Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bain, Alexander

BAIN, ALEXANDER (1810–1877), the author of several important telegraphic inventions, the chief of which was the automatic chemical telegraph, was born in the parish of Watten, Caithness-shire. After having served as apprentice to a clockmaker at Wick, he came up to London in 1837 as a journeyman. He was led, by lectures which he attended at the Adelaide Gallery, to apply electricity to the working of clocks, and was one of the first to devise a method by which a number of clocks could be worked electrically from a standard time-keeper, though the credit of this invention is claimed by Wheatstone as well as by Bain. It is doubtful, again, whether he was the inventor of the first printing telegraph, as this too is disputed. In both cases he was unquestionably very early in the field. He discovered independently the use of the earth circuit, but here he was certainly anticipated by Steinheil. Electric fire-alarms and sounding apparatus were also among his inventions. His most important invention was the chemical telegraph of 1843 previously mentioned. This apparatus could be worked at a speed hitherto impossible, and its invention certainly entitles Bain to the credit of being the pioneer of modern high-speed telegraphy. It is stated that the rate at which the apparatus was capable of working was discovered accidentally, in consequence of the breaking of a spring during an experiment. The machine ran down, but the message was nevertheless properly received. Perhaps the most valuable part of the invention consisted in the use of strips of perforated paper for the transmission of the message. This contrivance was long after adopted by Wheatstone, and is in use in all the existing high-speed systems of telegraphy. He received as much as 7,000l. for his telegraphic patents, but the money was wasted in litigation, and he died a poor man. Intemperance was another cause of his non-success in life. In 1873 he received a grant from the Royal Society of 150l., and at the time of his death he was supported by a government pension of 80l. a year.

[In 1843 John Finlaison published an account of Bain's claims to the invention of electric clocks and of the printing telegraph. A description of his chemical telegraph was given in a paper read by Bain before the Society of Arts in 1866 (Soc. of Arts Journ. xiv. 138).]

H. T. W.