Archives Biographies: Sir Charles Wheatstone 1802-1875

Sir Charles Wheatstone was born near Gloucester on 6 February 1802. He was the son of a music-seller, who later moved to London to teach the flute. Charles was originally apprenticed to his uncle, a maker of musical instruments, but became interested in science after buying a book on Volta's experiments.

He kept his connections with music, however, through his researches into acoustics and his musical inventions, which included the concertina. It was this research that made his name and resulted in his being appointed to the Chair of Experimental Physics at King's College, London.

Sir Charles is most famous for two instruments: the Cooke-Wheatstone telegraph and the Wheatstone bridge. The latter was actually the invention of S W Christie, but Wheatstone was the first to draw attention to its capabilities. The telegraph was the original idea of Sir William Fothergill Cooke, who turned to Wheatstone for scientific advice after running into problems with its development. 

In 1837, after some debate, they went into partnership and patented a five-needle telegraph. This instrument was very successful, but Cooke and Wheatstone soon argued over who should be credited with its invention. The case went to arbitration and it was decided that Cooke had introduced the telegraph as a workable instrument, but Wheatstone had prepared for its reception by his scientific researches.

Wheatstone also made important contributions to the measurement of the velocity of electricity and light and the development of cyphers (he was the inventor of the 'Playfair' code). He was a member of the Society of Telegraph Engineers, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1836, and knighted in 1868. He died in Paris on 19 October 1875.