Sir Francis Ronalds: The true father of modern communications
My great-great-great uncle, Sir Francis Ronalds FRS (1788-1873), was a scientist and inventor whose achievements span the disciplines of electricity, meteorology, photography, mechanics, optics and more. He can be argued to be the first electrical engineer.
A handful of his many discoveries have had broad and lasting impact on the world. Sir Francis' most noticed invention, his electric telegraph, was demonstrated two centuries ago in 1816. In creating it he was envisaging not only the electrical age, and the industry that founded this new era, but even a world of "electrical conversations" somewhat similar to that we enjoy today.
The previous year, 1815, saw his publication of the first battery-operated clock. Thirty years later he developed the first successful "movie camera" to capture the continual variations of natural phenomena like atmospheric pressure, temperature and geomagnetic forces. His cameras assisted the earliest Met Office weather forecasts in the UK and were used in observatories around the world well into the twentieth century.
In between he developed a range of new mechanical devices, including the hinged tripod stand that still steadies theodolites, telescopes and cameras; an attachment for the lathe that helped start the mass production of furniture; and a "fire finder" for pinpointing the location of a fire that was reinvented in the twentieth century. His explanation of the window of vision in fishing is revered in the fly fishing world.
Sir Francis in addition found time to build a successful business producing his patented tracing instruments, and to use them to survey the current condition of ancient monuments. His last documented invention, in his seventies, was the concept of a combined propeller and rudder for ships that has also since seen widespread application.
Perhaps Sir Francis' biggest contribution of all was to compile and donate a complete electrical library to help educate the first generation of electrical engineers and sustain their new professional body.
Fortunately, many of the family's papers survive, which illuminate the personalities, social lives and professional interactions of Sir Francis, his siblings and cousins. They show him to have been warm-hearted, generous and extremely modest about his many accomplishments.
Editor’s note: Dr.Ronalds wrote this article for the new website celebrating the achievements of Sir Francis Ronalds. She approached me in connection with our article last December which gave credit to Ronalds as the inventor of the electric telegraph (which he could not commercialise at the time, hence his lack of recognition). She said: “You are one of the very, very few who give Ronalds some credit for his early work and make the link between what he did and the modern world of telecoms.”
The illustrations in this article are all by Mike Evans and taken with the new Leica D-Lux (109) with the exception of the enlargement of the commemorative stone which was taken last December using a Fuji X-T1 and the 56mm f/1.2 lens.