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Wheatstone Collection

Sir Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875), one of the most renowned scientists of the nineteenth century , experimented with acoustics, optics, electricity and, significantly, the telegraph. He was the first appointed Professor of Experimental Philosophy at King's College London and, when he died in 1875, he left his collection of books, scientific papers and instruments to the College. His personal library of books and pamphlets is housed in the Foyle Special Collections Library of King's College London and is known as the Wheatstone Collection.


The Wheatstone Collection consists of approximately 2,000 items and is representative of prominent nineteenth century scientific thought as well as providing an insight into one of the great minds of that century.

It includes works on acoustics by Ernst Chladni and Heinrich Bindseil, while works by G.S. Ohm and Michael Faraday represent Wheatstone's keen interest in anything to do with electricity. Optics are covered in works by Humphrey Lloyd and Sir David Brewster, while non-scientific interests are seen in philosophical works by Auguste Comte, John Locke and Benjamin Constant. Evidence of Wheatstone's personal interests can be found in works on phrenology by George Combe, F.J. Gall  and David Noble (see below) and a collection of books on natural magic and parlour tricks by Johann Samuel Halle (see above) point to a humorous side of a professor well known in Victorian London for his entertaining dinner parties.


Wheatstone's pamphlet collection, described below, covers an extensive range of topics in a variety of European languages and shows how well read Wheatstone was and how broad his interests were. Subjects covered in the pamphlet collection include astronomy, meteorology, theology, artillery, horology and climatology. Many of these pamphlets are believed to be the only recorded copies. A large number of books and pamphlets have been personally inscribed to Wheatstone and show how esteemed he was considered to be both as a scientist and as a friend.

Most of the scientific instruments, which were originally housed in the George III Museum, King's College London, were subsequently transferred to the Science Museum, South Kensington in 1926 but some examples were retained by the Department of Physics and were gradually transferred to the Science Museum between 1955 and 1963. Some pieces of electrical and physical apparatus were transferred to the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC, in 1964. A few examples of apparatus remain on permanent exhibition at King's or are stored in the College Archives.

Wheatstone's personal papers are held in the College archives and have recently been supplemented with papers relating to the transfer and sale of artefacts and recent exhibitions. These were deposited by Professor Ronald Burge in 2000. Wheatstone was a shy, retiring person who did not choose to become a scientist. However, he had an enquiring mind and an ability to apply scientific principles practically.

Wheatstone becomes a scientist

Charles Wheatstone was born in Gloucester on February 1802 to William and Beata Wheatstone. William Wheatstone had a musical instrument making business in Gloucester and consequently Charles's first interests were musical. From a young age Charles Wheatstone conducted experiments on musical instruments and studied the scientific principles involved. 

In 1806 his father moved his business from Gloucester to Pall Mall, London, where he not only made musical instruments but also taught music. It was in this shop that Wheatstone first showed his inventive nature to the public. In 1822 he set up the acouryptophone or 'enchanted lyre' as it was known. This involved the suspension of a lyre from the soundboards of a piano in the room above. When a person in this room played the piano, the lyre in the room below, as if by magic, would make music. In the same way that gas is brought to households, Wheatstone imagined that music could be transmitted.

In 1823 the acclaimed Danish scientist, Christian Örsted (1777-1851) came to London and saw the Enchanted Lyre. He requested an audience with Wheatstone and, on meeting, discovered that he and Wheatstone had performed many experiments in common. Örsted encouraged Wheatstone to write a paper, which Wheatstone subsequently did, and Örsted took this paper to Paris where it was reported. The paper was not read in full or published in Paris but it was presented with the authority of Professor Örsted to the Académie royale des Sciences in June 1823. Three months later the paper was published in full in England under Wheatstone's name as "New Experiments in Sound" in Thomson's Annals of Philosophy and Wheatstone's scientific career was launched.



Considering Wheatstone's upbringing, it is not surprising that his first scientific interests and patents were to do with sound. In 1825 Wheatstone demonstrated his kaleidophone. The kaleidophone is a metal rod with a bead attached. When the rod is struck, the vibrations carry the bead along giving a visual perception of the movement of sound. 

