Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2069:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, invention at the wrong time. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The more I trace the arc of invention, the more I hear Ecclesiastes: "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the Heaven." The more I know, the more I puzzle over the role of the inventor who invents before that season arrives.

Alexander Bains was such a person. He was born on a Scottish farm in 1810. After minimal education he apprenticed to a watchmaker, then went to London as a journeyman clockmaker.

Bain read everything he could about the science of his day, especially early work in electricity. At thirty he built the first electric clock. The timing element was still a pendulum, but instead driving it with a weight or spring, he used an electromagnet.

He also devised means for using a telegraph system to set a clock in a distant town to the same time as a local clock. He obtained a series of patents for such systems between 1841 and 52. But he also made a grave miscalculation.

He showed his early ideas to electrical pioneer Charles Wheatstone. Wheatstone later claimed Bain's work as his own. History has generally sided with Bain in this conflict, but Wheatstone ruined Bain's attempts to sell his inventions.

Still (and we're back to our theme) electric clocks and Bain's telegraphic synchronization did not find general use until the 1920s. When they did, Bain, unlike most who emerge before their time, was still seen as the primary inventor. And his troubles did not stop with timekeeping.

In 1846, he got British patent protection for a system that recorded telegraph signals on tape. That way one didn't have to rely on a person to receive a coded message. Bain went to America to sell that idea and filed for an American patent in April 1848. But Morse received an American patent for such a system in January.

So Bain put his now-ambiguous patent to work with a Morse competitor. They did well for a while. Then the powerful Morse legal machine went to work, and cleaned out both Bain and the competitor.

Bain did much more. Perhaps his most interesting ill-timed idea is one he proposed at the same time he worked on his telegraphic synchronization scheme. It was a system for transmitting images. He patented an embryonic FAX machine in 1843. Nineteen years later, Italian inventor L'Abbé Caselli actually demonstrated a system that used Bain's principles. But faxing still didn't catch on.

Bain died poor at 67, in a home for the terminally ill. And we're left asking why things work this way. In fact, our sense of justice recoils. Yet creating ideas and making money are two separate human enterprises. Bain managed only the idea part. Yet history might be more just than it first seems. For when we trace the story of these devices, we find Bain wearing the crown for having changed his world after all. And that's really no small reward.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

See entry for "Bain, Alexander" in the Dictionary of National Biography.

R. W. Burns, Alexander Bain, a most ingenious and meritorious inventor. Engineering Science and Education Journal, April 1993.

A. Hart-Davis, Eurekaaargh! (London: Michael O'Mara Books Limited, 1999): pp. 107-111.

Alexander Bain

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H. Lienhard.