Hi! My name is Liz and I am a professional historian of technology. I will be blogging sporadically mostly about history of technology and science with a bit of cycling and travelling goodness thrown in now and then to keep you interested! My background is in history of communications but I’m also interested in contemporary writings about technology as well as museum collections. I love researching, whether it’s going through documents in archives or reading historical periodicals with the Electrician being a personal favourite.
Notes: Updated on 2 July 2021 to include details of Irene’s marriage and maiden name, thanks to Colm Mulchahy of Mathematics Ireland and updated 24 June 2021 to include details of Irene’s husband’s will and estate.
The archives of the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) of Ireland launched an interactive timeline of the electrification of Ireland from the foundation of the ESB in 1927 as a statutory corporation in the Irish Free State (later Republic of Ireland) under the Electricity (Supply) Act 1927 through to the completion of the original Rural Electrification Scheme in 1964.
Included in the timeline were independent electricity suppliers around the country, including one Mrs Irene C. McDowell, an independent electricity supplier of Mabel Villa, Finglas, Dublin who had appeared in the first ESB annual report in 1928 and seems to have been providing electricity prior to 1927/1928. Her electricity supply business was later acquired by ESB around 1930-1931.
As other projects such as the interactive map for the Centenary of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES) founded in 1919, Dr Nina Baker’s extensive Histories of Women Working in Engineering and Construction in the UK, and the Electrifying Women project at the University of Leeds have shown, there were relatively few women working in engineering and technical roles, particularly those relating to electrical engineering and electricity supply.
Many of the relatively few women working in these fields were either members of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), founded in June 1919 to promote engineering as a rewarding job for women as well as men and still in existence today, or the Electrical Association of Women (EAW), established in 1924 to educate women about electricity, act as an advisory body and encourage women to be consumers of electrical apparatus and eventually disolved in 1986.
Irene McDowell does not seem to have been a member of the Women’s Engineering Society and does not appear in the Woman Engineer, the society’s journal, which has been digitised, made searchable, and is hosted by the IET Archives. Unfortunately, The Electrical Age for Women, the Official Journal of the Electrical Association for Women, launched in 1926 has not yet been digitised but is available in the IET archives at IET Savoy Place London so a future research visit may be in the works!
So this is what we don’t know about Irene McDowell – what do we know about her?
Born in 1882 or 1883, Irene Kelly (as she was then) and Alexander James McDowell were married at Finglas Church on 17 April 1905. Alexander’s occupation was Builder’s Assistant, his father’s name was Alexander James McDowell and his residence at the time of marriage was 5 Montpelier Hill, Dublin. Irene’s residence at the time of marriage was Mabel Villa so this was her family home rather than one she originally set up with her husband. Her father’s name was James Francis Kelly and his occupation was book-keeper, suggesting perhaps that Irene came from a better socio-economic and possibly a better education than her husband.
Now aged 28, Irene Clara Mabel McDowell appears in the 1911 Irish census, living in Finglas, Dublin with her husband Alexander James McDowell (aged 47) and her daughter Vera Eveleen Mary McDowell (aged 4, born 9 March 1907), all three were Methodists; Irene may or may not have converted to Methodism when she married. Irene was born in Dublin and her husband Alexander had been born in England. Alexander’s occupation was listed as “Builders Manager”, four year old Vera was a “scholar”, and Irene did not have an occupation but was listed as being literate – being able to read and write – as was her husband. Four-year-old Vera “cannot read.”
On 23 July 1924, Irene’s husband Alexander died at home at Mabel Villa, Finglas, Dublin aged 61, of myocarditis or inflammation of the heart muscle. Alexander left his effects of £856 or the equivalent of about seven years of income derived from the labour of the skilled tradesperson, according to the National Archives UK currency converter, to his wife. His will (shown, in part, below) listed his profession as “retired Builders Assistant.” Irene would have been aged about 41 when her husband died.
Electricity supply in Dublin
Dublin had electricity before the establishment of ESB in 1927, initially lighting only from the late 1870s and early 1880s onwards but soon expanding to electro-motive traction and the foundation of the Dublin Electric Light Company in 1880. Note to readers: the history of electricity in Ireland before the foundation of the ESB in 1927 seems like a promising area of research!
By the foundation of the ESB in 1927, there were 15 local electricity suppliers in county Dublin, that is 15 individuals or companies who had permits to commercially supply electricity to 3 or more homes and businesses in their local area, of whom the only woman was Irene C. McDowell of Mabel Villa, Finglas providing electricity to the Dublin suburb of Finglas.
In terms of Irene McDowell’s electrical undertakings, she appears in the list of existing permitted electricity undertakings in the Saorstat [Free State] of 31 March 1928 in the first annual report of the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) in 1928 with her home address of Mabel Villa, Finglas and providing electricity to Finglas, a growing suburb northwest of Dublin city. No further information was provided but it is worth noting that independent electricity suppliers in Ireland at the time were a pretty even mixture of individuals, organisations, local authorities, and independent companies.
As an aside, on 23 November 1928, Irene’s daugther Vera (aged 21) married David Allan, a Railway Inspector Clerk from “Broomfield”, Cabra (aged 34).
The 1929 ESB annual report provided far more information about McDowell’s electrical undertakings: she had four customers in Finglas, which had overall population of 726 people, and provided electric lighting at one shilling a unit, a pretty standard pricing model as the table above shows.
In 1928, McDowell generated more electricity than she sold – generating 1,858 units of electricity but only selling 988 units. This was comparable with other independent electricity suppliers, as can be seen above – most generared more electricity than they sold especially for those selling a smaller amount of units. In 1929 and throughout the brief history of her indepedent electricity supply, McDowell did not list any employed staff.
The 1930 ESB annual report showed some change in McDowell’s electrical undertakings, she had increased her customer base by one to five customers but had significantly reduced the amount of electricity generated from 1,858 units in 1929 to 280 units in 1930, or about 15% of her previous year’s units generated. In 1930, McDowell generated 280 electrical units but only sold 200 units.
