Alexander Bain (inventor)

Alexander Bain (12 October 1810 – 2 January 1877) was a Scottish inventor and engineer who was first to invent and patent the electric clock. He invented the Telegraph Clock, which was a technology of synchronizing many electric clocks placed anywhere in the world; they would all have the exact same time. He also invented and patented the technology of the facsimile machine for scanning images and transmitting them across telegraph lines hundreds of miles away.

Alexander Bain
Alexander Bain.jpg
Born12 October 1810
Watten, Caithness, Scotland
Died2 January 1877(1877-01-02) (aged 66)
Resting placeAuld Aisle Cemetery, Kirkintilloch, Scotland
Occupationinstrument inventor, technician, and clockmaker

He installed the railway telegraph lines between Edinburgh and Glasgow, Scotland, for recording messages, to regulate the safe movement of trains, marking time, giving signals, and printing information at different locations. He invented a chemical telegraph technology of being able to transmit across a telegraph line messages at up to 1000 words per minute, while at the time Morse's telegraph could only produce 40 words a minute.

Early lifeEdit

Commemorative plaque at Bain's past Edinburgh workshop.

Bain was born in Houstry, near Watten, Caithness, Scotland. He was born on 12 October 1810.[1] His father was a crofter.[2] He had a twin sister, Margaret, and, in total, he had six sisters and six brothers.[1] Bain was apprenticed to a clock maker in Wick, Scotland.[2]

Bain learned the art of clock making and then first went to Edinburgh, Scotland. Later in 1837 went to London where he obtained work as a journeyman in Clerkenwell. He frequented the lectures at the Polytechnic Institution and Adelaide Gallery to further his knowledge of electricity. Later again he constructed his own workshop on Hanover Street in Edinburgh. [2]


Electric clocks and railway telegraphsEdit

In 1840, desperate for money to develop his inventions, Bain mentioned his financial problems to the editor of the Mechanics Magazine, who introduced him to Sir Charles Wheatstone. Bain demonstrated his models to Wheatstone, who, when asked for his opinion, said he shouldn't bother developing those ideas any further as there was no future in them. Three months later Wheatstone demonstrated an electric clock to the Royal Society, claiming it was his own invention. However, Bain had already applied for a patent for it in October 1840 and received patent No. 8783 as the first electric clock invented and patented.[3][4] Wheatstone tried to block Bain's patents, but failed. When Wheatstone organized an Act of Parliament to set up the Electric Telegraph Company, the House of Lords summoned Bain to give evidence, and eventually compelled the company to pay Bain £10,000 and give him a job as manager, causing Wheatstone to resign.[5]

Bain's next invention was for Telegraphic Clocks. They were developed and constructed between 1837 and 1840. They were put into practical application in 1840 and a patent applied for.[6] The patent received was dated 11 January 1841, and was in the names of John Barwise, chronometer maker, and Alexander Bain, mechanic. It describes his master electric clock which uses a pendulum kept moving by electromagnetic impulses that were also sent to other Telegraphic Clocks in a system of electric clocks located at various points around the world. The master clock could be located at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. or at the Royal Greenwich Observatory in London, England. The master clock with these impulses would cause all the clocks in the system to beat synchronously together as if one clock.[6]

Bain improved on this later in 1843 patents that included a proposal to derive the required electricity from an "earth battery", which consisted of plates of zinc and copper buried in the ground about 1 yard (0.9 m) apart in drained moist earth.[7] He caused the sun itself to set his Telegraphic Clocks to Greenwich Mean Time. In the meridian was placed a powerful glass lens and behind it a Thermo-Electric pile which made an electric battery. The lens was placed in such a manner that as soon as the sun came on the meridian of the place its rays were made to strike powerfully the end of the electric battery, which then generated an electric current pulse. That pulse was then sent out to all the clocks in the system and set them all instantaneously to the true Greenwich Mean Time.[6]

In December 1841, Bain in conjunction with Lieutenant Thomas Wright RN, patented a method for helping to control railway trains with the use of electricity.[8] The most significant idea incorporated in the patent was his plan for inverting the needle telegraph earlier developed by Ampere, Wheatstone and others: instead of making signals by a pivoted magnetic needle under the influence of an electromagnet, he made them by suspending a movable coil between the poles of a fixed magnet. A similar concept appears in Sir William Thomson's siphon recorder. Bain also proposed to make the coil record messages by printing them, an idea he developed further in a subsequent patent. Bain's telegraph was first used in December 1845 on the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway which had opened in 1842. In January 1846 he convinced the directors of the Stockton and Darlington Railway to install his telegraph between the north and south ends of their Shildon tunnel. These instruments remained in use until September 1865.[9][10]