In 1827 Wheatstone published a paper on the kaleidophone entitled Description of the kaleidophone or phonic kaleidoscope: a new philosophical toy, for the illustration of several interesting and amusing acoustical and optical phenomena. He was influenced by Ernst Florens Friedrich Chladini (1756-1827) (see above) and in 1833 he wrote a memoir on Chladni's figures, On the figures obtained by strewing sand on vibrating surfaces, commonly called acoustic figures . In this paper he shows how the curves of vibrations can be predicted. Wheatstone worked on the premise that sound is like light and can be refracted and polarised.

In 1829 and 1830 Wheatstone worked on the concertina. This is a musical instrument which made the best use of the idea of the free reed instrument. Wheatstone concluded that a cylindrical shape would be the most efficient and hence the six-sided shape of the early concertina. In 1844 Wheatstone patented his concertina and set up a firm to make the instruments. The concertina quickly caught on in England and Wheatstone's firm called Wheatstone and Co. continues to this day to make concertinas.

Wheatstone's contributions to electricity

From an early age Wheatstone took an active interest in electricity. As a youngster he had bought a book by Volta and had duplicated many of the experiments there. He was an accomplished linguist and was able to read widely on electricity. Consequently one of his first papers on the subject brought to the attention of the English-speaking world the works of two Italian scientists, Professor Antinori of Florence and Professor Linari of Siena. 

In the article, On the thermo-electric spark, Wheatstone describes an experiment whereby a chemical combination or thermopile is used to generate a spark. Wheatstone later demonstrated before the British Association in Dublin how an electric spark could be used to discriminate between metallic bodies and in 1843 Wheatstone gave the annual Bakerian lecture to the Royal Society entitled, An account of several new instruments and processes for determining the constants of a voltaic circuit. Although Wheatstone gives full credit to Samuel Hunter Christie, the inventor of the instrument he describes, Wheatstone has forever been associated with this instrument which is today called Wheatstone's Bridge. The significance of this instrument is that it measures resistance in an electric circuit. Christie did not intend it to be used for this purpose and it was Wheatstone who discovered this use - hence its name. It was Wheatstone's experiments with electricity that led him to the telegraph, whose development he continued to be involved with until his death in 1875 and for which he is arguably most well known.

Wheatstone, Cooke and the development of the telegraph

Frederick William Cooke (1806-1879) and Wheatstone were the first persons to develop a viable telegraph system which was made available to the public. In 1837 Cooke approached Wheatstone with a proposition that Wheatstone provide scientific assistance and for this would receive one sixth of any profits should the telegraph become a viable venture. Cooke had previously come across the telegraph at a lecture given by Professor Muncke in 1837 where Schilling's telegraph was demonstrated. Cooke could see the potential of the telegraph and immediately devoted his energies into trying to develop a telegraph that could transmit messages over some distance. 

Despite his enthusiasm, Cooke was unable to make his telegraph work and was referred to Wheatstone for assistance. On contacting Wheatstone, Cooke discovered that Wheatstone had already been working on a telegraph instrument which was intended for practical use. It was only natural that Cooke and Wheatstone form a partnership. However, Wheatstone dismissed Cooke's offer of a sixth of profits for scientific assistance and instead demanded to be a partner on equal footing and so began a long and acrimonious relationship which never achieved quite was intended but for which Cooke and Wheatstone are best remembered. 



Not long after the partnership was formed, a patent was signed and Cooke and Wheatstone were given six months in which to enrol a specification. Although credit is given to Cooke for the development of the telegraph, it was essentially Wheatstone's instrument which was patented. Cooke had little understanding of scientific principles and was not able to make his instrument work over long distances. Wheatstone, on the other hand, had a fundamental understanding of Ohm's law. This meant that he understood the principles of electricity and was consequently able to develop a hatchment telegraph which worked over long distances. It was this hatchment telegraph which was patented and developed.

In July 1837, Cooke and Wheatstone publicly demonstrated their telegraph by running a line alongside the railway tracks between Camden and Euston and successfully transmitted and received a message. Both believed that the ultimate acceptance of the telegraph would depend on it being used in conjunction with the railway network which was already an essential part of the British infrastructure. Unfortunately, Wheatstone's hatchment or five-wired telegraph was not accepted as the norm and instead, Morse's simpler and more reliable single-wire system was adopted.

