Electricity, rivalry and patents – An Irishman’s Diary on Henry O’Reilly and Alexander Bain
Alexander Bain: found that a signal current could be used to impress numerals and letters on chemically soaked paper
An entrepreneur from the town of Carrickmacross in Co Monaghan and an inventor from the village of Watten in the far north of Scotland became notable figures during an era in the 19th century when the uses of electric current were being explored.
Although they never actually met, their projects crossed paths in 1850 during an episode of competitive rivalry to exploit the potential of electricity, with its rewards of money and renown.
Henry O’Reilly’s family emigrated to the US in 1816, when he was ten years of age. He settled in the city of Rochester in New York state and became a leading citizen there. A businessman and journalist, he established the Rochester Daily Advertiser newspaper.
With an emigrant’s deep understanding of the importance of education, he became a champion of free public schooling. He argued vigorously against those who maintained that education was for people who could afford it, essentially confining it to the better-off classes. O’Reilly and other like-minded advocates eventually won out. He became a prominent member of the board of education in Rochester.
Meanwhile in Scotland, the son of a small farmer, Alexander Bain, who was born in 1810, applied himself to the craft of clockmaking.
With a capacity for endless effort, he began to explore the possibilities of using electro-magnetic pulses to move the pendulum rather than a wound spring.
In dire need of money to fund his experiments, he demonstrated his innovation to a well-to-do inventor, Sir Charles Wheatstone. This man dismissed Bain’s brainchild. However, three months later he demonstrated an electric clock to the Royal Society, claiming it was his own invention. Fortunately for Bain he had already applied for a patent and despite Wheatstone’s efforts to block it, the British House of Lords had him awarded a sum of £10,000.
This event illustrated the kind of sharp practice spawned by the race to find new uses for electric current. Claims and counter-claims about new advances were part of that era. There were other clockmakers in Europe who were on the same track as Bain but he was accepted as the inventor of the electric clock.
He made further improvements, including one to derive the electricity from what he termed “an earth battery” of plates of zinc and copper set in the ground.
This was an early forerunner of the batteries that power our clocks and watches and indeed our mobile phones today.
Bain also worked at developing one of the first facsimile machines, using a clock to synchronise the movement of two pendulums for line-by-line scanning of a message.
Then, in an advance in the effectiveness of sending messages along wires strung between two locations, Bain found that a signal current could be used to impress numerals and letters on chemically soaked paper. It was given a trial between Paris and Lille and proved to be much faster than the mechanical system initiated by Samuel Morse in the US.
O’Reilly, an ambitious enthusiast for new development and well aware of profits to be made, set up a company that adopted Bain’s system. He got a contract to to lay a telegraph line from the eastern seaboard of the US to the Great Lakes.
However, his activity aroused the anger and hostility of Morse, who took an injunction against it, claiming that it infringed his patent.
The dispute ended up in the US supreme court. O’Reilly lost the case, his venture ceased, and Bain’s system was hardly ever used anywhere after that.
The O’Reilly v Morse case has since became an oft-quoted decision down the years. It has influenced the legalities surrounding patents, especially software in the IT sphere.
A key judgment held that abstract ideas, separate from their actual implementation, were not eligible for patents.
O’Reilly’s later enterprises were not successful. It was said that this was in part due to his quarrelsome habits. He died in 1886 in meagre circumstances. His legacy rests on a monumental tome, Settlement in the West: Sketches of Rochester, on the history and settlement of a region that was part of a US state that eventually became a world powerhouse of trade and commerce, politics and popular culture.
Bain made much money from his inventions but lost it all in poor investments. Influential friends obtained a civil list pension for him from the British prime minister William Gladstone.
My brother Tom, who lives in Watten, brought me to view the carved stone memorial pillar to Bain. It stands outside the village community centre where one of Bain’s tall elegant pendulum clocks is on display. A large impressive pub in the nearby town of Wick is named after him.
Incidentally a neighbour who was on holiday this summer in the Black Forest region of Germany told me they visited the Deutsches Uhrenmuseum (German Clock Museum) in the town of Furtwanger and were shown one of Bain’s earliest clocks among the exhibits.