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Cromwell Fleetwood Varley

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Cromwell Fleetwood Varley (1828–1883), Electrician and Telegraph engineer.

1828 Born at Kentish Town, London, on 6 April, the second of the ten children of the artist and inventor Cornelius Varley (1781–1873) and his wife, Elizabeth Livermore Straker. One brother was Samuel Alfred Varley

Attended St Saviour's Grammar School, Southwark

1849 Joined the newly formed Electric Telegraph Co. Invented a method for locating faults in the insulation of underground lines; the ‘Varley loop test’ was in use for many years.

By 1852 he had become chief engineer for the London area

1854 patented a double-current key that lessened the problem of induction degrading signals on underground cables. Varley developed a variety of improved testing instruments and relays,

1855 Married Ellen Rouse; two sons and two daughters.

1858 After the failure of the short-lived first Atlantic cable, he was appointed to a joint investigative committee established by the British government and the Atlantic Telegraph Co. Its 1861 report helped restore enough confidence in the technology for a second attempt to span the Atlantic to be launched in 1865, with Varley now serving as chief electrician.

1861 Chief engineer for the entire company.

1860s Varley devised many improvements in cable testing and signalling techniques.

1865 Formed patent partnership with physicist William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) and the electrical engineer Fleeming Jenkin (1833–1885) which generated large royalties from the cable companies. The sending apparatus for the Atlantic Cable was ascribed to Thomson and Varley[1].

1870 patented the "cymaphen", a telegraph that could transmit musical tones and, in a later variant, articulate speech. Also devised a simple way to use small electrical charges to generate much larger ones.

1865 Elected a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers

1871 Elected fellow of the Royal Society. Founder member of the Society of Telegraph Engineers.

1871 published a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society on electrical discharges in rarefied gases, in which he suggested that cathode rays were streams of tiny electrified particles.

1883 Died at Cromwell House, Bexleyheath, Kent, on 2 September 1883.

1883 Obituary in The Engineer 1883/09/07.


1884 Obituary [2]

CROMWELL FLEETWOOD VARLEY was the second son of Cornelius Varley, an artist and man of science, who took an active part in the mechanical committees of the Society of Arts, and was one of the founders, and, indeed, the originator of the old Water Colour Society. He was born in Westminster on the 6th of April, 1828, and was educated at St. Saviour’s Grammar School, Southwark.

In 1846 Sir William Fothergill Cooke introduced Mr. Varley into the service of the Electric Telegraph Company, and he rose step by step until he became electrician and engineer-in-chief to the Company.

In 1848 he received a small recognition from the Board of Directors on submitting to them a vacuum lightning protector, for guarding the instruments and insulated wires from destruction by atmospheric lightning.

In 1854 he was called to the chief office, London, and subsequently became electrician; he had then provided the means whereby faults on a telegraph line could be determined, and the position located with remarkable accuracy.

In 1854 he obtained his first patent for transmitting electric signals. This invention was known as the double-current system, and heralded marked progress in rapid telegraph signalling, and for the first time London was put into communication with Edinburgh direct, avoiding the necessity of re-transmission.

The second invention was patented in December of the same year, and comprised several improvements in galvanic batteries for telegraphic purposes. It is interesting from the fact that among the claims is mentioned the use of induction plates for telegraphic and electric-light purposes.

In June 1855 the third patent for improvements in electric telegraphs was obtained. This invention comprised a system of working termed translating, in vogue at the present time with but little alteration from the original plans, and may be best described in the inventor's own words :-

"By translator I mean the apparatus used for bringing fresh batteries into play, to enable correspondence to be maintained direct between two stations, whose distance apart is too great to admit of connecting the wires into one continuous electric circuit. Generally speaking, it is not advantageous to attempt to work through more than 200 English miles of the ordinary telegraph wires suspended in the air in one electric circuit, but by arranging apparatus so that the current through the first electrical circuit shall bring fresh batteries into play, a second distance of 200 miles can be worked through, and so on; but there is a limit to this from the following causes:- lst, the electro-magnets used for putting the second set of batteries into play require a given time for magnetizing; 2ndly, the armature requires also a given amount of time to move toward the magnet to make the contact; 3rdly, an electro-magnet requires more time to magnetize than to demagnetize, thus in the case of a large electro-magnet, where the time required to magnetize it was 15 seconds, it only required 3 to demagnetize.

"The duration of a dot is not sufficient to magnetize the attracting magnets so fully as the long contact or dash, therefore the dot becomes shortened in a greater ratio than do the dashes, because the armature retires quicker in the former than the latter case. These actions waste time, and consequently the marks to be printed are shortened at each translating station. Therefore where many tranelators are in circuit, it becomes necessary to send slower, in order that the amount lost at each translation shall not absorb entirely the short marks (or dots).

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“In this example the last station cannot read the sending of the first station, because the short mark (technically dots) have been so much reduced that they do not reach thereto. The dashes however, from their greater length, and from other causes, scarcely suffer.”

After further describing the effect of induction in submarine cables, such as those between England and Holland, in which the effacement of the dot necessitated still slower signalling, he further points out how the land Morse-system can be made to translate into the submarine cable Morse-system without diminishing to so great an extent the rate of sending.

It would occupy too much space to fully describe the details whereby this was effected. This invention, however, made direct communication between London and Amsterdam for the first time practicable. It was subsequently still further extended, and direct working was obtained between London and Berlin, and London and St. Petersburg, which otherwise would have been practically impossible.

