Birthday: February 6, 1802
Died At Age: 73
Sun Sign: Aquarius
Also Known As: Sir Charles Wheatstone
Born Country: England
Born in: Barnwood, Gloucestershire, England, United Kingdom
Famous as: Scientist
Spouse/Ex-: Emma West (m. 1847)
children: Arthur William Frederick Wheatstone, Catharine Ada, Charles Pablo Wheatstone, Florence Caroline Turle
Died on: October 19, 1875
place of death: Paris, France
discoveries/inventions: Playfair Cipher, Concertina, Stereoscopy, Stereoscope
awards: Fellow of the Royal Society
Order of Merit for Arts and Science
Pour le Mérite
Who was Charles Wheatstone?
Charles Wheatstone was an English scientist and inventor who had achieved several scientific breakthroughs in the field of optics, acoustics, electricity and telegraphy. While he is widely known for the Wheatstone bridge used to measure an unknown electrical resistance, it was originally invented by Samuel Hunter Christie. He is also well-known for collaborating with fellow English inventor William Fothergill Cooke on the Cooke-Wheatstone electrical telegraph, which was the first telegraph system to be used commercially. His inventions include the English concertina, a bellows-driven free-reed instrument; the Enchanted Lyre that apparently played by itself; the kaleidophone, which produced visual demonstration of sound vibration; a stereoscope that gave the illusion of depth and a pseudoscope that reversed depth perceptions; the chronoscope for measuring fractions of time, the Polar Clock that told time by polarized light, the Playfair Cipher, and electric generators, among other things.
Childhood & Early Life
Charles Wheatstone was born on February 6, 1802, in Barnwood, Gloucestershire, England, as the second son of William and Beata Bubb Wheatstone.
In 1806, the family moved to 128 Pall Mall, London, where his father set up a shop for musical instruments and began teaching the flute.
Charles Wheatstone studied at Kensington Proprietary Grammar School and Vere Street Board School in Westminster. He was particularly good in French, math, and physics. A shy and sensitive boy, he attended several institutions in London and even once ran away before being captured at Windsor.
In 1816, he was apprenticed to his uncle, Charles Sr., who made and sold musical instruments at 436 Strand, London, but Charles was more interested in reading books than mastering the craft. After his uncle complained, his father, who encouraged him in his studies, took him out of his uncle's charge the following year.
He spent his pocket money purchasing books from diverse genre, including fairy tales, history, and science, and after reading about the discoveries of Volta, repeated several experiments with the help of his elder brother William. By 15, he had translated French poetry, wrote two songs – one of which his uncle even published without knowing it was his composition, and produced his first known musical instrument, the 'flute harmonique', in 1818.
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Charles Wheatstone gained public recognition in 1821 after he exhibited his 'Enchanted Lyre' or 'Acoucryptophone', which apparently played by itself, at a music-shop at Pall Mall and in the Adelaide Gallery. It was in fact hung from the ceiling by a thin steel wire that conducted vibrations of the music from the several instruments played upstairs, out of earshot, with the sound augmented by a 'Microphone'.
Impressed by his lyre, Danish scientist Hans Christian Örsted convinced Wheatstone to write his first scientific article, 'New Experiments in Sound', which was later published in Great Britain in Thomson's 'Annals of Philosophy' for 1823. He subsequently became associated with the Royal Institute, where shy Wheatstone presented his papers via his close friend Michael Faraday.
After his uncle died in 1823, Charles and his brother William took over the music business, and he applied his ingenuity in improving existing instruments and developing several new instruments. The six-sided 'Wheatstone concertina' became very popular during his lifetime and later; he also improved the German wind instrument 'Mundharmonika' and won a medal at the 1851 Great Exhibition for his portable harmonium.
He made a 'kaleidophone' that could render the vibrations of a sounding body as optical figures and a photometer which could compare two lights by the relative brightness of their reflections. He also contributed to improving De Kempelen's speaking machine.
While Charles Wheatstone lacked a formal education in science, he was made a Professor of Experimental Philosophy at King's College London in 1834. However, he loathed speaking publicly and failed disastrously in his first lectures on sound, following which he confined himself to the laboratory except for rare demonstrations.
In 1834, he undertook his revolving mirror experiment that measured the velocity of electricity in a wire to be 288,000 miles per second. While it was much faster than the current known speed of light (186,000 mi/s), his device was later used by Léon Foucault and Hippolyte Fizeau to measure the velocity of light.
He was one of the early researchers on spectroscopy and had showed at the 1835 Dublin meeting of the British Association that spectrum analysis of metals volatilized in the electric spark revealed their characteristics. His 1838 version of stereoscope, which created an illusion of depth by producing two slightly varied images, became a popular philosophical toy in the 19th century.
Wheatstone, who was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1836 was awarded the Royal Medal of the Royal Society the next year for explaining his research on binocular vision. He further tested the theory of stereo vision by introducing the 'pseudoscope', which had the reverse effect of the stereoscope, in 1852.
In 1837, he partnered with William Fothergill Cooke to invent an early version of an electric telegraph which transmitted electric signals over wires that could be translated into a message. The double-needle Wheatstone-Cooke telegraph was initially set up from Paddington station to West Drayton station in July 1839 by the Great Western Railway, and the first-of-its-kind telecoms service opened to the public in May 1843.
His 'chronoscope', made in 1840, could measure minute intervals of time like the speed of a bullet or the passage of a star. At the 1848 meeting of the British Association, he exhibited the 'Polar clock' which could determine apparent solar time even after sunset using David Brewster's discovery of polarization of light in the sky.
In 1843, he revisited a neglected 1833 paper by Samuel Hunter Christie and introduced simple and practical formulae for calculating currents and resistances by the Ohm’s Law, which became popular as Wheatstone's bridge. His 1854 invention, the Playfair cipher, was used by the British intelligence services until WWII and by the militaries of several other nations until WWI.
Personal Life & Legacy
Charles Wheatstone married Emma West, the daughter of a Taunton tradesman, on February 12, 1847, at Christchurch, Marylebone. They welcomed five children, the youngest of whom was only 11 when his wife died in 1866.
Following his marriage, he significantly reduced working in the family business, and while he never formally retired from King's College, he stopped drawing a salary in later life. Apart from being knighted by Queen Victoria in 1868, he was honored by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the French Academy of Sciences and the Institution of Civil Engineers.
While improving his receiving instrument for submarine cables during a trip to Paris, he caught a cold that led to inflammation of the lungs and caused his death on October 19, 1875. Following a memorial service in the Anglican Chapel, Paris, his remains were taken to his home in Park Crescent, London, and buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.
Charles Wheatstone's partnership with Cooke became strained in 1841 over the share of each in the honor of inventing the telegraph, which required arbitration. Throughout his life, he had disputes with other scientists as well, including Alexander Bain, David Brewster and Francis Ronalds.