It would seem that McDowell was winding down her indepdenent electricity supply business as she was acquired by the ESB sometime between 1930 and 1931 and, by March 1931, Finglas had been connected to the ESB distribution network with a transformer station built but not yet in service and with the northern Dublin suburbs of Chapelizod, Castleknock and Finglas connected by a 10 kV. overhead line with a 38 kV. transformer station at Inchicore.
And so marked the end of independent electricity supply to the Dublin suburb of Finglas and the brief independent electricity supply career of Irene C. McDowell, the only female independent electricity supplier in Dublin.
As a brief aside, as far as I can tell there were a total of three female independent electricity suppliers in the Irish Free State in 1928:
- Irene C. McDowell in Finglas, Dublin
- The Convent of Mercy, Ennis, Co. Clare, one of two independent electricity suppliers in Ennis, Co Clare and bought out by the ESB in 1931. As can be seen above, in 1929 the Convent of Mercy was the largest electricity supplier in Ennis, generating and selling over twice as many units as the other independent supplier, Michael McMahon. The Covent of Mercy served only two customers and both Ennis independent electricity suppliers were acquired by the ESB in 1930-1931
- Ellen Cuffe, Countess of Desart (née Bischoffsheim; 1857-1933), company director; generous benefactor to various philanthropic causes in Ireland especially Kilkenny; one of the first female members of the Irish parliament in 1922; and President of the Gaelic League. In 2014, Kilkenny City Borough Council unveiled a pedestrian bridge named after Lady Desart and local historian Gabriel Murray, who has spent 20 years researching her life, said “She was the most important Jewish woman in Irish history.” Desart supplied electricity from her Aut Even estate at Talbot’s Inch before 1927. Aut Even was a transcription of Áit Aoibhinn, Irish for Beautiful Place. The supply served 27 homes and businesses in 1927, falling to 7 by 1930, when it was acquired by ESB. The Countess of Desart provided cheap electricity: she charged 7 pence per unit of electricity for lighting or heating and cooking when most independent suppliers charged nearly twice that for lighting – 1 shilling or 12 pence.
So where do we go from here? A cursory look at the Irish Times archive and the Irish Newspapers Archive does not reveal any further information but, given McDowell’s relatively small customer base, it is perhaps not surprising that she did not advertise her business in newspapers. A more detailed search may, of course, reveal more. Assuming McDowell began her electricity supply business before or in 1924, the most promising source would be the Freeman’s Journal, published continuously in Dublin from 1763 to 1924.
Due to the War of Independence in Ireland, there was no 1921 Census and so the next census was the 1926 one, which will be made available to the public in 2027 – so watch this space!
It is possible McDowell may have had some involvement with the Electrical Association for Women or been mentioned in The Electrical Age for Women, association’s journal available in the IET archives at IET Savoy Place London so a future research visit may be in the works.
Another possible avenue of research could be family history – further research into McDowell’s daughter Vera Eveleen Mary Allan (nee McDowell) (born 9 March 1907) or the family home of Mabel Villa, Finglas might also reveal more.
Last and not least, two potentially very interesting avenues for future research are:
- the history of electricity supply in Ireland prior to the formation of the ESB
- the indepedent electricity supply company belonging to Ellen Cuffe, Countess of Desart, and how this connected with the Jewish history of Ireland and her wider philanthrophy
Sources and further reading
ESB history timeline: https://www.esb.ie/who-we-are/our-history/history-timeline
ESB interactive timeline of electrification: https://esbarchives.ie/2020/06/09/electrifying-ireland-how-esb-connected-one-million-irish-homes-to-the-national-grid-1929-1978/
ESB – Connecting Dublin to the national grid: https://esbarchives.ie/2017/09/18/connecting-dublin-to-the-national-grid/
Ellen Cuffe, Countess of Desart: Wikipedia, Jewish Chronicle article on Lady Desart, Historic Kilkenny profile, and details of her home at Aut Even House, Talbot’s Inch village.
Dr Nina Baker’s Histories of Women Working in Engineering and Construction in the UK: https://womenengineerssite.wordpress.com/
Electrifying Women: Understanding the Long History of Women in Engineering, an AHRC project at the University of Leeds: https://electrifyingwomen.org/
History of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES): https://www.wes.org.uk/wes-heritage
IET Archives: Electrical Association for Women – History and Policy: https://www.theiet.org/membership/library-archives/the-iet-archives/online-exhibitions/women-and-engineering/electrical-association-for-women-history-and-policy/
WES – the Electrical Association of Women: https://www.wes.org.uk/content/electrical-association-women
Born on this day, 1 July, in Hull in 1903, Amy Johnson is best known as a British aviation pioneer and long-distance aviation record breaker in the 1930s as well as her service and death in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) during the Second World War. In May 1930, Johnson became the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia, an 11,000-mile journey, after only 100 hours of solo flying.
Known as the “Queen of the Air” and later (with her husband James Mollison) “The Flying Sweethearts”, Johnson was widely celebrated throughout for her aviation achievements but less is known about her engineering expertise and her contribution to wireless communications in aircraft.
In 1929, Johnson received her licensed engineer’s certificate, the first awarded by the Air Ministry to a woman, and the successes of her long-distance flights were in much part due to her ability to engineering expertise and her ability to maintain and repair her various aircraft.
Amy Johnson and airborne wireless
From 1935 to 1937, Johnson (under her married name Amy Mollison) served as President of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), founded in 1919 to promote engineering as a rewarding job for women as well as men and of which Johnson was an active member. In January 1935, Johnson inaugurated the society’s Aviation Debates as part of the aeronautical meetings of WES and Johnson contributed the first debate with her husband Jim Mollison before an audience of about fifty people in central London on the present and future of long-distance flights.
Johnson argued for a future of long-distance commercial passenger flights, noting how lessons learned in long-distance races could contribute to the future of commercial airlines. She argued that properly equipped ground stations were an important aspect of long-distance flights, as aircraft in the mid-1930s could only make journeys like that from England to Australia in multiple hops. Johnson noted that when she made her ground-breaking flight to Australia in May 1930 ground station facilities were very basic.
