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Alexander Bain

October, 1811, Watten, Caithness, Scotland
January 2, 1877, Kirkintilloch, Glasgow, Scotland

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Alexander Bain, a Scottish clock and instrument maker, invented the first electrical clock, patented the basics of facsimile, developed chemical telegraph receivers and punch-tapes to speed up telegraph transmission. He was an all-round inventor and technician who later installed the first telegraph lines alongside the railway between Edinburgh and Glasgow.


Alexander Bain and his twin sister Margaret were born in October 1811 of humble parents in the little town of Thurso, at the extreme north of Scotland. Their dad was a crofter, and he had six sisters and six brothers. They grew up in a remote stone cottage at Leanmore, a few miles north of Wick. The vast expanse of peaty countryside has only occasional scattered cottages, and the Bain house, close to a small wood, became a sheep byre, and is now little more than an outline of low stonewalls. In the winter Sandy walked a mile or two to school in Backlass; in the summer he worked as a shepherd. At the age of twelve he went to hear a penny lecture on science which, according to his own account, set him thinking and influenced his whole future. Learning the art of clockmaking, he went to Edinburgh, and subsequently to London, where he obtained work in Clerkenwell, then famed for its clocks and watches.

In his latter years, while he resided in Glasgow, his health failed, and he was struck with paralysis in the legs. The massive forehead once pregnant with the fire of genius, grew dull and slow of thought, while the sturdy frame of iron hardihood became a tottering wreck. He was removed to the Home for Incurables at Broomhill, Kirkintilloch, where he died on January 2, 1877, and was interred in the Old Aisle Cemetery. He was a widower, and had two children, but they were said to be abroad at the time, the son in America and the daughter on the Continent.



He began inventing electrical devices, including various types of automatic telegraph, an electric clock, an earth battery, insulation for electric cables and an electric fire alarm. He took out patents on all these, and also on inkstands, ink holders and a ship's log.

Bains first patent is dated January 11th, 1841, and is in the name of John Barwise, chronometer maker, and Alexander Bain, mechanist, Wigmore Street. It describes his electric clock in which there is an electro-magnetic pendulum, and the electric current is employed to keep it going instead of springs or weights. He improved on this idea in following patents, and also proposed to derive the motive electricity from an 'earth battery,' by burying plates of zinc and copper in the ground.

The patent for the fax machine was granted on 27 May 1843, 33 years before the patent was given for the telephone. He was apprenticed to a clockmaker in Wick where he also invented the first electric clock which was powered by an electromagnet propelling a pendulum. He patented the fax machine on his move to London. As usual, this innovation was slow to take off.

In 1846 Alexander Bain greatly improved the speed of telegraph transmission by using punched paper tape to send messages. The perforated tape is nicknamed 'ticker tape' because of the ticking sound the telegraph made. This procedure will speed up the transmission of information very much. Until well into the 20th century companies will use this method for transmitting information. These perforated tapes, or punch tapes, will also be adopted for the output of computer data. It will be like this for decades to come, because the teletype (telex) terminals, accept only this kind of tape and are the sole way to communicate with computers.

On December 12, 1846, Bain, who was staying in Edinburgh at that time, patented his greatest invention, the chemical telegraph, which bears his name. He recognised that the Morse and other telegraph instruments in use were comparatively slow in speed, owing to the mechanical inertia of the parts; and he saw that if the signal currents were made to pass through a band of travelling paper soaked in a solution which would decompose under their action, and leave a legible mark, a very high speed could be obtained. This process was later modified to create the first facsimilie.

The chemical he employed to saturate the paper was a solution of nitrate of ammonia and prussiate of potash, which left a blue stain on being decomposed by the current from an iron contact or stylus. The signals were the short and long, or 'dots' and 'dashes' of the Morse code. The speed of marking was so great that hand signalling could not keep up with it, and Bain devised a plan of automatic signalling by means of a running band of paper on which the signals of the message were represented by holes punched through it. Obviously if this tape were passed between the contact of a signalling key the current would merely flow when the perforations allowed the contacts of the key to touch. This principle was afterwards applied by Wheatstone in the construction of his automatic sender.

Bain developed two types of chemical recorders. One was the tape method, mentioned above, for general use; the other, for major terminals, consisted of a treated paper disk, rotating on a phonograph-like brass plate, the recording stylus moving out from the center. This system seemed immune from infringement upon Morse's patents and Bain received his own patent in 1849. He also perfected his own code for representing letters and numbers.

The chemical telegraph was tried between Paris and Lille before a committee of the Institute and the Legislative Assembly. The speed of signalling attained was 282 words in fifty-two seconds, a marvellous advance on the Morse electro-magnetic instrument, which only gave about forty words a minute. In the hands of Edison the neglected method of Bain was seen by Sir William Thomson in the Centennial Exhibition, Philadelphia, recording at the rate of 1057 words in fifty-seven seconds. In England the telegraph of Bain was used on the lines of the old Electric Telegraph Company to a limited extent, and in America about the year 1850 it was taken up by the energetic Mr. Henry O'Reilly, and widely introduced. But it incurred the hostility of Morse, who obtained an injunction against it on the slender ground that the running paper and alphabet used were covered by his patent. By 1859, as Mr. Shaffner tells us, there was only one line in America on which the Bain system was in use, namely, that from Boston to Montreal. Since those days of rivalry the apparatus has never become general, and it is not easy to understand why, considering its very high speed, the chemical telegraph has not become a greater favourite.

In 1847 Bain devised an automatic method of playing on wind instruments by moving a band of perforated paper which controlled the supply of air to the pipes; and likewise proposed to play a number of keyed instruments at a distance by means of the electric current. Both of these plans are still in operation.

These and other inventions in the space of six years are a striking testimony to the fertility of Bain's imagination at this period. But after this extraordinary outburst he seems to have relapsed into sloth and the dissipation of his powers. We have been told, and indeed it is plain that he received a considerable sum for one or other of his inventions, probably the chemical telegraph. But while he could rise from the ranks, and brave adversity by dint of ingenuity and labour, it would seem that his sanguine temperament was ill-fitted for prosperity. He went to America, and what with litigation, unfortunate investment, and perhaps extravagance, the fortune he had made was rapidly diminished.

Whether his inventive genius was exhausted, or he became disheartened, it would be difficult to say, but he never flourished again. The rise in his condition may be inferred from the preamble to his patent for electric telegraphs and clocks, dated May 29, 1852, wherein he describes himself as 'Gentleman,' and living at Beevor Lodge, Hammersmith. After an ephemeral appearance in this character he sank once more into poverty, if not even wretchedness. Moved by his unhappy circumstances, Sir William Thomson, the late Sir William Siemens, Mr. Latimer Clark and others, obtained from Mr. Gladstone, in the early part of 1873, a pension for him under the Civil List of £80 a year; but the beneficiary lived in such obscurity that it was a considerable time before his lodging could be discovered, and his better fortune take effect. The Royal Society had previously made him a gift of £150.

The first commercial fax service was opened between Paris and Lyon in 1865 and they were called pantélégraphes. Faxes really came into their own in 1906 when they found their first major use, to transmit photos for newspapers.

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