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William Henry Preece

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Sir William Henry Preece C.B., F.R.S. (1834-1913) was a Welsh electrical engineer and inventor.

1834 February 15th. Born in Caernarfon (Gwynedd), Wales.

Educated at King's College School, London. He went on to contribute many inventions and improvements, including a railway signalling system that increased safety.

Spent a short period in the engineering offices of Edwin Clark[1].

1853 Joined the engineering staff of the Electric Telegraph Co.

1853 Helped Michael Faraday with some telegraphic experiments,

1856 Appointed superintendent of the Electric Telegraph Company's south-western district at Southampton.

From 1858 to 1862, he was also engineer to the Channel Island Telegraph Co.

1860 He also supervised the telegraphs of the London and South Western Railway

1870 Joined the Post Office as Divisional engineer for the Southern District of the telegraphic system when the Government bought out the c.30 private telegraph companies.

1877 Appointed electrician to the Post Office.

1877 Was the first to import Bell telephones into the UK, which he demonstrated at the BA meeting at Plymouth

1880 President of the Society of Telegraph Engineers

1884 As a result of detecting electro-magnetic radiation from buried telephone cables, Preece conceived the idea of wireless telegraphy

1885 Preece and Arthur West Heaviside (the brother of Oliver Heaviside) experimented with parallel telegraph lines and an unwired telephone receiver, discovering radio induction (later identified with the effects of crosstalk).

1887 He had a long-standing rivalry with Oliver Heaviside - Heaviside had found theoretically that the clarity of telegraph and telephone signals could be greatly improved by loading transmission lines with extra inductance. Reasoning from inadequate experiments, Preece had already declared inductance to be prejudicial to clear signalling; Preece took steps to block Heaviside's publication; Heaviside thereafter took every opportunity to denounce Preece.

In 1889 Preece assembled a group of men at Coniston Water in the Lake District in Cumberland and succeeded in transmitting and receiving Morse radio signals over a distance of about 1 mile across water.

1892 Became Engineer-in-Chief of the General Post Office.

1892 Made radio experiments from Lavernock Point in south Wales to the island of Flatholm. Preece believed that the Earth’s magnetic field was critical in the propagation of radio waves over long distances.

1892. Proposed 'Lux' as a term to quantify illumination to the Royal Institution. [2]

With Gisbert Kapp prepared plans and specifications for the Bristol Electric Light Station.

1893 President of the Institution of Electrical Engineers

1896 When Guglielmo Marconi arrived in England, Preece encouraged him by obtaining assistance from the Post Office for his work.

1899 Preece was knighted

1899 President of the Institution of Civil Engineers

1899 After retirement from the Post Office, he was active with his sons, Llewellyn and Arthur, and Major Philip Cardew in the engineering firm of Preece and Cardew. Preece also continued as a government consultant until 1904.

1899 His 65th birthday congratulations article in The Engineer 1899/02/17.

1913 November 6th. Died at home in Wales.

1918 His son William Llewellyn Preece died. [3]

1913 Obituary [4]

Sir WILLIAM HENRY PREECE, K.C.B., was born at Carnarvon on 15th February 1834.

He was educated at King's College School, London, and at King's College; he also attended the lectures of Michael Faraday on Electricity, at the Royal Institution.

On leaving College he entered the office of the late Mr. Edwin Clark, where he studied for some little time.

In 1853 he entered the service of the Electric and International Telegraph Co., and three years later he was appointed superintendent of the southern district of this company.

At the age of twenty-four he was also given the appointment of engineer to the Channel Islands Telegraph Co.

In 1870, when the Government bought up the telegraphs, he was transferred to the Post Office as Divisional Engineer, becoming successively Electrician in 1877 and Engineer-in-Chief in 1892.

On his retirement, under the age rule, in 1899, he was appointed Consulting Engineer to the Post Office; this connexion terminated in 1904.

Thereafter he practised as consulting engineer in Westminster, in partnership with the late Major Cardew, his two sons, and others.

Sir William Preece's name is associated with many improvements and inventions in telegraph work. At the age of twenty-one he brought out a system of duplex telegraphy, and between 1862 and 1873 he turned his attention to railway signalling apparatus.

His other inventions relate directly to telegraph apparatus. He introduced the use of electric bells in 1865. He devised a new method of terminating wires in 1858, a new telephone in 1878, having brought over to this country the first practical telephone in 1877, and in 1892 originated a system of signalling across space by induction telegraphy.

When Mr. Marconi came to England in 1896 he found a warm supporter in Mr. Preece. He improved the overland lines, which suffered severely from the weather, and began to lay down trunk telephone lines, which his successor, Sir John Gavey, took up and carried through. In collaboration with other scientists he published several practical text-books.