On 12 December 1846, Bain, who was then living in Edinburgh, patented a chemical telegraph. He had seen that the Morse and other telegraphs then in use were comparatively slow, due to the mechanical inertia of their moving parts, and realized that the signal current could be used to make a readable mark on a moving paper tape soaked in a mixture of ammonium nitrate and potassium ferrocyanide, which gave a blue mark when a current was passed through it. The speed at which marks could be made on the paper was so high that hand signalling could not keep up with it, and so Bain devised a method of automatic signalling using punched paper tape. The concept was later used by Wheatstone in his automatic sender. Bain's chemical telegraph was tried between Paris and Lille, and attained a speed of 282 words in 52 seconds, a great advance on Morse's telegraph which could only give about 40 words per minute. Development on the concept later showed it was capable of operating at 1,000 words a minute.[11]

Electric clock, Alexander Bain, London, ca. 1845 (Deutsches Uhrenmuseum, Inv. 2004–162)

In England Bain's telegraph was used on the wires of the Electric Telegraph Company.[12] In 1850 it was used in America by Henry O'Reilly who obtained from Bain in 1849 the exclusive rights to use.[13] However, it incurred the hostility of Samuel Morse, who obtained an injunction against it on the grounds that the paper tape and alphabet used fell under his 1840 patent.[14] After this Bain's other chemical telegraph lines consolidated with Morse's companies. By 1859 there was only one electro-chemical telegraph line system in America which went from Boston to Montreal consisting of about 800 miles (1,300 km) of lines and worked in cooperation with the Morse company lines.[15]

A 1848 newspaper reported that electric clocks connected to telegraph lines for synchronizing together were included among the telegraphic inventions to which Bain had the rights to as the inventor. This was established under several patents which were dated years before the 1848 experiments made at the observatories of Philadelphia and Cincinnati. Bain's patents for synchronizing electric clocks together through telegraph lines (Telegraphic Clocks) were established years before Ezra Cornell devised the plan which he claims is the only one that works on Morse's telegraph system. The British Electric Telegraph Company had already purchased from Bain and was then in possession of several of his inventions. One of these was the electric clock specimen of which several of these special clocks were made for that company under Bain's patents and were exhibited at his apartment on Broadway Street in Glasgow, Scotland, some 46 miles (74 km) from his Edinburgh workshop. This had been seen and witnessed by many citizens, including most of the editors of the public journals of Great Britain at the time.[6]

Surviving examplesEdit

One of Bain's telegraph instruments is on display at the National Museum of Scotland, probably from the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway. The two instruments used by the Stockton and Darlington Railway at Shildon tunnel are in the National Railway Museum collection. The Shildon instruments were also provided with single-stroke bells, the hammers of which were held up by 'trip gear' which was released by the first electrical pulse to deflect the needle; upon completion of the message exchange the hammer then had to be raised again by hand. If the operator failed to hear the single ring, there was no method of repeating it – only the movement of the needle could be observed.[16]

Facsimile machineEdit

Bain's improved facsimile 1850

Bain worked on an experimental fax machine from 1843. He used two pendulums for a message, one that scanned an image and another that wrote this scan. These pendulums' movements were synchronized line-by-line using a clock. He applied metal pins arranged on a cylinder made of insulating material for transmission. An electric probe then transmitted on-off pulses from the scan of the pins. These pulses were duplicated at the receiving station and reproduced the message on electrochemically sensitive paper that had been previously soaked in a specially formulated solution.[17][18][19]

Bain's British patent 9745 description dated 27 May 1843 for improvements in electric printing claimed that a copy of any other surface can be taken.[20] The transmitter and receiver were connected by five wires. In 1850 he applied for an improved version but was too late, as Frederick Bakewell had obtained a patent for his superior "image telegraph" that is sometimes known as a "copying telegraph" that was an major improvement over Bain's.[21][22]

Bain's and Bakewell's laboratory mechanisms reproduced poor quality images and were not viable systems because the transmitter and receiver were never truly synchronized. In 1861, the first practical operating electro-mechanical commercially exploited telefax machine, the Pantelegraph, was invented by the Italian physicist Giovanni Caselli. He introduced the first commercial telefax service between Paris and Lyon at least 11 years before the invention of workable telephones.[23][24]

Later lifeEdit

Initially Bain made a considerable sum from his inventions but lost his wealth in poor investments. In 1873, Sir William Thomson, Sir William Siemens, Latimer Clark and others obtained a Civil List pension for Bain from Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone of £80 per year and the Royal Society gave him £150.[7][25]

Death and legacyEdit

A commemorative plaque to Bain at his former workshop on Hanover Street in Edinburgh.