By the mid-1930s, ground stations were expected to better equipped with Johnson emphasising strongly that “complete and efficient wireless installation is of supreme importance.” Ground stations or airfields should, Johnson said in the inaugural WES aeronautical debate, be equipped with powerful beacon light for night flying, complete wireless communications equipment with directional or “beam wireless”, a large control tower, weather information and petrol pumps.
Both airborne wireless communications and wireless direction-finding had their origins in and around the First World War, the latter being a system of locating the position where a wireless message was being sent from, on land, at sea, and most relevantly in the air. Essentially, three or more wireless stations in different locations would intercept a wireless transmission and use directional aerials and triangulation to locate where the wireless signal was being sent from.
During the First World War, this system was used to locate German airships and later Gotha bombers as they approached Britain and so prepare air defences. In the 1920s and 1930s, wireless direction finding began to be installed in ships and civilian aircraft to assist with navigation. The system continued in use into the Second World War, in parallel with radar.
Wireless and Johnson’s 1936 UK-Africa flight
In November 1932, Johnson had set a new world record of 4 days 6 hours and 54 minutes for a solo flight from London to Cape Town, South Africa but soon lost the record. In May 1936, she hoped to regain this Britain to South Africa solo world record but would do so by putting her ideas about airborne wireless communications into practice and fly in an aircraft equipped with short-wave wireless communications equipment made by the British Marconi Company. Johnson had a small commonality with Guglielmo Marconi, founder of the Marconi Company: both had been married at St George’s, Hanover Square, a fashionable up-market wedding venue in central London.
In 1936, Johnson (under her married name Amy Mollison) applied for a wireless licence for her aircraft, a Percival Gull Six with callsign G-ADZO, from the British General Post Office, the state institution with responsibility for allocating wireless licences in the UK. The Percival Gull Six was a single-engine, low-wing monoplane, with fixed landing gear, designed by Edgar Percival and built by Percival Aircraft Limited at Gravesend.
Johnson arrived at Wingfield Aerodrome, Cape Town, at 2.31pm (GMT) on 7 May with an elapsed time of 3 days 6 hours and 29 minutes (just over one day faster than her previous effort in 1932) and retook her record. Shortly after arrival, she sent a short message to the Marconi Company head office, which was received in the UK on 8 May:
“… Your wireless set kept me constantly in touch with the world [and] was a dependable companion.”Bodleian Library Marconi Collection MS. Marconi 332: Telegram sent from Amy Mollison (Amy Johnson), Cape Town, to Marconi Company, London, arrived 8 May 1936.
In June 1936 and after her return journey to Britain, Johnson wrote a more complete letter to the British Marconi Company noting that her small Marconi short-wave wireless set “gave the most reliable service, relieving [her] of a great deal of anxiety.”
Johnson elaborated that Reggan, the main wireless station in the Sahara, had been taken out by a rare desert thunderstorm but nonetheless her Marconi set was of sufficient power for her half-hourly messages to be picked up by smaller, less well equipped wireless station. This enabled her progress could be checked as she flew across the Sahara where loss of wireless contact, she understated, “might have proved a serious matter.”
Johnson’s record-breaking Britain to South Africa flight was to be her last long-distance flight before the outbreak of the Second World War but nonetheless proved the value of airborne wireless communications for aircraft races as well as civilian airliners. In January 1941, Johnson was tragically killed while ferrying aircraft for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA).
To this day, there is much debate and some secrecy about the details and cause of her death but an incorrect wireless (radio) callsign provided to air defences on the river Thames seems to have led to her becoming a victim of “friendly fire” which directly or indirectly led to her death. Johnson’s body was never recovered and on 14 January 1941, a memorial service was held for her at St Martin in the Fields’ church in London.
Today, Johnson is remembered in various ways – her 1930 record-breaking aircraft Jason is on display at the Science Museum and she is commemorated through various plaques and statues including the statue (shown above) at Herne Bay on the Thames estuary, close to the site where she was shot down and killed in 1941.
Sources and further reading
“Aeronautical Meetings of the Women’s Engineering Society: The President’s Return” in the Woman Engineer, volume 4 no 2 (March 1935), pp18-19. URL: http://www2.theiet.org/resources/library/archives/research/wes/WES_Vol_4a.html
Amy Johnson Project: https://amyjohnsonproject.org/
Electrifying Women website: https://electrifyingwomen.org/
History of the Women’s Engineering Society (WES): https://www.wes.org.uk/content/history
IET Archives biographies: Amy Johnson 1903 – 1941: https://www.theiet.org/publishing/library-archives/the-iet-archives/biographies/amy-johnson-1903-1941/
IET Archives blog on Amy Johnson – New Papers Uncovered in WES Archives: https://ietarchivesblog.org/2015/12/08/amy-johnson-new-papers-uncovered-in-wes-archives/
Science Museum blog – Wonderful Miss Johnson by Heather Bennett: https://blog.sciencemuseum.org.uk/wonderful-miss-johnson/
This Day in Aviation, 4–7 May 1936: https://www.thisdayinaviation.com/4-6-1936/
Midge Gillies, Amy Johnson: Queen of the Air (2004).
Henrietta Heald, Magnificent Women and their Revolutionary Machines (2019).
David Luff, Amy Johnson: Enigma in the Sky (2002).
Cross-posted from the Electrifying Women project blog.
I’m delighted to announce the publication of a special issue of Information & Culture: A journal of history on the history of women in British telecommunications, guest edited by myself (Elizabeth Bruton) and Mar Hicks. The full issue can be found on Project Muse. Feel to get in touch here if you do not have institutional access and would like pdf versions of the articles.
The special issue was an outcome of a panel on gender at the British Post Office in the Telecommunications Era conference at the Science Museum, London in August 2017.
Women’s roles in telecommunications history remain underexplored despite a recent proliferation of work on women in the history of technology. This special issue seeks to correct that imbalance by situating women’s work in early telecommunications in the UK in relation to broader changes in British society.
The full details of the five articles and their authors are below.
