Biography of Sir Charles Bright

[Trade Journal]

Publication: Dictionary of National Biography Supplement

London, England
vol. 22, p. 271-273, col. 1-2


BRIGHT, SIR CHARLES TILSTON (1832-1888), telegraph engineer, third son of Brailsford Bright, a druggist of Bishopsgate Street, London, by his wife Emma Charlotte, daughter of Edward Tilston, was born at Wanstead on 8 June 1832. He was educated at the Merchant Taylors' School from 1840 to 1847, and then, at the age of fifteen, with his brother entered the employ of the Electric Telegraph Company, which had been formed to work the patents of Cooke and Wheatstone. In 1852 he joined the Magnetic Company, an amalgamation of two other companies, his brother being appointed manager of the joint concern. While in the service of this company he was employed in laying land telegraph lines of a very extensive character, including some thousands of miles of underground wires between London, Manchester, and Liverpool and other centres; in connection with these land systems he laid a cable of six wires between Port Patrick and Donaghadee in Ireland; this was the third cable laid, and the first in comparatively deep water. He remained chief engineer of the Magnetic company until 1860, and consulting engineer till 1870. During this period he took out several important patents, one in October 1852 (No. 14331 of 1852) for 'improvements in making telegraphic communications and in instruments and apparatus employed therein and connected therewith.' In this patent is to be found the first mention of sets of resistance coils constructed so as to form a series of different values. On 17 Sept. 1856 he took out another patent (2103 of 1855) on ' improvements in electric telegraphs and in apparatus connected therewith,' the main idea being to replace visual signals with aural signals; the patent included what has since been known as the acoustic telegraph or 'Bright's Bells.'

During the period that he was engaged in laying the underground lines he was continually experimenting on the transmission of signals through long distances. Dr. Werner Siemens in 1849, Latimer Clark [q.v. Suppl.] in 1852, and Michael Faraday [q.v.] in 1854 had all worked at the same problem. By coupling up the lines backwards and forwards between London and Manchester, Bright wag enabled to obtain a continuous length of over two thousand miles of underground lines. He was joined by E. O. Whitehouse in these researches, and when later he was appointed engineer to the Atlantic Cable Company, Whitehouse became electrician to the company.

The formation and history of the first Atlantic Cable Company was told by Bright in his presidential address to the Society of Telegraph Engineers and Electricians in 1887 (Journal of the Society, xvi. 27). On 29 Sept. 1856, at a meeting between Brett, Cyrus Field, and Bright, they mutually pledged themselves to form a company to establish and to work electric telegraphic communication between Ireland and Newfoundland; Whitehouse joined them shortly afterwards. The company was" registered on 20 Oct. 1856, and among the names of the directors appears that of Professor W. Thomson (Lord Kelvin). In a few days the whole of the capital was subscribed, and Bright (at the age of twenty-four) was appointed engineer-in-chief to the company, and Whitehouse electrician. The construction of the cable was placed in the hands of two firms—Messrs. Glass, Elliott, & Co. and Messrs. R. Newall & Co. Unfortunately the size of the conductor had been determined before Bright's appointment; he vainly endeavoured to have it increased.

The two firms worked quite independently of one another, and as a result of this the cable could not be tested electrically as a whole length until it was in the cable tanks of the ships employed in laying it; again, one firm adopted a left-handed lay for the iron wire sheathing, and the other a right-handed.

The ships selected for the actual work of laying were H.M. line of battleship Agamemnon and the U.S. frigate Niagara. Bright was anxious to begin in the middle of the Atlantic (the plan eventually adopted), each ship laying while she steamed—the one to Ireland and the other to Newfoundland—after splicing the two ends together; but he was overruled, and it was decided to start the laying from the Irish coast. The cable fleet assembled at Valencia on 4 Aug. 1857. The shore end was landed on 5 Aug. Bright was on the Niagara and Professor Thomson on the Agamemnon. At the first attempt the cable broke when only five miles had been paid out, and on a second attempt when some 380 miles had been completed; and as this happened in water two thousand fathoms deep, it was impossible to pick up the broken end; the scheme was therefore abandoned, and the ships returned to Plymouth, where the cables were landed and overhauled; during the winter additional lengths were constructed to serve as a stand-by in case of mishaps, and considerable improvements were made in the paying-out machinery. On 10 June 1858 the fleet sailed for mid-Atlantic (Bright's plan was now adopted), but again failure ensued, and the ships returned to Plymouth; though one section of the directors was ready to abandon the whole scheme, it was finally decided to make one further attempt. The fleet again sailed for the rendezvous in mid-Atlantic on 17 July. The work of paying out was begun on 29 July, and on 5 Aug. both ships reached their respective destinations in safety, and the great work was successfully finished. The Niagara laid 1,030, the Agamemnon 1,020 miles of cable. The first clear message was sent through the cable on 13 Aug., and it continued working till 20 Oct., during which period 732 messages passed through the cable, and then it finally broke down; probably the insulation had given way owing to the excessively strong currents used at first in working it.

To Bright therefore belongs the distinction of laying the first Atlantic cable and of first establishing telegraphic communication between Europe and America. He received the honour of knighthood at the extraordinarily early age of twenty-six (1858) as a recognition of his distinguished services to applied science and to his country. Though this cable so soon broke down, the mere fact that many successful messages had been sent through it showed that the problem was one which could be solved. With the second and third Atlantic cables of 1865 and 1866 Bright was himself not directly concerned. From 1861 to 1873 he was mainly engaged in cable-laying work in the Mediterranean, in the Persian Gulf (Proc. Inst. Civil Engineers, vol. xxvi. p. 1), and finally on a very complete network in the West Indian Islands. The severe strain, often in unhealthy districts, during this last work injured his health.

In 1861, after resigning his post with the Magnetic Company, he joined Latimer Clark in business, and in conjunction with him carried out numerous experiments on the insulation of gutta-percha covered wires. It was owing to a joint paper by Bright and Latimer Clark, read before the British Association at Manchester in 1861, that the committee (on which he served) on electrical standards was appointed, a committee which has rendered exceedingly valuable service to electrical engineering (see Reports on Electrical Standards, edited by Fleeming Jenkin, 1873).

Bright was member of parliament for Greenwich in the liberal interest from 1865 to 1868, and was one of the British delegates to the Paris exhibition in 188