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Famous King's People

Charles Wheatstone

charles wheatstoneSir Charles Wheatstone (1802-75) was Professor of Experimental Philosophy at King's. The self-taught son of a London-based musical instrument maker, Wheatstone conducted early experiments into acoustics and the transmission of sound.

Acoustics and musical instruments

Wheatstone's first paper on acoustics was published in 1823. Having inherited the family business, he went on to invent numerous new musical instruments. He patented the concertina in 1829. He was fascinated by all aspects of physics, electricity, acoustics and optics, and in their application to industry.

Research on electricity

Wheatstone began studying electricity and electromagnetism around 1830, when his focus was in measuring the velocity of electricity. He joined King's in 1834 and with the support of the Royal Society and the College Council laid down a circuit of copper wiring in the basement of the building to refine his experimental data. With his King's colleague John Daniell, he sought new means of generating large quantities of electricity. In the late 1830s and early 1840s, they developed designs of cells (batteries) and early magneto-induction devices.


Wheatstone went on to patent a number of electric motor systems, including a pioneering early design of linear induction motor. He coined the term 'rheostat' for his design of variable resistance control. He also developed various measurement devices, the most famous being the 'Wheatstone Bridge' to calculate electrical resistance, variants of which are still in use today.

Stereoscopy and telegraphy

Wheatstone's two key achievements whilst at King's were:

  • inventing the stereoscope
  • perfecting a practical version of the telegraph.

Stereoscopy - creating the illusion of 3D from flat images - preceded the invention of photography. Wheatstone was quick to spot the potential of the new medium, producing the first working model and coining the term 'stereoscope' at a public unveiling at the Royal Society in 1838. The device soon became popular with Victorian families with the invention of photography and the mass-production of stereoscopic picture cards depicting life-like images in realistic situations.

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