Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Smith, Willoughby

SMITH, WILLOUGHBY (1828–1891), telegraphic engineer, was born at Great Yarmouth on 16 April 1828. In 1848 he entered the service of the Gutta Percha Company, London, and soon after this he commenced experimenting on covering iron or copper wire with gutta-percha for telegraphic or other electric purposes. In 1849 the company had so far succeeded with the experiments that they undertook to supply thirty miles of copper wire, covered with gutta-percha, to be laid from Dover to Calais. During 1849–50 Smith was engaged in the manufacture and laying of this line. The trouble caused by the imperfect system of making the joints induced him to give this subject special attention; in the cable laid over the same course in the following year, in the manufacture and laying of which he was actively engaged, he introduced a system of joint-making which proved a great success, and in 1855 he invented the present plan of joining and insulating the conductor.

From this time onward he was engaged either upon cable work or upon underground land lines. Early in 1854 the first cable to be laid in the Mediterranean was commenced. He had charge of the electrical department during its manufacture, and assisted Sir Charles Wheatstone with his experiments on the retardation of signals through this cable, while coiled at the works of Glass, Elliott, & Co. at East Greenwich. Smith took charge of the electrical department during the laying of this cable between Spezzia and Corsica, and Corsica and Sardinia, and in the following year was employed in the manufacture and laying of a cable between Sardinia and Bona in Algeria. On his return he became electrician and manager of the wire department of the Gutta Percha works, and commenced making 2,500 miles of core for a cable from Ireland to Newfoundland. In 1858 he gave up using coal-tar naphtha between the gutta-percha coverings of the wires, having invented an insulating and adhesive compound of a more suitable nature. This compound was generally adopted and is still in use.

In 1864 the works of Glass, Elliot, & Co. at Greenwich and the Gutta Percha Company were formed into The Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company, when Smith retained his position at the works. In 1865 he accompanied the Great Eastern steamship, and rendered assistance in the laying of the cable from Ireland to Newfoundland. Early in 1866 he was appointed chief electrician to the Telegraph Construction Company, and was engaged on board the Great Eastern during the successful laying of the second cable from Ireland to Newfoundland, and the recovery and completion of the cable lost the previous year. Subsequently he took charge of the French Atlantic cable expedition. The cable was successfully laid, but the strain on his mind was so great that for a time he was quite incapacitated for work. After his recovery he experimented upon, and improved the manufacture of, gutta-percha for cable work. He died at Eastbourne on 17 July 1891, and was buried in Highgate cemetery on 21 July.

Smith made many contributions to periodical literature and to the ‘Journal of the Institute of Telegraphic Engineers,’ of which institution he was president in 1882–3. In 1891 he published ‘The Rise and Progress of Submarine Telegraphy,’ in which he described some of his own work and experiences.

[Electrical Engineer, 24 July 1891, p. 85; Gordon's Physical Treatise on Electricity, 1883, ii. 299; Nature, 30 July 1891, p. 302; Times, 25 July 1891, p. 7.]

G. C. B.