A History of Women in British Telecommunications: Introducing a Special Issue by Elizabeth Bruton, Mar Hicks
Abstract: Women’s roles in telecommunications history remain underexplored despite a recent proliferation of work on women in the history of technology. This special issue seeks to correct that imbalance by situating women’s work in early telecommunications in the UK in relation to broader changes in British society.
Elizabeth Bruton is curator of technology and engineering at the Science Museum in London. Her research interests include the history of communications, gender and women in electrical engineering, museum collections, and scientific instruments.
Mar Hicks is associate professor of history of technology at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Their work focuses on the history of computing, gender, labor, and sexuality. Hicks’s first book, Programmed Inequality (MIT Press, 2017), shows how sexism negatively affected British computing.
Embodying Telegraphy in Late Victorian London by Katie Hindmarch-Watson
Abstract: Upon the nationalization of the British telegraph system in 1870, a set of processes at work inside London’s Central Telegraph Office that was dictated by the bodily and spatial ordering of the era and combined with competing modes of Victorian class-inflected respectability produced gender-specified information labor. One of the effects of this process on telegraphy in London’s Central Office in the first decade of nationalized telegraphy was the creation of high-status circuits catering to the state, international trade, sporting life, and imperial business and low-status circuits directed toward the local and the provincial. These distinct telegraphic orbits were connected to different types of telegraph instruments operated by differently gendered telegraphists. The human components of the telegraph system embodied the stratifications of the ascendant telecommunications era.
Katie Hindmarch-Watson is assistant professor of modern British history at Johns Hopkins University. Her forthcoming book, Dispatches from the Underground: Telecommunications Workers and the Making of an Information Capital, 1870–1916 (University of California Press), explores both the work experiences and symbolic import of London’s telegraphists, telegraph boys, and telephone operators in the first decades of nationalized British telecommunications.
Abstract: This article examines attitudes toward the female telephone operator in the British press and a range of literary and cultural sources. Perceptions of female telephonists were rooted in both reactions to the increasingly visible employment of women in white-collar work and uncertain responses to the telephone as a new communication medium. Such perceptions of the female telephonist became stereotyped and static, though there were some later challenges and attempts to nuance these perceptions as well. The General Post Office took over the service and implemented a number of changes, but ultimately the organization and telephonists themselves had to coexist with these stereotypes.
Helen Glew is senior lecturer in history at the University of Westminster. Her research focuses on women’s employment in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Britain, and she is the author of Gender, Rhetoric and Regulation: Women’s Work in the Civil Service and the London County Council, 1900–55 (Manchester University Press, 2016).
Abstract: The British General Post Office (GPO) was one of the leading employers of women in Britain between the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, first as telegraph operators and later in telephone exchanges. However, there were ongoing private discussions within the GPO as to the physical capabilities of women, as well as suitable working facilities and traditionally gendered spaces and occupations. These discussions shaped wireless telegraphy as a highly gendered and exclusively masculine profession until the exigencies of the First World War led to limited opportunities for women as domestic wireless operators for the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) from 1917 onward.
Elizabeth Bruton is curator of technology and engineering at the Science Museum in London. Her research interests include the history of communications, gender and women in electrical engineering, museum collections, and scientific instruments.
Abstract: There is a gaping void in the historiography of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), later called the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps QMAAC), brought about by the absence of an informed understanding of the crucial role played by the young women seconded from British post office exchanges to serve as telephonists and telegraphists in France in 1917. Specifically attached to Royal Engineers’ signal units in British Expeditionary Force army bases and all three echelons of its General Headquarters, their arrival ensured the continued smooth operation of the army’s vital lines of communication. This article examines how their key role as professional technologists within a tightly secured military sector made a significant contribution to the final successful outcome of the conflict. Questions can be raised why their skills were never later addressed within the historiography, and it may be concluded that adequate recognition is long overdue.
Barbara Walsh holds a PhD in history from Lancaster University UK and is an independent scholar who has produced several groundbreaking works on a variety of topics that have opened new fields of research for overseas scholars. She is published by the Irish Academic Press, the History Press, and Pen and Sword and in translation by Les Éditions des l’Officine.
The full issue can be found on Project Muse.
I was recently asked about the history of science societies and history of science online resources I regularly engage with, particularly those related to the history of electrical engineering and radio communications and thought I would provide them here for more general consumption.
This is not meant to be comprehensive list but rather a brief selection of the resources and societies I access most frequently. Fell free to add suggestions in the comments.
History of electrical engineering and radio communications online resources
American Radio History: Free online access to historic journals on wireless, radio, and electrical engineering
Biodiversity Heritage Library: A collaborative resource to make biodiversity literature openly available to the world as part of a global biodiversity community. This one is included mostly for the digitised annual reports of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.
Grace’s Guide: A Wikipedia-type resource and leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in the UK, mostly using references to material from historic journals in the field.
Hathi Trust: A partnership of academic & research institutions, offering a collection of millions of titles digitized from libraries around the world – including early electrical engineering such as the Electrician. Note: This works best if accessing from the US.
Internet Archive: Non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more – includes some issues of
IEEE Xplore: Full text access to the world’s highest quality technical literature in engineering and technology, including those dating back to the nineteenth century including the Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers and many others. Note: Requires academic login for some material.
United States Early Radio History: A rich and detailed website for primary and second sources on the very early history of radio with a US focus from 1897 to 1927.
History of science and technology societies
A review of Marconi: the Man Who Networked the World by Marc Raboy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), originally published in the February 2017 issue of Physics World and re-published here with kind permission.
In July 1897 the young Italian entrepreneur Guglielmo Marconi was granted what is considered to be the world’s first wireless patent. To commercialize and popularize the embryonic technology that was wireless telegraphy, he founded his own company – the Wireless Signal and Telegraph Company, which later became Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company. The Italian innovator – and future Nobel physics laureate – had an ambitious vision for an interconnected, global wireless network, modelled on the existing global telegraphic network that spanned the globe in the late 19th century.
