Francis Ronalds, the World’s “First” Electrical Engineer?

May 30, 2022 by Lianne Frith

Francis Ronalds is credited as the inventor of the electric telegraph—and sometimes as the first electrical engineer.

While the public generally associates Samuel Morse with the invention of the electric telegraph, Sir Francis Ronalds created his own version in 1816. Ronalds foresaw a new era powered by electricity long before it became a reality, leading many to consider him the world’s first electrical engineer. 


Sir Francis Ronald

Sir Francis Ronalds. Image (modified) courtesy of Soerfm [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Who Was Francis Ronalds? 

Francis Ronalds was born in 1788 to London cheesemongers and took over the family business when he was 19. Despite the family calling, he had a strong scientific interest in chemistry and the emerging field of electricity. He’d carry out numerous experiments and sorted his ever-growing collection of electricity-related books with his own card catalog system. In the end, he handed the cheesemonger business over to his younger brother, so that he could focus on studying electricity. 


Plaque in Ronalds’ hometown to commemorate his life’s work

Plaque in Ronalds’ hometown to commemorate his life’s work as a meteorologist, inventor, and pioneer of electric telegraphy. Image (modified) courtesy of Spudgun67 [CC BY-SA 4.0]


At the time, electricity was considered a scientific curiosity with no specific application. Static electricity was observed in nature and measured with an electroscope. The electrochemical battery was invented in 1800 with great interest but no theoretical framework, consistent terminology, or units of measurement.

Despite the fact that there was no clear understanding of how static electricity and the battery were related, Ronalds set out to find a more practical purpose for electricity. He eventually surmised that electricity might be able to travel and power long-distance communication. 


The "World's First Electrical Engineer"?

In the summer of 1816, Ronalds set up a makeshift laboratory at his mother’s house at Hammersmith, London, to design, build, and test a system to transmit messages quickly over long distances using electric signals.

He looped 13 km of wire back and forth between insulated supports on two large wooden frames. He then built a 160-m-long subterranean system trench and isolated the wire by encasing it in a narrow glass tube. Using static electricity, he was able to provide charge with minimal manual intervention. A clockwork mechanism turned simultaneously at the end of each line, moving discs with letters on them to transfer messages. 


Diagram of the interior and exterior components

Diagram of the interior and exterior components of Ronalds’ demonstration in 1816. Image courtesy of Physics Today

Ronalds might have completely solved the challenge of telegraphy if he hadn't encountered obstacles in synchronizing the two clockwork mechanisms. He did, however, make an important theoretical contribution by highlighting the risk of signal retardation.

Ronalds was understandably excited about the potential of his device and offered the design to the British Admiralty. Unfortunate timing meant that a French apparatus, the semaphore light system, developed in the eighteenth century, had just been installed between London and Portsmouth by the Admiralty. Ronalds’ vision was rejected and he was told that telegraphs were wholly unnecessary and would not be adopted. 


How Ronalds' Work Progressed the Electric Telegraph?

After Ronalds' rejection, the field of electricity continued to advance. The electromagnet, developed in 1825, enabled mechanical work at a distance by applying a current. The ideal relay switch operated the telegraph receiver or repeater at intermediate wire locations to increase transmitter distance. Then, in 1836, John Daniell created a longer-lasting and more reliable battery to replace the voltaic pile. It was then, two decades after Ronalds built his telegraph, that a new generation of electric telegraph powered by current rather than static electricity was developed and commercialized. 

Key components of the electromechanical telegraph network

Sketches of the key components of the electromechanical telegraph network as designed by Charles Wheatstone. Image courtesy of Wellcome Images [CC BY 4.0]


In 1837, William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone developed their own basic telegraph in the U.K. and, within a few years, their system was used to send messages between railway stations up to 29 km apart. This approach was then superseded by Samuel Finley Breese Morse, who also invented Morse Code. He convinced Congress to build an experimental telegraph line from Washington DC to Baltimore in 1844 and by 1869, the East and West coasts of the U.S. were connected by telegraph. By 1848, the U.K. had the foundation of a national telegraph network; by 1851, it was linked with the Continent; and by 1866, a successful transatlantic link was in place. 

The three patentees were aware of Ronalds’ work and several of Ronalds’ concepts had made their way into the new generation of the telegraph. The new wave of designs factored in alphanumeric dials, testing posts, cable protection, redundancy, and surveillance.


Why Is Ronalds Often Overlooked in History? 

Ronalds felt little proprietorship over his ideas and chose not to patent his invention. While he hoped the electric telegraph would be further developed, he focused his efforts elsewhere, pursuing mechanical and civil engineering as well as meteorological interests.

When the triumph of a global telegraph system was finally achieved, it was overshadowed by bickering among Wheatstone, Cooke, and Morse as to who was the actual inventor, taking the attention even further away from Ronalds. Despite his vision, advanced understanding, and practical innovation, Francis Ronalds is little remembered today. 

The electric telegraph

The electric telegraph is regarded by some as one of the greatest historical inventions of the nineteenth century. Image courtesy of Picryl


The invention of the electric telegraph can’t be attributed to any one person but to a gradual accumulation of improvements and modifications. Even so, credit was eventually bestowed upon Ronalds. In 1846, Sir John Rennie referred to Ronalds as the inventor of the telegraph in his presidential address. Later, the Society of Telegraph Engineers dubbed him the "father of telegraphy."

Then, in 1870, Ronalds was finally knighted for his efforts alongside Wheatstone and Cooke—Wheatstone, for his scientific attainments and valuable inventions, Cooke for the practical introduction of the electric telegraph, and Ronalds as the original inventor of the electric telegraph. The knighthood stimulated demand for his original booklet. With this documentation, the quality of his foundational work is still acknowledged today.