between 1856 and 1860, but when Bain left again for America the children, ranging in age between fifteen years and ten, were divided. At least one was lodged in the British Orphan Asylum in Clapham during 1861 and died in 1865. With the exception of one daughter, a teacher in India, the others vanish from history; none were part of Alexander Bain’s later life.

America Again
In the years immediately after the dissolution of his family Bain made his home and worked in a great many places about London; Brompton in mid-1856, Fetter Lane, Holborn, in 1857 and Rahere Street, Goswell Road, Clerkenwell, from 1857 until 1860.

Ending up alone in the instrument-making district of Clerkenwell Bain tinkered with odd, non-telegraphic contrivances, including gas-meters and hydraulics, as well as pencil cases and his old sideline, ink-stands, which he, surprisingly, found the money, or finance, to patent. None of these patents saw out their full life of fourteen years, virtually all became void through the failure to pay the annual fees after a couple of years.

Tiring of this existence Bain then set off once again for America where his name still held celebrity, arriving in New York from Liverpool on September 27, 1860 on the Cunard liner Persia.

Bain Dial

Bain Dial Telegraph 1863
His last telegraph, an eight-inch diameter, four-inch high brass-body,
with finger-holes to rotate an outer disk,
the inner index or needle moved in sympathy.
Similar to one devised by W F Cooke in 1840

Whilst in New York Bain developed, among other things, a new compact, galvanic dial telegraph in 1863 that worked with a pierced rotating dial much like that on the later mechanical telephone. Samples were made and it would, almost certainly, have been successful in Britain where private wire telegraphy was becoming popular, but its technology was too sophisticated for America. Still inventive, he also patented an “earphone” to listen to acoustic telegraph messages in confidence, an improved telegraphic key, an alarm or call to be used with the telegraph sounder, and an extraordinarily elaborate machine for perforating message tapes. Most of these inventions were patented in concert with the New York lawyer W H Allen, the last of his many foolhardy patrons. After all these proved unworkable Bain eventually turned to plumbing for a living before deciding to return home.

Alexander Bain’s career can be traced through his addresses in the Census. In 1841 he was lodging with William Williams, fishmonger, 35 Wigmore Street, London, no occupation given, but known to be working as an instrument-maker, or, as the patent documents would have it, “a mechanist”. By 1851 he had married and his wife and six children were living in some style at Beevor (or Beaver) Lodge, Hammersmith. He styled himself, then abroad, as a ‘gentleman’. In 1861 he was resident in New York. Then in 1871, age 60, Bain was once again a lodger, and a widower, at Connop’s Coffee House, 294 Oxford Street, London, as a humble machinist, sharing his accommodation with a letter-carrier, a seaman, a tutor and a domestic servant.

Bain returned to Britain in 1866 and tried to market his automatic chemical telegraph of 1850 for high speed messaging in London once more, now adapted to have clockwork motion for both sending and receiving. Unsuccessful yet again, he withdrew to Scotland as a journeyman instrument-maker.

Alexander Bain died in 1877 whilst living in a “home for incurables”, depending on a pension organised through the charity of former employees of the telegraph companies, having sadly lost all of the opportunities that his electric clock, his chemical telegraph and his I & V telegraph had offered.

It is ironic, given his fatal weakness, that the largest memorial to Alexander Bain is a drinking house in Wick, Caithness.

Alexander Bain’s British Patents

This is a complete list of all of Bain’s twenty-one patent titles:

1.] Patent 8,783, January 11, 1841 (with John Barwise), Application of moving power to clocks and timepieces
2.] Patent 8,996, June 6, 1841 (with Joseph Gauci), Inkstands and ink-holders
3.] Patent 9,204, April 21, 1842 (with Thomas Wright), Application of electricity to control railway engines, mark time, give signals and print intelligence at distant places
4] Patent 9,745, May 27, 1843, Production and regulation of electric currents, electric timepieces and electric printing and signal telegraphs
5.] Patent 10,540, December 31, 1844, Apparatus for ascertaining and regulating the progress and direction of ships, for ascertaining the temperature of holds and for taking soundings at sea
6.] Patent 10,838, September 25, 1845, Electric clocks and electric telegraphs
7.] Patent 11,480, December 12, 1846, Transmitting and receiving electric telegraphic communications, and apparatus connected therewith
8.] Patent 11,584, February 19, 1847, Timekeepers and clocks, and apparatus connected therewith
9.] Patent 11,886, October 10, 1847, Musical instruments and means of playing on musical instruments
10.] Patent 14,146, May 29, 1852, Electric telegraphs and electric clocks and timekeepers, apparatus connected therewith
11.] Patent 2,709, November 22, 1853, Cases for holding cards
12.] Patent 2,806, December 2, 1853, Apparatus for damping paper and other substances, in order to prepare the same for the reception of labels, stamps and other like articles coated with a gummy or adhesive matter
13.] Patent 1,881, August 20, 1855, Apparatus for distributing liquids
14.] Patent 2,509, November 7, 1855 (with William Lord), Pencil cases
15.] Patent 89, January 12, 1856, Construction of inkstands
16.] Patent 1,747, July 23, 1856 (with B J Heywood), Improved apparatus for supplying or drawing-off  liquids, and for stopping the flow of liquids and “æriform” bodies
17.] Patent 2,923, November 21, 1857 (with Thomas Glover), Electric telegraphs
18.] Patent 1,434, June 14, 1859 (with Joseph Wansbrough), Effecting communications between parts of railway carriages
19.] Patent 1,101, May 2, 1860, Means of obtaining copies of letters and other writings or documents
20.] Patent 1,718, July 16, 1860, Means, apparatus or articles for holding and supplying ink,
21.] Patent 1,933, August 3, 1864, Improved apparatus for drawing off liquids

Alexander Bain’s US Patents

This is believed to be a complete list:

1.] Patent 5,967, December 5, 1848, Improvement in copying surfaces by electricity (copying telegraph)
2.] Patent 6,328, April 17, 1849, Improvement in electric telegraph (chemical telegraph)
3.] Patent 6,837, October 30, 1849, (with Robert Smith), Improvement in electro-chemical telegraph
4.] Patent 7,406, May 28, 1850 (with G Westbrook and Henry Rogers), Improvement in electro-chemical telegraph (disk receiver)
5.] Patent 32,854, July 23, 1861, Improvement in telegraphs (electro-acoustic telegraph or earpiece)
6.] Patent 37,997, March 24, 1863 (with W H Allen), Improvement in electric telegraphs (galvanic dial telegraph)
7.] Patent 38,530, May 13, 1863 (with W H Allen), Improvement in keys for electric telegraphs (silent key)
8.] Patent 38,929, May 12, 1863 (with W H Allen), Improved call for telegraphs (alarm)
9.] Patent 43,618, July 19, 1864 (with W H Allen), Improvement in machines for punching paper for telegraphic purposes
10.] Patent 45,012 (with W H Allen), November 15, 1864, Improvement in faucets (a tap)
11.] Patent 45,013, November 15, 1864 (with W H Allen), Improvement in apparatus for drawing liquids (a flexible tube)

Telegraph, from the Greek “tele”, distant, and “graphos”, writing

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