Bain, Alexander

Bain, Alexander
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b. October 1810 Watten, Scotland
d. 2 January 1877 Kirkintilloch, Scotland
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Scottish inventor and entrepreneur who laid the foundations of electrical horology and designed an electromagnetic means of transmitting images (facsimile).
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Alexander Bain was born into a crofting family in a remote part of Scotland. He was apprenticed to a watchmaker in Wick and during that time he was strongly influenced by a lecture on "Heat, sound and electricity" that he heard in nearby Thurso. This lecture induced him to take up a position in Clerkenwell in London, working as a journeyman clockmaker, where he was able to further his knowledge of electricity by attending lectures at the Adelaide Gallery and the Polytechnic Institution. His thoughts naturally turned to the application of electricity to clockmaking, and despite a bitter dispute with Charles Wheatstone over priority he was granted the first British patent for an electric clock. This patent, taken out on 11 January 1841, described a mechanism for an electric clock, in which an oscillating component of the clock operated a mechanical switch that initiated an electromagnetic pulse to maintain the regular, periodic motion. This principle was used in his master clock, produced in 1845. On 12 December of the same year, he patented a means of using electricity to control the operation of steam railway engines via a steam-valve. His earliest patent was particularly far-sighted and anticipated most of the developments in electrical horology that occurred during the nineteenth century. He proposed the use of electricity not only to drive clocks but also to distribute time over a distance by correcting the hands of mechanical clocks, synchronizing pendulums and using slave dials (here he was anticipated by Steinheil). However, he was less successful in putting these ideas into practice, and his electric clocks proved to be unreliable. Early electric clocks had two weaknesses: the battery; and the switching mechanism that fed the current to the electromagnets. Bain's earth battery, patented in 1843, overcame the first defect by providing a reasonably constant current to drive his clocks, but unlike Hipp he failed to produce a reliable switch.
The application of Bain's numerous patents for electric telegraphy was more successful, and he derived most of his income from these. They included a patent of 12 December 1843 for a form of fax machine, a chemical telegraph that could be used for the transmission of text and of images (facsimile). At the receiver, signals were passed through a moving band of paper impregnated with a solution of ammonium nitrate and potassium ferrocyanide. For text, Morse code signals were used, and because the system could respond to signals faster than those generated by hand, perforated paper tape was used to transmit the messages; in a trial between Paris and Lille, 282 words were transmitted in less than one minute. In 1865 the Abbé Caselli, a French engineer, introduced a commercial fax service between Paris and Lyons, based on Bain's device. Bain also used the idea of perforated tape to operate musical wind instruments automatically. Bain squandered a great deal of money on litigation, initially with Wheatstone and then with Morse in the USA. Although his inventions were acknowledged, Bain appears to have received no honours, but when towards the end of his life he fell upon hard times, influential persons in 1873 secured for him a Civil List Pension of £80 per annum and the Royal Society gave him £150.
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Bibliography
1841, British patent no. 8,783; 1843, British patent no. 9,745; 1845, British patent no.
10,838; 1847, British patent no. 11,584; 1852, British patent no. 14,146 (all for electric clocks).
1852, A Short History of the Electric Clocks with Explanation of Their Principles and
Mechanism and Instruction for Their Management and Regulation, London; reprinted 1973, introd. W.Hackmann, London: Turner \& Devereux (as the title implies, this pamphlet was probably intended for the purchasers of his clocks).
Further Reading
The best account of Bain's life and work is in papers by C.A.Aked in Antiquarian Horology: "Electricity, magnetism and clocks" (1971) 7: 398–415; "Alexander Bain, the father of electrical horology" (1974) 9:51–63; "An early electric turret clock" (1975) 7:428–42. These papers were reprinted together (1976) in A Conspectus of Electrical Timekeeping, Monograph No. 12, Antiquarian Horological Society: Tilehurst.
J.Finlaison, 1834, An Account of Some Remarkable Applications of the Electric Fluid to the Useful Arts by Alexander Bain, London (a contemporary account between Wheatstone and Bain over the invention of the electric clock).
J.Munro, 1891, Heroes of the Telegraph, Religious Tract Society.
J.Malster \& M.J.Bowden, 1976, "Facsimile. A Review", Radio \&Electronic Engineer 46:55.
D.J.Weaver, 1982, Electrical Clocks and Watches, Newnes.
T.Hunkin, 1993, "Just give me the fax", New Scientist (13 February):33–7 (provides details of Bain's and later fax devices).
DV / KF

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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