Bain died on 2 January 1877, and was interred in the Auld Aisle Cemetery, Kirkintilloch. His tombstone was restored in 1959 because it was in a state of disrepair. The headstone had a fallacious date of death (1876) which was corrected to 1877.[26]

JD Wetherspoon's pub in Wick, close to where Alexander Bain served his apprenticeship, is now named 'The Alexander Bain' after the inventor.[27] Also, as a tribute to his inventions, the main British Telecom building in Glasgow is named Alexander Bain House.[28]

One of the earliest examples of an electrically impulsed pendulum clock is on display at the Deutsches Uhrenmuseum.[29] In 2016, he was posthumously awarded the Technology & Engineering Emmy Award for his pioneering work transmitting images electrically. A statuette award is on display in Kirkintilloch Town Hall.[30]



  1. ^ a b Campbell 2011, p. 19.
  2. ^ a b c McNeil 2002, p. 63.
  3. ^ "Alexander Bain Inventor of First Electric Clock". Star-Phoenix. Saskatoon, Canada. 22 July 1961. p. 30. Retrieved 31 July 2021 – via  .
  4. ^ "Science and Art". The Hampshire Advertiser. Southampton, England. 29 March 1851. p. 7. Retrieved 31 July 2021 – via  .
  5. ^ Winston 2010, p. 221.
  6. ^ a b c d "Telegraphing Time-Electric Clocks-when invented". The Louisville Daily Courier. Louisville, Kentucky. 20 December 1848. p. 2. Retrieved 31 July 2021 – via  .
  7. ^ a b Desmond 2016, p. 11.
  8. ^ Mudie 1841, p. 32.
  9. ^ Briggs 1896, p. 9.
  10. ^ Lamont 2001, p. 97.
  11. ^ Wheen 2011, p. 26.
  12. ^ "Electric Telegraph". The Observer. London, England. 12 May 1851. p. 3. Retrieved 31 July 2021 – via  .
  13. ^ "Another Telegraph Line". The Buffalo Commercial. Buffalo, New York. 23 March 1849. p. 2. Retrieved 1 August 2021 – via  .
  14. ^ Finley 1849, pp. 1–196.
  15. ^ Shaffner 1859, p. 354.
  16. ^ Mackay 2016, pp. 52–53.
  17. ^ "Machine's technology isn't as new as it seems". St. Joseph News-Press. St Joseph, Michigan. 1 October 1991. p. 7. Retrieved 31 July 2021 – via  .
  18. ^ "The short and happy history of fax transmission". The Sydney Morning Herald. Sydney, Australia. 29 October 1987. p. 68. Retrieved 31 July 2021 – via  .
  19. ^ "How Come?". Newsday. Melville, New York. 6 June 1989. p. 186. Retrieved 31 July 2021 – via  .
  20. ^ Polhemus 1876, p. 154.
  21. ^ Books 2017, p. 52.
  22. ^ "Facsimile transmission is older than you think". The Sydney Morning Herald. New South Wales, Australia. 3 September 1990. p. 19. Retrieved 31 July 2021 – via  .
  23. ^ Istituto Tecnico Industriale, Rome, Italy. Italian biography of Giovanni Caselli
  24. ^ The Hebrew University of Jerusalem - Giovanni Caselli biography Archived 6 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine
  25. ^ McNeil 2002, p. 64.
  26. ^ "Biography of Alexander Bain". WordPress. 27 September 2012. Retrieved 1 August 2021.
  27. ^ "The Alexander Bain". Wetherspoon. Retrieved 1 August 2021.
  28. ^ "Alexander Bain". Undiscovered Scotland. Retrieved 1 August 2021.
  29. ^ "Watchmaking museums / German Clock Museum in Furtwangen". Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie. Retrieved 1 August 2021.
  30. ^ "TV pioneer's Emmy award arrives in Scotland". BBC News. 4 February 2016. Retrieved 4 February 2016.


Further readingEdit

  • Bain, Alexander, A History of Electric Clocks, London: Chapman and Hall, 1852
  • Gunn, Robert P., Alexander Bain of Watten. Genius of the North, Wick 1976
  • Hackmann, W. D., Alexander Bain's Short History of the Electric Clock (1852), London: Turner & Devereux 1973.
  • Burns, R. W., Engineering Science and Education Journal, Vol 2, No2, April 1993.
  • Aked, C. K., Alexander Bain. The father of electric horology, Antiquarian Horology December, 1974.
  • Hope-Jones, F', Electrical Timekeeping. London: NAG Press, 1940.
  • Kieve J, The Electric Telegraph. A Social and Economic History, Newton Abbot, Devon: David & Charles, 1973.
  • Nicholas J. Wade, "The Bains of Psychology". Perception, 2001, volume 30, pages 777 - 783 DOI 10.1068/p3007ed

External linksEdit