Sadly, Cooke and Wheatstone's relationship also deteriorated due more to personality differences than to any other cause. Cooke believed that Wheatstone was accepting more than his share of recognition for the part played by both in the development of the telegraph and Wheatstone, who was scrupulous always in acknowledging the contribution of others, felt that Cooke was envious of the developments which Wheatstone had made on his own with the telegraph. The dispute eventually went to arbitration. Little was settled this way but a statement of award was produced which acknowledged the significant role of both in developing the telegraph for practical use. This award appeared to satisfy both parties and nothing further was heard until 13 years later when Cooke once again raised the issue by publishing, The electric telegraph: was it invented by Professor Wheatstone?  By this stage Wheatstone was working on other projects and although he replied this time, he did not reply a second time when Cooke published, The electric telegraph: was it invented by Professor Wheatstone? A reply to Mr. Wheatstone's answer.

However, tipped into Wheatstone's personal copy of this book are three newspaper articles. The first article tipped into the front of the book is dated November 2, 1868 and is from The scientific review. It outlines the roles that Wheatstone and Cooke played in the invention of the telegraph, although it is blatantly in favour of Cooke being due more credit than Wheatstone. However, it does call on Wheatstone to reply and to state his position once and for all with regard to his role in the development of the telegraph. The second article tipped into the back of Cooke's publication is from The Court Circular and is dated January 25, 1868. This article is to do with Wheatstone's knighthood.

However, it is in the same vein as the first article and insists that Cooke stands alone in his position as the first to introduce the practical telegraph. The final article is an extract from The journal of the Society of Arts and is dated June 28, 1867. This extract refers to the Albert Medal which was jointly conferred on both Cooke and Wheatstone. It was unprecedented at the time for the medal to be given to two people but the Council of the Society of Arts felt that considering the significance of the telegraph and the role that both played, neither could be omitted. Wheatstone, however, did not claim his award and it is possible that he was either tired of the whole debate or perhaps he felt that Cooke really did deserve to take credit on his own. We will never know because Wheatstone never did say anything further on the matter, although it is possible he was considering further publication and this is why he saved these three articles in Cooke's publication.

Wheatstone made one further significant contribution through his work with the telegraph and that was his invention of the paper tape. This paper tape used two rows of holes to represent Morse's dots and dashes. It could be prepared off line and then transmitted by telegraph automatically. It meant that the telegraph could transmit messages at 100 words per minute as opposed to 10 words per minute. It was this same method that was used by the first computers to store data.

Wheatstone's contribution to optics

Wheatstone's best known contribution to optics are his works on stereoscopy. He was initially led to the study of this subject through his visual expression of acoustic phenomena. In 1838 Wheatstone presented a paper to the Royal Society whereby he describes the stereoscope. 

Wheatstone's principle of stereoscopy was based on the work of Euclid who understood that each eye sees a slightly different view. Wheatstone realised that the brain makes use of these differences to determine perspective and consequently his stereoscope provided a three-dimensional image by the mental combination of two pictures set in dissimilar perspective. Wheatstone was the first person to show an understanding of the visual intricacies of spatial perception and it is his principles shown in the invention of the stereoscope which led to further development in binocular vision. So significant were Wheatstone's discoveries that all work since on optical perception has been based on these principles.

Wheatstone the scientist and professor

Charles Wheatstone had no formal scientific education but was an aggressive learner and avid reader. From a young age he taught himself to read and write in French, German, Italian, Latin and Greek. This enabled him to read foreign scientific journals, which gave him access to ideas and thoughts which many English academics were unable to comprehend. 

In 1825 he began a lifelong association with the Royal Institution and it was partly this relationship which brought about Wheatstone's appointment, in 1834, as the first Professor of Experimental Philosophy at King's College London. Wheatstone's position here was not seen to be universally popular as he was shy in the presence of an audience and incapable of giving a satisfactory lecture. However, it seems that he was so highly thought of in scientific circles that King's College overlooked this fault and sought the services of Wheatstone as opposed to Wheatstone soliciting for the position. In the Royal Institution Wheatstone ensured an eager and willing audience to his papers by using the services of his good friend, Michael Faraday, to deliver his lectures. Faraday was considered to be one of the great speakers of the nineteenth century on scientific thought and this may have gone some way in earning for Wheatstone the respect his works deserved. As far as we know, Faraday never did lecture on behalf of anyone else.