The success of Marconi – the man, as well as his many companies in the fields of wireless communications, broadcast radio and early television – is well documented in many a popular and academic publication. And yet, despite continued interest in Marconi’s public and private life throughout his time and even today, Marc Raboy’s Marconi: the Man Who Networked the World is the first detailed, thorough and academically rigorous biography of Marconi. Raboy presents a critical account of Marconi’s personality and private life, connecting the many different strands – commercial, political, social and public – surrounding Marconi, as well as covering the inventor’s important contributions to wireless communications and other technologies that have impacted our modern world.
The book neatly divides Marconi’s life into five chronological sections, describing various aspects and impacts of Marconi’s personality. The first section, “The Prodigy”, looks at Marconi’s early life as he grew up in Bologna, with his Italian–Irish family – his mother was Annie Jamieson of the Irish whiskey family. In 1896 at the age of 22, Marconi moved to Britain to begin his early commercial and international work in wireless technology, which led to his ground-breaking transatlantic transmission in December 1901.
Around this narrative of the more well-known parts of Marconi’s life, Raboy also describes more personal tales, including Marconi’s early and secretive romantic entanglements, such as his unfulfilled engagement to the American Josephine Holman.
The book then moves on to “The Player” – a section that examines the eight busy years between the transatlantic transmission in 1901 and Marconi’s Nobel prize (awarded jointly with German wireless pioneer Ferdinand Braun) in 1909. The book deftly intertwines Marconi’s charming personality and highly successful use of publicity – Marconi presented himself as a celebrity inventor – with the early commercial and international development of the various Marconi companies. Raboy also points out Marconi’s less charming use of legal action, including patent litigation, in an attempt to stifle competition.
In “The Patriot”, Raboy moves on to wider changes in the Marconi Company, such as the appointment of new managing director Godfrey Isaacs, and the ups and downs of Marconi and his companies before and during the First World War. The latter included the life-saving and headline-grabbing application of wireless telegraphy during the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912. Another point of note was the “Marconi Scandal”, also in 1912, in which the company lost its lucrative contract with the British government to construct the Imperial Wireless Scheme, in light of political deals and share-rigging. Raboy also describes how Marconi reconsidered his role, and that of wireless communications, in the aftermath of the world wars and the global devastation they had wrought.
The final two sections of the book – “The Outsider” and “The Conformist” – look at the inventor’s first forays into Italian fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the end of his first marriage and subsequent second marriage. Raboy also explores Marconi’s interest and involvement in wider technical applications of wireless technologies including beam navigation for ships and aircraft, broadcast radio, and short-wave long-distance radio. Marconi conducted many experiments in these new and promising technologies, with much of his experimental programme conducted on his floating laboratory, the yacht Elettra after whom his daughter Elettra from his second marriage was named (and not the other way round).
Raboy concludes with Marconi’s somewhat early and unexpected death in July 1937 at the age of 63, his heritage and the concerted efforts of Marconi and later his family to control his reputation and guarantee his legacy – a task continued by the Marconi Company publicity department well beyond Marconi’s death into the late 20th century.
In this readable and authoritative biography running to nearly 900 pages, Raboy provides a critical and illuminating study of how Marconi’s complicated personality and personal attributes – an irresistible combination of magnetic charm, singular vision and ruthless grand ambition – shaped his own life as well as the lives of many others. Unlike previous studies of Marconi, Raboy does not gloss over the more negative aspects of the inventor’s personality: his absence as a father; his many romantic affairs; his multiple and frequent threats of patent litigation to limit commercial competition; his use of the work of others (only some of whom worked for him and his companies); his (ultimately unfulfilled) monopolistic ambitions for a global wireless network; and his close involvement with Italian fascism towards the end of his life. Instead, Raboy argues that it was these very personality traits that shaped and determined the majority of Marconi’s business and technological choices, many of which contributed ultimately to the interconnected wireless world we live in today.
In claiming Marconi as “the man who networked the world”, Raboy is perhaps on shakier ground, as he downplays the importance and successes of the pre-existing global telegraph network in order to present Marconi as a unique visionary. Despite this somewhat overly ambitious underlying premise, Raboy’s volume is a major and long overdue biography that combines archival sources and publications to create a highly readable and fascinating insight into the public and private aspects of Marconi’s life. The book will appeal to popular and academic readers alike, including those with an interest in early wireless and telecommunications technologies, as well as those interested in a more insightful and illuminating look at Marconi’s life.
- Enjoy the rest of the February 2017 issue of Physics World in their digital magazine or via the Physics World app for any iOS or Android smartphone or tablet. Membership of the Institute of Physics required.
By Elizabeth Bruton, originally published in the February 2017 issue of Physics World.
The Americans have need of the telephone, but we [the British] do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.
– William Preece
Today (15 February) marks the birthday of one William Henry Preece, born in Caernarfon, Wales on 15 February 1834 who later went on to become Engineer-in-Chief of the British Post Office. Little known today, Preece was a prominent Victorian and electrical engineer who held a key role in the development of telegraphy and introduction to telephony and wireless telegraphy in Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through his three-decade long service with the British Post Office and previous work in private electrical telegraph companies.
Where he is known today, it is perhaps in his early support of the young Guglielmo Marconi and his wireless system when both arrived in Britain in early 1896 with Preece providing a platform and technical expertise from which Marconi could promote his wireless system to scientists, engineers, and the general public.
But it was perhaps a casually made comment by Preece with regards to the telephone, a comment considered one “worst one of the worst tech predictions of all time” and a “top 10 bad tech prediction” (and many more along these lines) for which he is best known today.
The quote is generally presented as being a response to a question about the future potential of the telephone with the question being sometimes falsely attributed as being a response to a question from Alexander Graham Bell no less! In this blog post, I will attempt to answer the following questions:
- What was the actual context, source, and form of the original quotation?
- Is it documented as actually being said by Preece?
- If so, what is the context – historic and personal – for the quotation?
- How was the quotation popularised, particularly in terms of technological predictions?
