The thread about Alexander Bain, and why his name should be every bit as well known as those of Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell and John Logie Baird

This thread was originally written and published in November 2021. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.

An interesting fact, is that the fax machine is older than the telephone! The first patents for a fax machine were made by Alexander Bain, an Clockmaker from Caithness who worked in Edinburgh and London, in 1843. Bain also invented electric clocks, synchronised “telegraph clocks” and various improvements to the electric telegraph and is sometimes referred to as the “father of electric horology“.

Alexander Bain

Bain was the son of a Caithness crofter and he had a twin sister called Margaret, plus 5 other sisters and 6 brothers. He was a poor school student, and equally poor as a shepherd in his Father’s trade, but had a fascination for clocks and was fortunate to get himself apprenticed to a clockmaker in Wick. A penny lecture he heard aged 19 called “Light, heat and the electric fluid” was a formative experience and he dedicated his life not just to clocks but also electricity.

After learning his trade, he went first to Edinburgh and then London in search of opportunity and in improving his education. He taught himself through public lectures and demonstrations. Setting up a workshop, he was a prolific inventor and patented his ideas around telegraphs, clocks, batteries and electricity. He made a name for himself as a telegraph engineer and his work took him to both the European continent and the USA.

In 1840, Bain was seeking a financial backer and was unfortunate enough to be introduced to Sir Charles Wheatstone of the Royal Society. Wheatstone observed Bain’s ideas and demonstrations, dismissed them as a dead end, and then 3 months later plagiarised the whole lot in a demonstration to the Royal Society. Fortunately Bain had patented his ideas, but it still took him having to go to a House of Lords enquiry to be vindicated. He was awarded £10,000 and a position in Wheatstone’s Company. He returned to Edinburgh around 1844 and opened a workshop on Hanover Street.

Bain's entry in the 1845 Edinburgh & Leith Post Office directory
Bain’s entry in the 1845 Edinburgh & Leith Post Office directory
A plaque outside the door of Bain’s workshop on Hanover Street. CC by 2.0 Gnomonic

The National Museum of Scotland has an early Bain electric telegraph – possibly the first ever single dial system. The needle points to either a I or a V in Roman Numerals, from which the appropriate letter can be read off the key along the sides. letter or number in the message being received.

Bain Electric Telegraph receiver. © National Museums Scotland

While in Edinburgh in 1846 one of his most important jobs was to install an electric telegraph and synchronised timekeeping system for the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway, which he did with his brother John Bain. Bain’s telegraph cost £50 per mile, compared to £250 per mile charged to the Great Western Railway by his nemesis Wheatstone. Telegraphs were an exceptionally important safety feature for railways as it allowed the implementation of “block working”; each train was allocated its own clear block of line, controlled by a signal box and lineside signals. The telegraph allowed the signallers to communicate and know exactly where trains were, what they were doing and to signal them appropriately. A master clock in Edinburgh at the Royal Observatory was able to control the time of all the station clocks along the line; Bain had implemented a Universal Time system.

Bain’s Universal Time system for the Edinburgh & Glasgow Railway. The Edinburgh clock (A) directly controlled the time on the Glasgow Clock (B)

Constantly working on clocks, telegraphs, needles, dials and signals, Bain’s fertile mind came up with ways he could mechanically “scan” an image, transmit it down a telegraph line and have a way for it to be printed out at the other end; eventually settling on paper soaked in Potassium Iodide which was sensitive to electricity and could be used to print an image; he had invented the Fax Machine.

Bain's 1843 Facsimile Telegraph
Bain’s 1843 Facsimile Telegraph patent

Bain’s later success in electric telegraphy was dampened by financially burdensome patent court cases in the USA – including against none other than Samuel “Morse Code” Morse, not all of which he was unable to win. He returned home to his family, back in London, and settled down to develop his electric clocks. By accounts he seems to have spent very little time with the former and a lot with the latter. The Hunterian collection of the University of Glasgow has a working Bain electric clock. It had a pendulum powered by an “earth battery” and could act as a master clock, regulating the time of others connected to it.

Electric Pendulum Clock of the Hunterian Collection

There’s a great video here describing the clock and how it works.

Bain’s later life was marked by financial failure. Others had taken his ideas and succesfully commercialised them and he seemed to have missed quite a few boats, and expended too much time and energy defending his patents rather than exploiting them. His great rival, Wheatstone’s, system was in wide use by the Electric Telegraph Company and it was nationalised into the GPO in 1868. The Government wasn’t interested in Bain’s ideas even if they were technically more advanced.

He lost nearly everything, including his wife who had died in 1856 while he was distracted with work and litigation, and his children, who had either predeceased him, emigrated to India or quietly disappeared into lives of their own. He left London for Glasgow, where he took a job mending watches; the sort of work an apprentice would have been given. A chance repair for Sir William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, of the University of Glasgow saw the latter successfully petition Parliament to give Bain a small but sufficient pension from the Civil List. He settled into a quiet retirement in Helensburgh in 1874 but two years later had a stroke which saw him admitted to the Broomhill Home for Incurables in Kirkintillloch. He never left there, and died relatively alone in January 1877. A local subscription paid of his funeral and headstone and back in his far off birthplace of Caithness a public monument was raised by public contributions.

Bain's monument in Watten, Caithness. CC-by-SA 2.0 Paul Simonite
Bain’s monument in Watten, Caithness. CC-by-SA 2.0 Paul Simonite

There is much more detail available to read about the life of Alexander Bain and all his wonderful inventions, I recommend this paper from the Scottish Local History Forum. The Bainfield student housing in Fountainbridge in Edinburgh is not named after him, but the ex-Wetherspoons pub in Wick is.

The Alexander Bain in Wick. No longer a Wetherspoons but still trading under this name.
The Alexander Bain in Wick. No longer a Wetherspoons but still trading under this name.

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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

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