 In 1875 Wheatstone died from bronchitis in Paris. He never retired and was engaged in discussions with the French telegraph authorities about the applications of the telegraph when he died. A memorial service was held for Wheatstone in the Anglican Chapel in Paris before his remains were shipped back to his home in Park Crescent, London. His funeral was well-attended and included Cooke amongst its mourners. Wheatstone was buried in Kensal Green Cemetery. He was a quiet, unobtrusive man who left behind a powerful legacy of ideas, inventions and influences which helped shape the nineteenth century.

Diagrammatic illustration of the alphabet of the single-needle telegraph. William Fothergill Cooke. The electric telegraph, 1856


Wheatstone's pamphlet collection

The following is a brief account of the significance and extent of the Wheatstone pamphlet collection. The cataloguing of this collection and of Wheatstone’s personal papers in the Archives at King’s College London, was completed as part of the Scrambled messages project. This project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Wheatstone’s pamphlet collection emanated, to an even greater extent than his collection of monographs, from his research interests in physics and chemistry, especially electromagnetism and optics.

Most of the collection deals with related subjects such as meteorology, mathematics, engineering, and, in general, with the practical application of Wheatstone’s scientific preoccupations to specific problems such as telegraphy and railways.

Within these subject areas, particular strengths are terrestrial magnetism and mechanical dynamics. A small proportion of the collection falls outside these subject areas. However, even for items which can be better described as falling into the category of ‘social science’ rather than ‘natural science’, the relationship to Wheatstone’s concerns is clear in the form of topics such as scientific education and the sanitary engineering dimension to public health.

Cover of periodical: The photographic news, vol. 9, no. 362. 11 August 1865

Wheatstone's research interests

For the most part, this collection reflects closely his research interests and his working relationships. The collection covers the period from the mid-1820s to the early 1870s and affords a fascinating insight into the life of a scientist and inventor in an era before scientific specialisation had completely taken hold.

Many items are offprints from learned periodicals, most of which Wheatstone would probably have read in their original format. Others never had any existence other than as pamphlets, which is a reminder that the pamphlet was a popular means of communication in the 18th and 19th centuries. Pamphlets were often published with the purpose of making a polemical intervention in an ongoing debate. A number are official publications, being the reports of parliamentary committees or legislative material.

A significant proportion are ephemera; these are mostly advertising and promotional materials for various industrial products, often connected with Wheatstone’s own interests, and which frequently arose from the various industrial exhibitions which were such a feature of the 19th century. The rarest items in the collection are to be found in this last category, and it includes several important items relating to telegraphy.

An item of ephemera, an advertising flyer for ‘patent India rubber hearts’, was displayed in the Fruits of the earth exhibition, on the uses of plants, in the Weston Room at the Maughan Library, King’s College London in 2014 and now available to view online here.

Although most of the items are in English, the high proportion of pamphlets in other European languages, mostly French and German, and some in Italian, demonstrates Wheatstone’s unusual linguistic competence for an Englishman. Science was then, as now, an international enterprise. This applied to telegraphy and to electromagnetism as much as any other pursuits. Wheatstone’s linguistic ability may have enabled him to steal a march on his scientific peers.

Detail from pamphlet by Michael Faraday showing inscription in ink from the author to Sir Charles Wheatstone.

The collection, however, is most remarkable for its rich endowment of material which was inscribed by the author and then transferred to Wheatstone as a personal gift.

These items are valuable not only because those who have inscribed them, such as Michael Faraday, Lord Kelvin made such a significant contribution to science, but because they remind us that science was for Wheatstone, as for every other scientist, a collaborative enterprise.

The electric telegraph used on the Yarmouth and Norwich Railway. William Fothergill Cooke. The electric telegraph, 1856

His famous dispute with William Fothergill Cooke over the paternity of the electric telegraph might obscure this, but Cooke was not a scientist. The collection can also shed light on the social and personal connections which sustained science in 19th century Britain. This applies particularly to Wheatstone’s work in telegraphy, electromagnetism and electric resistance where his connections to the physicists Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) and George Carey Foster (1835-1919) are apparent.