In 1877 he went to America, on behalf of the Government to study telegraphy as practised in the States, and he visited various foreign countries, frequently in his official capacity as a member of conferences or of exhibition committees.

He was a member of the Royal Commission on Electrical Communication with Lighthouses and Lightships, which sat from 1892-7, and he was one of the six original founders of the British Fire-Prevention Committee. Sir William was an active member and supporter of the Engineering Standards Committee, and on the formation of the Electrical Section he was appointed Chairman of that section.

He was elected a Member of this Institution in 1890, and was President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1898. Of the Institution of Electrical Engineers he was President in 1893, which was really his second term of office, since he had been President of the Society of Telegraph Engineers in 1880.

The Royal Society elected him a Fellow in 1881, and at the Paris Exhibition of 1889 he was appointed an Officer of the Legion of Honour. He was created a Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1894, and promoted to be K.C.B. in 1899 on leaving the Post Office, as a recognition of his services to that Department.

Two years ago, when his strength was failing, he went back to his native town of Carnarvon, where his death took place on 6th November 1913, in his eightieth year.

1914 Obituary [5]

SIR WILLIAM HENRY PREECE, K.C.B., a Past President of the Institution, passed away on the 6th November, 1913, in his 80th year.

He was one of those who had witnessed the entire growth of modern electrical engineering and who had himself all through his life taken the most active share in its development.

Educated at King's College, London, of which he afterwards became a Fellow, and commencing his career under the late Mr. Edward Clark, he entered the service of the Electric and International Telegraph Company in 1854, becoming Superintendent of the Southern District in 1856. He also held concurrently the positions of Superintendent of Telegraphs on the London & South-Western Railway and Engineer of the Channel Islands Telegraph Company.

He was likewise, prior to the foundation of Cooper's Hill College, selected by the Indian Government as the Telegraph Engineer, under whom entrants to the Indian Telegraph service received their practical training, and some 60 or 70 of these gentlemen passed through his hands. From the earliest days of electrical engineering, and during the whole of his career, he was always in the forefront in all new extensions of the range of the science, and apart from his own inventions, many useful developments were helped materially by his forceful advocacy.

During his period of office as Superintendent of Telegraphs on the London & South-Western Railway, he invented his method of signalling the movements of trains on railways by the introduction of miniature reproductions of the outdoor signals, worked electrically from the distant cabins, together with many other devices to secure the safety of railway working, and he helped largely in the general adoption of the block system for railways in the United Kingdom. When in 1870 the various telegraph companies, about 30 in number, which were engaged in the business of transmitting telegrams in this country were transferred to the State, Mr. Preece, as he then was, became a Divisional Engineer under the Post Office.

In 1877 he became the Electrician, and from 1892 to 1899, when he retired, he carried out the duties of Engineer-in-Chief to the Post Office. He was made a C.B. in 1894, and became a K.C.B. five years later. He materially improved the telegraph system in this country, devoting his attention primarily to methods of high speed and multiplex systems of working, whereby he so increased the carrying capacity of existing wires as to provide for the enormous increase of traffic arising from the reduction of rates with only a reasonable increase of external plant. Telephones, electric lighting, traction, and all other modern applications of electricity equally engaged his attention.

He was a prolific writer, an admirable lecturer, and he acquired a world-wide reputation as one of the foremost electrical engineers of the age.

On his retirement from the Post Office Sir William Preece entered into partnership with two of his sons and Major Philip Cardew as consulting engineers in Westminster. Latterly Sir William had resided at Carnarvon, but he still continued to take the warmest interest in the welfare of the Institution and missed no opportunity of extending its interest and prestige.

Sir William had acted as a member of the Council of the Institution almost from its inception. He served as Vice-President in the years 1877-1879, and was elected President in 1880 and again in 1893. He contributed innumerable papers to the Proceedings of the Institution as he did also to those of the Institution of Civil Engineers, the British Association, the Royal Society of Arts, and the Physical Society. He acted as the representative of the Institution at the opening of the United Engineering Societies' building in New York and at the Franklin bicentenary celebration. He was President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1898.

1913 Obituary [6]

1914 Obituary [7]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. Obituary: The Times, 7 November 1913
  2. The Engineer 1892/05/20
  3. The Engineer 1918/11/15
  4. 1913 Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Obituaries
  5. 1914 Institution of Electrical Engineers: Obituaries
  6. The Engineer 1913/11/14
  7. 1914 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries
  • [1] Wikipedia
  • Today in Science [2]
  • Biography of Sir William Preece, ODNB [3]
  • Obituary: The Times, 7 November 1913.