Start of main content

Edward Davy - 'A Magnificent Failure'

"A magnificent failure"

While Cooke and Wheatstone were developing their telegraph and attempting to interest various rail companies in it, Edward Davy was developing an electric telegraph with a relay system. Davy, however, unlike Cooke and Wheatstone or Morse, is completely unknown today.

In 1836 Davy, who had an apothecary's practice in the Strand, published his "Outline of a new plan of telegraphic communication," and in 1837 carried out telegraphic experiments in Regents Park. He laid down a mile of copper wire in the park and developed his relay system or "electric renewer" which renewed the signal with the aid of a local battery to compensate for attenuation.  

He demonstrated a working model of his telegraph in 1837 and late in December, he exhibited a needle telegraph in the Exeter Hall in central London.  

He applied for a patent for his telegraph which was granted on 4 July 1838 after the Solicitor General asked Faraday's advice as to whether it constituted a different mechanism from that of Cooke and Wheatstone who had patented their telegraph on 12 December 1837.

Davy managed to interest two railway companies in his telegraph but left England for Australia before developing a practical system or completing negotiations. Eventually, his patent was bought by the Electric Telegraph Co. in 1847 for £600.

Why did he suddenly leave England, just when it seemed as though his telegraph might be successfully developed? A few years earlier he had married Mary Minshull, but the marriage had irretrievably broken down and Mary Davy tried unsuccessfully to divorce him. 

Her extravagance and Davy's lack of business sense led to mounting debts, some of which his father settled for him. But as Edward Davy wrote, "what with my wife's riots at the door ... & with this added to writs, summonses, etc. you will not much wonder that I should wish to get out of the way of it...."

In April 1839 he set sail for Australia. Once in Australia, he tried various pursuits. He edited the Adelaide Examiner for three years, built up a small medical practice and for a time ran the Yatala copper smelting works, where he developed a process for copper refining. Eventually, he settled down to practice medicine and engage in local politics in Malmsbury where he served three times as Mayor. He married twice in Australia and was survived by numerous children.

Our archives hold a collection of material pertaining to Edward Davy and his work on the telegraph. It consists of records relating to his first ideas for the electric telegraph including his early sketches and correspondence recording his efforts to secure agreements with businesses. The John Joseph Fahie collection holds some papers Fahie collected in an attempt to get recognition for Davy's work.