There are some important inscriptions of prominent Victorians in the collection who were not scientists. These include the sanitary reformer Edwin Chadwick (1800-90), the Radical MP Joseph Hume (1777-1855) and the civil servant Sir Rowland Hill (1795-1879), who introduced the ‘penny post.’ All three were adherents of the Utilitarian movement, to which Wheatstone may have been drawn because of its emphasis on applying scientific and engineering expertise to social problems. Engineers feature to some extent in the collection: pamphlets bear the inscriptions of the pioneer of steel manufacture Sir Charles William Siemens (1828-83) and of the pioneer of agricultural drainage pipes, Josiah Parkes (1793-1871).

The professionalism of science

As an indication of the growing ‘professionalisation’ of science in Wheatstone’s era, most of the scientists with whom Wheatstone was acquainted held academic positions, although there are important exceptions. Pamphlets bear the inscription of the wealthy amateur scientist William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77), who was one of the inventors of photography, of the astronomer and banker Sir John William Lubbock (1803- 65), and of William Sturgeon (1783-1850), who earned a precarious living by feeding the Victorians’ voracious appetite for popular scientific lectures. A pamphlet bears the inscription of William Whewell (1794-1866), who coined the term ‘scientist’ in the 1830s, and who founded the discipline of the history and philosophy of science.

Of the scientists, most came from the British Isles, although there are a number of important European and American names. These include Alexander Dallas Bache (1806-67), the pioneer of American coastal surveys, and of large-scale scientific enterprise in the United States; the Belgian statistician and astronomer Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874), who applied the application of statistics to social science; the Belgian physicist Joseph Antoine Ferdinand Plateau (1801-83); and the German physicist Moritz Hermann von Jacobi (1801-74), whose experiments with electromagnets and telegraphy paralleled Wheatstone’s own.

King's connections

There are a number of inscriptions of figures who held academic posts at King’s College London, which flowed from Wheatstone’s long association with that institution. These include the physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1830-79); the physicist and King’s College chaplain Henry Moseley (1801-72);  the Anglican ecclesiastic Alfred Barry (1826-1910), who became principal of King’s in 1868; the chemists John Frederic Daniell (1790-1845) and William Allen Miller (1817-70); and the physician and public health reformer William Augustus Guy (1810-85). Most of these figures had connections with Wheatstone’s research interests.

Among those scientists who were responsible for the mathematical turn in 19th century physics and  whose inscriptions are in the collection are Lord Kelvin, James Prescott Joule (1818-89) and Sir George Gabriel Stokes (1819-1903). ‘Pure’ mathematicians, such as Augustus de Morgan (1806-71) and James Booth (1806-78), also feature.

The collection includes items which were inscribed by astronomers who, via new research in terrestrial magnetism, applied the findings of their discipline to meteorology, and who often devised new magnetic, meteorological and navigational instruments. These figures include John Welsh (1824-59), Humphrey Lloyd (1800- 81), Balfour Stewart (1828-87), Thomas Romney Robinson (1793-1882) and Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900).


list of of items in the Wheatstone Collection can be obtained from the Library catalogue. 

The College Archives of King's College London hold a significant amount of material relating to Sir Charles Wheatstone including notes and apparatus and have published a detailed catalogue to Wheatstone's papers and instruments.

Further Reading

Brian Bowers. Sir Charles Wheatstone FRS, 1802-1875. London: HMSO, 1975. [Maughan Library Science Books QC16.W5 B6]

Brian Bowers. Sir Charles Wheatstone FRS, 1802-1875. London: Institution of Electrical Engineers, 2001. [Maughan Library Science Books QC16.W5 BOW ]

"The electric telegraph: Sir C. Wheatstone's share in its invention". The scientific review, and Journal of the Inventors' Institute, Vol. III, No. 11,  2 November, 1868. [Wheatstone Collection TK5118.C7 COO]

Charles Gillispie (ed.) Dictionary of scientific biography. New York: Scribner, 1973. Maughan Library Science Ref. Books Q141 D56

Geoffrey Hubbard. Cooke and Wheatstone and the invention of the electric telegraph. London: Routledge, [1965]. [Early Science Collection TK5118.C7 H87]

  1. P. Thompson. "Wheatstone, Sir Charles (1802–1875)", rev. Brian Bowers. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [] [Accessed 19 Sept 2006] 

N.J. Wade.  'Charles Wheatstone'. Perception, 2002, Vol. 31.

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