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Why Sir Charles Wheatstone should be the new face of the £50 note

The Bank of England recently announced plans for a new £50 note, and have called for the public to nominate figures who have made significant contributions to science.

King’s is taking this opportunity to highlight some of the esteemed scientists who have worked here as staff or students, leaving behind a lasting legacy.

This week we’ll be putting a spotlight on scientists from a range of fields, and we hope that you’ll consider nominating them for this prestigious honour.

Sir Charles Wheatstone

It is almost impossible to imagine a world without the gadgets we use every day to communicate with each other.

As the inventor of one of the earliest forms of information technology, the electric telegraph, Sir Charles Wheatstone deserves recognition for his role in creating the digitally connected world we live in today. This also includes his valuable contributions to developments in electricity, optics and even music.

But does Wheatstone meet the criteria set out by the Bank of England? Let’s see…

It must be someone who has contributed to the field of science

Sir Charles Wheatstone, Professor of Experimental Philosophy (1834-1875), was a prolific inventor whose influence is still commonly seen in society today.

In his first year as a professor at King’s, he used a revolving mirror in an experiment to measure the speed of electricity in a conductor. According to Wheatstone, the same revolving mirror was later used in measurements of the speed of light.

Three years later whilst working with Sir William Fothergill Cooke, Wheatstone patented an early telegraph that enabled messages to be transmitted over distances.

Wheatstone also went on to contribute to the development of the Wheatstone Bridge, a device which measured resistance in an electric circuit. The device was originally conceived by British mathematician Samuel Christie, however Christie had not originally intended for it to be used for this purpose and it was Wheatstone who discovered its use. It was therefore named after the King’s professor.

He is also known for his creation of the stereoscope, a device that creates the illusion of 3D from flat images, which preceded the invention of photography. His research into acoustics and the transmission of sound also led to the creation of many musical instruments including the concertina.


The person must have shaped thought, innovation, leadership or values in the UK

Wheatstone was knighted in 1868 for his “great scientific attainments and of his valuable inventions.” His two greatest achievements are his telegraph and stereoscope.

The telegraph revolutionised communications in the nineteenth century. Wheatstone worked with scientist Frederick William Cooke to develop the first viable telegraph system to be made available to the public.

In 1837, the two scientists demonstrated the telegraph by running a line alongside the railway tracks from Camden to Euston, successfully transmitting and receiving a message.

He then went on to develop the Wheatstone System, an automated telegraph system which used a paper tape punched with two rows of holes representing Morse code. This innovative development allowed for an increased transmission of 100 words per minute, as opposed to 10 words per minute. This method went on to be used by the first computers to store data. 

Wheatstone’s stereoscope is still used in viewing X-rays and aerial photographs, enabling us to observe photos in three dimensions.

The device was developed from his understanding of the brain’s mechanics in determining perspective. It provided a 3D image by the mental combination of two pictures set in dissimilar perspective. He was the first person to demonstrate an understanding of the visual intricacies of spatial perception, which then led to further developments in binocular vision.

The individual cannot be alive

He sadly died from bronchitis in Paris in 1875 at the age of 73. At the time of his death, he was still working as a professor at King’s, never having retired. He was visiting France to meet with French telegraph authorities about the applications of the telegraph.

He was known to be a quiet and unobtrusive man whose legacy of inventions and influence surpassed him.

Lastly, the figure must inspire people, not divide them

Wheatstone has continued to inspire the generations of inventors, scientists and musicians that succeeded him. King’s commemorated his achievements by naming the Wheatstone Innovation Lab and the annual Wheatstone Lectures in his honour. The Wheatstone Collection, a collection of his books and pamphlets, can today be found in the Foyle Special Collections Library at King’s.

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