‘My great-great-great uncle helped create world as we know it from his Highbury home’
- Credit: Archant
Highbury man Sir Francis Ronalds invented the electric telegraph 200 years ago – but at first he was rejected by an establishment that thought flag waving was more effective.
Sending a text. Making a phone call. Writing an email. All things we take for granted in our everyday lives.
But who ultimately created this instantaneous world, where we can converse from one end of the globe to the other without even thinking about it?
That would be a madcap cheesemonger from Highbury.
This year is the 200th anniversary of Sir Francis Ronalds’ creation of the first working electric telegraph.
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A prolific inventor who lived at 1, Highbury Terrace, his story is one of extreme perseverence.
When he first pitched his telegraph to the government in 1816, Sir Francis (1788-1873) was ridiculed.
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It was only a quarter of a century later that his ingenuity was recognised and the telegraph used commercially.
That recognition still stands today, especially in Islington. After all, he has a street named after him: Ronalds Road, which links Highbury Fields with Holloway Road.
And in 2013, the council unveiled a commemorative plaque at his old house in Highbury Terrace. He lived there until 1813, when he moved to Hammersmith.
But as Bev Ronalds, Sir Francis’s great-great-great niece, points out to the Gazette, little more is known about his life.
She was surprised, for example, to find he also invented the portable tripod stand, still used today by cameramen and women across the world.
Bev, 58, of Westminster and Perth, Australia, has spent four years researching her ancestor’s legacy.
Speaking outside Sir Francis’s former home on Tuesday, she recalled: “My father used to tell me stories about Francis when I was a child. It always fascinated me and it became a goal to find out more about him.
“The basic facts were known about, such as him being the inventor of the electric telegraph. But I wanted to find out about his rejection, through to how he became revered.”
At the time when he invented the telegraph, Sir Francis was 28 and running the family cheesemonger business. But his heart was in science.
He began experimenting with electricity in 1810, aged 22. Sir Francis set up a long insulated wire through a window in the cockloft that ran through the fields towards Holloway Road, aiming to collect and observe electricity in the atmosphere.
“I was astonished to find he created device after device,” said Bev. “He was a prolific inventor.
“When he invented the telegraph pole, he thought it was obvious to offer it to the government.
“They then told him his invention was ‘wholly unneccessary’. At the time, the rulers were content to rely on semaphore!”
She added: “He had a good education. He was very talented and practical.
“But I feel from his diary notes that he was always a very modest, self-deprecating man.
“Don’t forget, after the government rejection, he lived in relative obscurity for 25 years, before people started to recognise his achievement.
“At the end of his life, he was knighted, but it was only after his death that he became truly renowned. His vision really was remarkable.”