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The King’s invention that was used to catch a killer

It’s hard to imagine a world without telecommunications, but in the early 1800’s King’s was carrying out pioneering research that has led us to the digitally driven world we live in today. This began with one of the earliest forms of information technology – the electric telegraph invented by Charles Wheatstone, Professor at King’s 1834-75. This was a device with an unexpected use however – catching a murderer in their tracks.

Wheatstone’s electric telegraph consisted of a receiver with five needles which could be moved by electromagnetic coils to point to the letters of the alphabet on a diamond-shaped board in order to pick up messages. It was originally designed to improve safety on the railways but, in 1845, it really caught the public’s imagination.


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In January of that year John Tawell was seen boarding a train from Slough to London after poisoning his lover at her home. Wheatstone’s telegraph was used to signal ahead to Paddington so that Tawell could be caught and arrested – the first time a person had ever been arrested as the result of telecommunications technology. This generated huge publicity for the telegraph, and helped to ensure its commercial success.

In 1857 Wheatstone introduced the first paper tapes as a medium for storing and transmitting data, using two rows of holes to represent dots and dashes. 

Wheatstone’s invention was only the beginning of King’s proud history of ground-breaking research in telecommunications, with James Clerk Maxwell, Sir Owen Richardson and Sir Edward Appleton also making their mark.

In 1926 Appleton made a major contribution to round-the-world broadcasting through his discovery of the Appleton layer of the atmosphere, 150 miles above ground, which reflects short waves around the earth. In the 1930s he also helped to develop radar: Britain’s secret weapon in World War II. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1947.

Now, King’s academics are at the forefront of cutting-edge research into 5G technology, and have shown how it could be used to control drones in order to provide equipment, medicine, food, water and blood in disaster areas that are difficult to reach.