The original quotation and documented evidence
The quotation at the beginning of this post has appeared in various forms and with various dates attached over the years. After much searching, one of the oldest versions of the quotation I was able to find was in an article entitled “Entertaining Varieties” in Popular Science Monthly from August 1882, which is most probably quoting and summarising content from Blackwood’s Magazine. The Popular Science Monthly article quotes (unnamed) “one of the most able and experienced electricians of the day” as saying before a Select Committee hearing in 1879 and with regard to the future of the telephone in Britain:
But there are conditions in America which necessitate the use of instruments of this kind more there than here. Here we have a superabundance of messengers, errand boys, and things of that kind. In America they are wanted.
This quotation and the key phrase “superabundance of messengers” leads to the 1879 Select Committee on Lighting by Electricity where Preece was called, in his role as Post Office electrician (electrical engineer), to give evidence on 2 May and where he was questioned extensively by Select Committee member Lord Lindsay and others on electric lighting. Lord Lindsay’s questions included those about the electric currents induced by powerful exterior electric lighting and relatedly how the new telephone lines and instruments were especially sensitive to these induced currents. About halfway through Preece’s evidence, Lord Lindsay almost as an aside asked Preece the fateful question: “whether the telephone will be an instrument for the future which will be largely adopted by the public?”
In answer to this question, Preece replied: “I think not.” When further questioned by Lord Lindsay as to whether “[The telephone] will not take the same position in [Britain] as it has already done in America?”, Preece replied in more detail:
I fancy that the descriptions we get of its use in America are a little exaggerated; but there are conditions in America which necessitate the use of instruments of this kind more there than here. Here we have a superabundance of messengers, errand boys, and things of that kind. In America they are wanted, and one of the most striking things to an English-man there is to see how the Americans have adopted in their houses call bells and telegraphs, and telephones, and all kinds of aids to their domestic arrangements, which have been forced upon them by necessity.
Lyon Sir Playfair, “Report from the Select Committee on Lighting by Electricity; Together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence, and Appendix,” in Document type: HOUSE OF COMMONS PAPERS; REPORTS OF COMMITTEES (London: House of Commons, 1879), 69.
So here we have the quotation in its original form and context, documented and attributed to Preece himself in 1879 but does this accurately reflect the context – historic and personal – of Preece and his personal opinion of the potential and development of the telephone?
Historic and personal context
To better understand this quotation, we have to look more closely at Preece’s background and interest in telecommunications, particularly in the electrical telegraph and the telephone. Preece’s interest in electrical engineering was sparked (so to speak) by attending public lectures given by pioneers in the field such as Michael Faraday and John Tyndall. In 1852 Preece began working at the Electric Telegraph Company (ETC), a company he worked at for the first fifteen years of his career.
Preece began at ETC as an unpaid apprentice working for Edwin Clark, then Engineer-in-Chief of the company, and a year later in 1853, Preece was taken on as a clerk at ETC and was employed in ordinary electrical work with a focus on submarine cable manufacture and cable laying. Preece also briefly assisted Michael Faraday with telegraphic experiments in 1853 but his later claim to have learnt everything he knew about electrical engineering at “the feet of Faraday” is more rhetoric than reality. In 1854 Preece became an assistant to Latimer Clark and in 1856, three years after joining the company, Preece was promoted to superintendent of their southern district with headquarters at Southampton.
In 1870, Preece entered the employment of the Post Office in 1870, shortly after the 1868 and 1869 Telegraph Acts nationalised the domestic telegraph network – including the parts of the network belonging to Preece’s employer ETC – and brought it under the control of the Post Office. Preece was a dedicated, loyal, and prolific man, both professional and personally. Preece worked for the Post Office for over thirty years, eventually retiring as Engineer-in-Chief and Electrician (the latter part of the title by request of Preece himself) in February 1899.
Meanwhile in September 1876, William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) and Preece introduced Bell’s telephone before the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) held that year in Glasgow. Less than eighteen months after Bell filed his controversial US patent, 1878 marked a series of firsts in relation to the telephony in Britain with all of these events taking place. In June 1878 Bell established the Telephone Company Ltd in order to exploit his British patents. A few months later, Preece made the first practical demonstration of a pair of telephones before the annual meeting of the BAAS in Plymouth and later that same year, the Post Office provided its first telephones – a pair of Bell telephones – on rental to a firm in Manchester.
From this, we can see that Preece was supportive of the development telephone, both in a personal capacity as well as in his role as a Post Office engineer so from where did his Select Committee answer originate?
For further clarification, we can look forward to 1880, a mere two years after Preece first introduced Bell’s telephone to Britain and just over a year after his much-quoted Select Committee hearing comments on the future development of the telephone
From November to December 1880, the legal case of The Attorney General v The Edison Telephone Company of London Ltd was heard in the Exchequer Division of the Hugh Court of Justice. This legal case referred to a dispute between the Edison Company and the Post Office on the rights of the Post Office over telephone systems and would have a long-term effect upon the development of the telephony in Britain. In a landmark ruling the court decided in favour of the state, in this case the Post Office. The judgement concluded that the telephone was a “speaking telegraph” and a telephone conversation was a de facto telegram and therefore came under the state licensing for telecommunications, then managed by the Post Office.
Based on this judgement as well as Preece’s 1877 notes (right), we can see that Preece (as well as the British state through the legal judgement listed above) viewed the telephone as a “speaking telegraph”, and hence Preece’s judgement of the future usage and potential of the telephone in Britain was very much informed by his background in electrical telegraphy as well as his naturally cautious personality.
And so, in his 1879 comments on the future of the telephone, Preece most likely viewed the development of the telephone in Britain as following that of his beloved electric telegraph: a technological system which was widely developed and carefully licensed and controlled by the state via the General Post Office but a system which would not enter the domestic sphere in the way that it had in America. Rather, access would be, as it had for the telegraph, via commercially operated lines and offices with the last mile or so to the domestic sphere being provided by the messengers and errand boys mentioned in Preece’s comment to the Select Committee hearing. The telephone would have been a “speaking telegraph” and operated in a similar commercial rather than domestic sphere with access through necessity and cost being only to the government, business, military, and some private wealthy individuals.
