The life of inventor Royal E. House

[Trade Journal]

Publication: The Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review

London, England
vol. 24, no. 580, p. 17-18, col. 1-2


IN a pleasant home in the city of Bridgeport, writes H. C. Hovey in the Scientific American, lives a veteran inventor, whose name has long been associated with the honoured names of Henry, Morse, Vail, and other pioneers of telegraphy, and which has lately gained new publicity from the fact that he contests with Prof. Bell the priority as inventor of the telephone. Keenly watchful of passing events, he has hitherto been unwilling to allow any sketch of his life and services or any portrait of himself to be published; and it is only at the urgent request of his friends that he permits the priming of this communication.

Royal Earle House was born in Rockingham, Vt., September 9th, 1814. In 1840 he invented and put in operation a water wheel that would work under water and not freeze in winter, and yet do the work of a gravity wheel with its gearing. This he accomplished by using a spiral conduit, with cover, enclosing a vertical wheel with two sets of buckets; one set arranged around its side, to have motion from the inflowing water, the other arranged to cover the bottom, each bucket having a suitable angle to utilise the centrifugal force of the whirling water, and its weight, by causing the water between the vertical buckets to move backward and be discharged in a direction nearly oppose to that of the water in the spiral conduit, when, relatively, the outflowing water is in a state of rest. The principle of the turbine wheel had long been known abroad; but House's invention lay in such a combination of the impulse and discharge as should make the wheel of practical value, and his ingenious contrivance is now extensively used in various forms and known by different names.

In 1842 he resolved to devote his life to the study of electricity, and to give popular lectures, with accompanying experiments. After a brief career in the lecture field he decided, however, to limit his attention to the more promising arena of invention. A brilliant galaxy had already preceded him. Morse had taken out his earlier patents, but had not yet built the first electro-magnetic line—from Washington to Baltimore —when House conceived the idea of his printing-telegraph. He made his first instrument of the kind in 1844, and exhibited it before the Mechanics' Institute, in New York City. It received a gold medal from the American Institute in 1848, with a special compliment on its being " an invention of great ingenuity." The committee of award were Profs. Agassiz, Chilton, and Renwick. Morse's telegraph conveyed intelligence by preconcerted signals, dots, and lines made by breaking and closing the circuit. House's telegraph printed its messages in Roman letters. The component parts were type wheels, platens, a keyboard like that of a piano, and a single line of telegraph. The type wheels moved synchronously by a step-by-step motion, arrested at will by pressure on a key, causing its representative letter to be printed. The actual speed attained was at the rate of 50 words a minute, or equal to the average speed of the modern typewriter. This was more rapidly man work could be done by the Morse instrument; but the printing-telegraph required more power to move the type wheels, &c, which became an objectionable feature when stations came to be multiplied.

Prof. House removed with his family to New York City in 1844, and sold a half interest in his invention to Mr. William Ballard, who was financially associated with him in making instruments and laying lines. Hon. Samuel Selden and Mr. Hiram Sibley, of Rochester, were also interested. Mr. Henry O'Reilly made an agreement for the use of the printing-telegraph throughout the West. He located the first telegraph line of any sort between Pittsburg and Cincinnati. Afterward he located an instrument at New Albany, lnd.

Capital was subscribed for building a line from New York to Philadelphia. This line crossed the North River at Fort Lee. On the east side was a mast 300 feet high, and on the Palisades, on the west side, one 200 feet high, making an eminence 400 feet in height. The contractors had faith in a small wire cable of seven twisted strands. But in practice this gave much trouble, and a solid wire had to be substituted. The right to use the printing-telegraph between New York and Philadelphia was sold for $25,000 in stock, and for $30,000 the right from New York to Boston.

An arrangement was next made with Judge Selden and Mr. Edson to extend the invention to all the principal cities of the United States, and to build 600 miles each year, or to forfeit $10,000 to liquidate annual damages. Under that contract a line was built from New York to Buffalo, with an iron wire having 600 pounds to the mile, for which the patentees received $100,000 in stock. About that time the Morse company filed a bill for an injunction to stop the House line from New York to Boston. Up to that date all suits had gone in Morse's favour, and it was confidently expected that the injunction would be granted. The counsel employed on the House side were George Gifford, Rufus Choate, and Charles L. Woodbury. After hearing very exhaustive testimony, the judge decided that the House telegraph was no infringement. The favourable termination of that suit (which was never appealed) gave value to the invention.

A new era was introduced in telegraphy when the messages came to be received by sound only, the operator writing them off rapidly in a suitable form for delivery. Professor House saw the need of more sensitive apparatus for the transmission of sound waves. Taking up the subject where Rourseul aud Reis had discontinued their researches, he made and had patented an "electro-phonetic telegraph," June 27th, 1865, and in order to improve the workings of certain parts took out another patent, May 12th, 1868. The invention consisted in placing at each station of the line a hollow ear piece for receiving sound waves, this being closed at one end by a thin flat plate, or diaphragm, having a spring force to counterbalance the magnetic force of the armature, and thus hold the sounding head in a state of magnetic equilibrium when the circuit is closed. There was also a device for adjusting the loudness of sounds.

The inventor's idea was simply that of making an instrument of great sensitiveness for receiving the sound signals of letters used in telegraphing. But the instrument is really a telephone, doing as good work as can be done by the more recent Bell telephone. The Supreme Court has decided that "a patentee is entitled to all the benefits which result from his invention, whether he has specified all the benefits in his