Biography of Cromwell Fleetwood Varley

[Trade Journal]

Publication: The Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review

London, England
vol. 13, no. 303, p. 203-204, col. 1-2


CROMWELL VARLEY was born in the parish of Westminster, on April 6th, 1828, and was the second son of the late Mr. Cornelius Varley, an artist by profession, but better known for his microscopical researches, and as an active member of the Society of Arts, of which, at the time of his death, he was the oldest member.

Mr. Cornelius Varley was an enthusiast who never permitted anything to keep him away from his chapel on Sundays or from a scientific gathering during the week, and he took his elder sons with him wherever he could.

Faraday was the most prominent Elder of the little sect to which Mr. Cornelius Varley belonged, and his family were brought up to regard him in the twofold light of religious teacher and scientific exemplar.

Mr. Cornelius Varley's house was a sort of museum of scientific odds and ends. Electrical and scientific apparatus were the only toys, and a workshop and laboratory were the playground in which his sons passed most of their spare time.

From a schoolmaster's point of view, Cromwell Varley was far from being a model boy, lessons being as irksome to him as constructing galvanic batteries and experimenting were a delight. When electrotyping engaged public attention Mr. Varley became an enthusiastic electrotyper, and, whilst still a youth, he constructed an earth battery, making use of the water-pipes for one element and several bushels of coke buried in the earth for the other. With this battery, the action of which was very slow, he took more than one electrotype. He was a neat manipulator and most painstaking and persevering in any work he undertook on his own account. His favourite text-book was Noad's "Lectures on Electricity;" the lectures he most delighted to attend were those delivered by Grove at the Royal Institution. Batteries have somewhere been described as "copper and zinc, acid and stink," but they were not so to Cromwell Varley. Amalgamating the zincs, charging the batteries, emptying them afterwards, and washing the plates, which are so irksome to most people, were no trouble to him. It may therefore be fairly claimed for Mr. Varley that he was an electrician by natural selection and not, like many of our telegraph engineers, by force of circumstances.

In 1846 he entered the service of the Electric Telegraph Company, and two years later he was appointed assistant to the superintendent of the street work. The underground wires of those days were cotton-covered copper wires insulated by a mixture of resin and Stockholm tar inclosed in leaden tubes, and were a source of great trouble from their continually getting out of order. Mr. Varley here found himself in his own special element, locating with comparative facility the position of intermittent faults (which so baffled his colleagues), and cutting out the bad portions and repairing the wires. He experimented with these wires, recognised they possessed conditions favourable for the manifestation of induction, observed indications of it and made use of this indication as a test of the insulation.

The introduction of gutta-percha covered wires in 1849 greatly improved the insulation of the underground lines, and Mr. Varley made use of the capability of the insulated wrire to retain a statical charge, as a more searching test of the perfection of the insulation than that of the deflection of a galvanometer. In the latter end of 1851 Mr. Varley had the opportunity of experimenting upon a length of ten miles of guttapercha covered wire. Among other experiments, this wire was charged statically by 300 battery cells, and discharged like an ordinary Leyden jar through the human body, a very powerful and unpleasant shock being experienced. The conclusion at which Mr. Varley then arrived was, that if gutta-percha covered wires were employed for circuits of considerable length, induction would manifest itself so powerfully as to offer serious obstacles to telegraphing. These views were represented at headquarters, but they were disregarded. A few years later underground circuits were established between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, when induction manifested itself to as great or a greater degree than had been anticipated by Mr. Varley. This manifestation was regarded by his colleagues as a new phenomenon, which could not have been anticipated. Faraday was consulted to help them out of their difficulties, and he made it the subject of an instructive lecture, in which he referred to this phenomenon as a "strong confirmation of the truthfulness of the views he had put forth as far back as 1838." Mr. Varley's time had now come. He was appointed telegraphic engineer of the London district, but from that time he became practically the electrical adviser to the Electric and International Telegraph Company. On February 16th, 1854, Mr. Varley took out his first patent for what is known as Varley's double current system, which practically overcame the difficulty of working through underground circuits of such lengths as then existed. This patent was rapidly followed by other patents for translating apparatus and other purposes too numerous to mention.