While his quotation may indeed have been an inaccurate prediction of where telephones would be used (in the domestic sphere), it is not the damning verdict of non-development and hindrance that limited quoting / mis-quoting would suggestion. It is also important to remember the context:
- It was an opinion somewhat casually asked and made in the midst of evidence being gathered before a Select Committee about electric lighting, a naturally conservative and limited forum
- It was also a comment made in the more general context of Preece’s personal and professional context of electric telegraphy – in predicting the future, Preece looked both to the past (specifically his electrical telegraphy past) as well as the differences between Britain and America at the time. In the late 1870s, British cities were closer together and more densely populated than American ones and British society did not have such a large and prosperous middle class as that of America. In addition, British society was a more cautious adopter of domestic electrical devices than America society. For these reasons and more including the problems of electrical interference mentioned in his original Select Committee hearing, Preece preferred a vision of British developments in telephony as being akin to the “speaking telegraph” accessed through telegraph officers rather than the busy-ness of electrical devices in the domestic sphere, as it was in America
With this in mind, Preece’s comment reads like a historically and personally sensible comment rather than the outlandish technological prediction it is made to be today. He did not believe in a limited development of telephony but rather expressed a desire for the limited development of telephony in the domestic sphere.
Popularisation of Preece’s quotation
So how did this quotation come to be popularised and mis-quoted in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? After languishing in relative obscurity with a plethora of mentions in periodicals and journals in the late nineteenth century, the quotation was mentioned in passing in Marion May Dilts’ The Telephone In A Changing World, published in New York and Toronto in 1941 but it was not until the mid-1960s that the quotation was given its current understanding, emphasis and ridicule.
One of the earliest popularisers of Preece’s quotation was Harold Sharlin’s “The making of the electrical age; from the telegraph to automation.” which was published in Britain in 1963/1964. It was also around this time that the quotation was further popularised by Tony Benn, very possibly in his capacity as Postmaster General between 1964 and 1966, and who then allegedly passed the quotation on to Arthur C. Clarke who then published and popularised it further in his essay ‘Communications in the Second Century of The Telephone’ in The Telephone’s First Century — And Beyond: Essays on the Occasion of the 100th anniversary of Telephone Communication by Arthur C. Clarke et al (1977). Hence, the quotation appeared in various forms with regularity and ridicule in print and now online through to the present day.
This quotation is regularly included in lists of “worst technological predictions” in print and online, ridiculing Preece (when attributed) and his under-estimation of the popular development of the telephone in Britain and how messengers and errands boys would be more satisfactory and suitable – messengers and errand boys, how quaint, we say! But, as explored above, the full context of the quotation including Preece’s personal and professional capacities demonstrates that the quotation in full is not an under-estimation of the future but rather a mis-understanding and under-estimation of the past and an uncontextualised one at that.
By Elizabeth Bruton.
A good friend sent the image above, knowing it would be of interest and hoping I could find out more about the unusual lock in question which shows a ship sending out the emergency signal “CQD” wirelessly with the wireless signal being depicted as akin to lightning bolts emerging from the ship’s aerial.
Dating the lock is relatively easy as the use of “CQD” as the emergency signal over the more familiar and later “SOS” instantly dates the lock to approximately the first decade of the twentieth century.
“CQD” was the emergency wireless signal suggested by the Marconi International Maritime Company around February 1904 and adopted by most other British wireless companies at around this time. Like many of the signalling practices in the embryonic field of wireless communications at the turn of the twentieth century, CQD had it’s origins in the older electrical telegraph practices with “CQ” being the general call and “D” being shorthand for “distress” or “danger.”
At the 1906 Radiotelegraph Conference held in Berlin in October and November 1906, a number of important decisions were made about international regulations for wireless communications. The key decision was agreement to the principle of intercommunication, that is communication between wireless systems operated by different wireless companies, which had been strongly opposed by the Marconi Company who believed this principle strongly threatened their monopolistic goals as well as their patent rights. Meanwhile, the principle of intercommunication was strongly supported by many other nations at the conference in particular Germany.
Another discussion at the 1906 conference which fell along broadly national lines was that of the international standard for wireless distress signal.
- The German contingent proposed “SOS”, this being an adaptation of their original distress signal “SOE” with the terminal “S” (3 dots) making a more distinctive signal and the “SOS” signal had been adopted by Germany as their nationally recognised distress signal a year previously in April 1905
- The British delegates proposed “CQD” which, as mentioned previously, had been proposed and popularised by the Marconi Company, then Britain and the world’s largest wireless company
- Meanwhile, the delegates from the United States suggested “NC,” this being shorthand for “Call for help without delay” which was not widely considered at the 1906 conference but which continues to be used as the international flag signal for distress.
Ultimately, the German proposal of “SOS” was agreed to at the 1906 conference but took a while to be adopted. For example, the Marconi Company wireless operators used both “CQD” and “SOS” when sending out their desperate emergency messages after the RMS Titanic hit an iceberg in April 2012. At the 1912 Radiotelegraphic Conference held in London in June and July 1912 held a mere few months after the sinking of the Titanic, maritime safety came to the fore and the “SOS” signal was determined to be the sole emergency wireless distress signal.
So, if the lock shown at can be dated to approximately between 1904 and 1912, then is there a particular event it may be depicting? Well yes – one of the most well-known (if not the best-known) use of “CQD” between 1904 and 1912 and was on 23 January 1909 when the White Star Line vessel RMS Republic (with a Marconi wireless operator on board) collided with the Italian liner the SS Florida in fog off the island of Nantucket, Massachusetts. The passengers of the RMS Republic were rescued by the many vessels which answered her “CQD” distress call but the ship sank a day later while being towed to New York.
A year later in 1910, US hardware company Simmons Hardware Company began offering the CQD lock in question for sale in their trade catalogues and, with some artistic licence particularly in terms of the funnels (the RMS Republic had a single funnel rather than the two apparently depicted on the lock), the similarity between the RMS Republic and the ship shown on the lock is noticeable.
Although not related to the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the company continued to sell the lock in the aftermath of the sinking and through until around the time of US entry into World War One in 1917 when padlocks depicting wireless distress messages were less desirable and as “CQD” was completely replaced by “SOS.”