In 1857 the Atlantic Telegraph Company was projected, and submarine telegraphy engaged the attention of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and was the subject of more than one paper read before them. Mr. Varley's brother, Mr. Alfred Varley, submitted papers to the Institution of Civil Engineers and Society of Arts, on the "Electrical Qualifications Necessary in Long Submarine Cables," and also on the " Practical Bearing of the Theory of Electricity in Submarine Telegraphy." In these papers he demonstrated that the electrical conclusions on which the construction of the cable was based were erroneous, and that the plan advocated by Dr. Siemens, of forming the conductor of the cable of two wires separated a short distance from one another, and coated with gutta-percha, using one of them in place of the earth for the return circuit, would greatly increase the retardation instead of halving it, as Dr. Charles Siemens then anticipated. These papers were reproduced in the scientific journals of the day, and after .the breaking down of the first Atlantic cable Mr. Cromwell Varley was consulted, and he became electrical adviser to the Atlantic Telegraph Company, and he was also appointed engineer-in-chief to the Electric and International Telegraph Company. Whilst holding these offices he brought out the double V insulator, which may be said to be almost universally adopted in this country. He greatly extended the telegraph system, and improved the general insulation of the lines. He also devoted his attention, and contributed largely, to solving the problem of working rapidly through long submarine cables, working for a time in conjunction with Sir William Thomson and Fleming Jenkin. He accompanied the 1865 expedition, which was not successful, and when in 1866 communication was successfully established between England and America, the cable was worked under the joint patents of Thomson, Varley, and Jenkin.

Mr. Varley possessed in a large degree that power of taking infinite pains which Carlyle has described as the attribute of genius. But in the true sense of the word he was not so original as to the outer world he appeared. In. the inventions he brought forward there was often a germ, or something more than a germ, originating with somebody else. This was the case in his first patent, and also in some of his others. The electric multiplier, for example, which is described in the memoirs which have lately appeared in some of our contemporaries as arising from an inspiration of genius on the part of Mr. Varley, aided by two insulated saucepans, and which is stated to have been the foundation of Holtz's machine, was really based on "Peclet's Double Electrical Condenser," described in Noad's "Lectures on p]lectricity," published in 1849, the only difference being that the successive manual operations which Peclet employed are ingeniously arranged in Mr. Varley's invention to be performed by turning a handle. The artificial line also, which was generally attributed to Mr. Cromwell Varley, was really the invention of his brother, Mr. Alfred Varley, who suggested its use for solving by direct experiment the rate of transmission through circuits having conductors of varying length and sectional area, and different thicknesses of insulating material; and it is minutely described in the paper, before referred to, which was read before the Society of Arts on March 30, 1859. If, however, it has to be confessed that Mr. Varley received a greater amount of assistance than he was willing to admit, it must be acknowledged that his clear perception grasped the whole of the subject whenever a good idea was suggested, and that he worked most unremittingly for its fulfilment; and if his assertive activity identified his name with the invention, his almost volcanic energy bore down opposition, and to him was often really due the credit of its practical realisation. On one occasion, at a public discussion, a claim was made by a telegraphic engineer to be the originator of the use of resistance coils for testing circuits, when the answer made by one of Mr. Varley's colleagues was, "Where are the coils? Where is the evidence of their adoption? Mr. Varley had not only suggested but he had made the coils, and shown us how to use them."

In this brief memoir much that Mr. Varley accomplished is necessarily omitted. His life, if fully written, is almost a history of the application of electricity to the purposes of telegraphy, beginning with the time when it was shown to be practicable to transmit human thought over a limited distance, and ending at a period when messages are being daily sent under the sea from continent to continent, to a distance only confined by the limits of our terrestrial system.

As the commencement of his public life was coincident with the beginning of a great scientific advance, so also is his death coincident with the beginning of another epoch in human progress. The consequences immediately flowing from the discovery (just seventeen years ago) of what Sir William Thomson has termed the fundamental principle of the dynamo, and which was made in the first instance by Mr. Varley's brother, Mr. S. Alfred Varley, demonstrate that, at no distant period, electric force will be used, not only for the conveyance of human thought, and the production of light as now, but also for the carriage of goods and human beings, as well as for other industrial uses.

Sir Wm. Thomson writes to us respecting Mr. Varley as follows:—

"I well remember when I first made his acquaintance at Valentia in the autumn of 1858, when he was sent by my brother directors to co-operate with me in examining into the cause of the failure of the cable after its short-lived success. I had been extemporising resistance coils to measure the insulation resistance of the cable. He came with a box of resistance coils ready made—a thing not then generally known—quite unknown, I might almost say, among English practical electricians. His application of condensers to facilitate the working of su