These beautifully crafted antique padlocks do occasionally come up for sale on eBay and mark a fascinating insight into the changing practices and politics surrounding wireless communications and maritime safety in the early years of the twentieth century.
By Elizabeth Bruton.
Located on the side of the A34 between Congleton and Alderley Edge in Cheshire, All Saints Church at Siddington is clearly visible on a slight rise with its distinctive timber frame filled with wattle and daub plaster and painted with black and white stripes to highlight the timber frame. However, it was not just the distinctive exterior of this historic church founded in 1337 which caught the attention of this passing cycling but rather the sign for harvest decorations and corn dollies which appeared in early October.
Corn dollies (sometimes known as “corn mothers” or “corn maidens”) are a form of straw artwork with roots in pagan traditions and culture around the harvest festival in October, with beliefs that the corn spirit (a spirit of fertility) lived amongst the crop and that through harvesting the corn spirit was made homeless and so would retreat into the last-standing ears of corn. And so the corn reapers would handcraft likeness of people or weave geometrical shapes from the last sheaves of the harvest into which the corn spirit could take refuge.
These corn dollies would be taken home for the winter and kept safe in the farmstead until spring time when a procession would take the corn dolly out to the newly ploughed field where it would be ceremonially broken open so that the corn spirit would return to the ground in the first furrow of the new season (on what was sometimes known as ‘Plough Monday’) and with it the promise of fertility for the newly sown crop.
Corn dollies formed a part of the harvest customs – pagan and Christian – in Europe prior to mechanisation and the related introduction of less traditional variants of wheat in aftermath of mechanisation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Corn dollies were sometimes used to decorate straw ricks around harvest time and were thought to keep away evil spirits and even witches. Today, corn dollies can be found in some Christian churches as part of the harvest decorations and as a representation of farming craftsmanship and All Saints at Siddington is an example of this long-standing tradition.
Every October around the time of the harvest festival, All Saints church at Siddington is decorated with a rich display fruit, vegetables, flowers alongside hundreds if not thousands of corn dollies, all hand-made by local farmer Raymond Rush. Mr Rush also sells corn dollies at his workshop next to the church.
The decorating of the church alone takes a day or more with each corn dolly taking tens or sometimes hundreds of hours to make by hand by Mr Rush, who lives at a farm near the church and has been making corn dollies for most of his life and decorating the church since the 1960s. The skill and craftsmanship of his corn dollies are such that the church is kept open during daylight hours while the dollies are on display so visitors can enjoy and admire his beautiful and rare artwork.
The Corn Dollies at All Saints Siddington are on display for about a month every year from the Harvest Festival in the second week in October and, if you feel suitable inspired, you can even learn to make your own!
In a recent post on his excellent blog “Roads Were Not Built for Cars”, Carlton Reid issued an impassioned plea for the UK’s Department for Transport to cease using the term “push-bike” to describe the bicycle. Reid argued that the term, first put forward in 1903, was offensive, old-fashioned and obnoxious.
Reid cited James T. Lightwood’s 1928 history of the Cyclists’ Touring Club, “The Romance of the Cyclists’ Touring Club”, which suggested that the term “push bike” was first used by Joseph Pennell (1857-1926) in 1903 and was intended as a put down.
Pennell was and is best known as an American author and illustrator but he was also a keen traveller and travel writer. Based in Britain, Pennell regularly travelled with his high-society journalist wife Elizabeth and together they wrote about their travels and cycling exploits in many of the leading journals of the day. Pennell was a long-time user of bicycles and tricycles but around the turn of the twentieth century he converted to motor cycling. Thereafter, according to Lightwood, he began using the term “push bike” to describe his former mode of transport in an “obnoxious” and “objectionable” fashion.
It was around the time that this female cyclist was pushing her bicycle (or “push bike”) along a muddy avenue in Toronto that the term itself began to enter common usage.
The earliest recorded usage for “push bike” (n.) in the Oxford English Dictionary (this may require a login) was from a June 1910 issue of Autocar: ‘A scratch race on ‘push bikes’ for A. A. Patrols.’ but the OED also records an early usage of “push bicycle” (n.) from 1906: Bazaar, Exchange & Mart in November 1906: ‘Exchange [motor-cycle]..for good make 25in push bicycle and cash.’
However, I have come across a few slightly earlier references, in particular to “push bike”.
In Henry Revell Reynolds’ Motor for moderate incomes (1905) p47, the author comments on the difficulties of driving a motorcar in adverse weather conditions:
…more considerable that a “push-bike,” so it is very advisable to take precautions and notice whether rain has fallen, little or much.
Also in late 1905/ early 1906, The Bystander: An Illustrated Weekly, Devoted to Travel, Literature, Art, the Drama, Progress, Locomotion Volume 8, p414 compared the bicycle and the motor-bike thus:
Besides the push-bike and its heavier brother, the motor-bike….
The phrase “push bike” may have begun to be popularised between 1906 and 1910 but it was not until April 1914 when The Times of London decided to use it for the first time and, in an article entitled “The Little Motor-Car. Revelations of the Holidays. On the Portsmouth Road.” (will require login), somewhat contrarily argued that the term “push bike” itself was a signaller of the demise of the bicycle.
In this short article, the author noted:
Even that hansom, as car after car whirls by it, from the stately touring-car to the derisive little imp of a motor-bicycle, must admit that the Portsmouth Road to-day is the road of the motor. But the motor’s kingdom is not yet undisputed. It is a year or two now since what used to be known merely as a bicycle came to be called distinctively and contemptuously a “push-bike,” just as a carriage is now a “horse-drawn” carriage. There is a knell in each epithet: but the push-bike’s day is not yet over. You notice them only as you notice the kind of midge that does not bite – by reason of their numbers. They are all over the road, in hundreds – and two per cent of them are by the side of the road, upside down having their punctures mended.
However, it wasn’t until 1916 when the term – especially in the form “push-bike” – began to take off as this Google Ngram (to be taken with a pinch of a salt, at least for the earlier entries) shows.