He was contemporary with Sir W. Siemens in the invention of the polarised relay, and during his connection with the Electric and International Telegraph Company, he obtained numerous patents for improvements in electric telegraphs, and raised the general efficiency of the telegraph lines by reinsulation of the line with insulators still very extensively employed. In thus improving the electrical conditions of the line, long distance telegraphy was obtained without relays.

He also aided the manufactures of telegraph wire, and longer lengths of wire without splits or flaws were obtained. He also introduced the process termed killing, whereby any defect in the manufacture of wire was detected at the mills, and enabled the manufacturer to guarantee its efficiency; the wire was likewise less subject to breakage during frost, and a greater dip could be allowed without the wires coming into contact.

It is more chiefly in connection with deep sea long submarine cables that he devoted the remainder of his career after resigning his connection with the Electric and International Telegraph Company.

The value and importance of Mr. Varley’s work has been everywhere acknowledged by his fellow-workers. In a statement drawn up by Sir William Thomson, F.R.S., M. Inst. C.E., dated April 12, 1873, the following paragraphs occur:-

“In 1854 Mr. C. F. Varley, in a Paper read at the British Association Meeting in Liverpool, drew attention to the slowness of rate at which signals could be sent through long submarine conductors of small section, as compared with the rate obtainable through equally long electric circuits in the air. Ho described apparatus he had invented, by which the speed of transmission for longer air-lines than had been up to that time worked through, might be sufficiently augmented to meet the requirements of commerce, and he indicated the true method of increasing the speed of long cables by the proper choice of transverse dimension of conductor and dielectric.

“In 1855 he invented and put into operation at Arnsterdam and London his translating relay apparatus and submarine telegraph key, by means of which the English submarine cables were successfully linked together with the German system of telegraphs, and he thus established direct communication between London, Hamburgh, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and all the principal continental towns.

"In the same year he invented the gravity-battery, which, with a little modification, is the one generally used for testing and working long submarine cables.

"In 1856 he further improved the translating relay-apparatus in extensive use in England, on the Continent, and elsewhere. He also described a method by which the distance or locality of defects in telegraph circuits could be deduced by observations and calculations at one end only of the circuit.

"In 1858 he invented a method, now well known to electricians under the title of the ‘loop-test,’ by which the position of faults, the resistance or magnitude of which is continually varying, can be ascertained with great accuracy. This method, for the cams in which it is applicable, is the most accurate known, and in all such cases is invariably used.

"In the same year he invented what are known as electric probes, by which the exact position of large faults in telegraphic cables can be ascertained to within 1 foot of distance from the outside of cable without even removing or interfering with the wire or other covering.

"In 1860 he still further improved his translating relay-apparatus, and he invented a machine for generating without friction electricity of high potential; he also invented a method of reducing the effects of terrestrial or auroral currents through long circuits, and protecting telegraphic cables from lightning. In the same year, in a Paper read before the Royal Society on the ‘Retardation in Telegraphic Cables resulting from the Electrostatic capacity of Gutta Percha,’ he described an apparatus he had invented in 1858, by which the speed of transmission through various cables could be accurately compared by this means. He had proved by experiment, in 1859, that the speed through long submarine cables varied inversely as the square: of the length, a lam which had been theoretically deduced by me in a Paper read before the Royal Society in 1855.

“In 1861 he invented a new form of insulator, discovered the causes of wholesale failures of those previously used, and by this means made it possible to work from any one part of Great Britain to another, no matter how bad the weather was. These insulators are now used on the lines of the English Government, who have more than two millions of them upon their poles. In the same gear he constructed what is known as his artificial submarine telegraph cable, which is an exact electrical representative of a long submarine circuit. With this apparatus the electrician can study in his laboratory, as well as he could upon an actual cable, the various phenomena which present themselves, and can test any new inventions proposed for working such circuits. I have found it exceedingly useful and valuable for testing instruments for the Eastern and other great submarine lines.

“In 1862 he made a series of most important inventions by which the effect of earth- or auroral-currents( which are extremely troublesome in long submarine cables) are in most cases rendered entirely insensible. The chief of these inventions, the application of condensers for the transmission and reception of telegraphic signals, has the further advantage of largely increasing the distinctness of the signal, and the speed with which communications through long circuits can be maintained. It is now in general use upon all deep-sea cables.

“In 1865, in conjunction with myself, he constructed the apparatus known as the curb-key. The use of this key gives great distinctness to the signals, increases the rate of transmission, and reduces the errors.

In 1866 he invented a means by which negative electrification is very conveniently applied to preserve the conductors of defective cables from corrosion, and in consequence of this invention the lives of such cables can be very considerably prolonged. Its value was most conclusively proved last summer. When the fault which had existed in the French Atlantic cable for three years was cut out, the conductor was found to be perfectly intact, a result certainly due to the protection it had received through Mr. Varley’s invention. This defective but protected cable was the only unbroken circuit between America and Great Britain, and carried all the messages for five months during the winter of 1671 and 1672. Without this protection of negative electrification the conductor is to some degree eaten away every time a positive current flows from it through the defect into the sea. When once the conductor is eaten asunder, further communication through the cable is impossible.

“In 1859 he was elected one of the members of the Commission appointed by the Privy Council and the Atlantic Telegraph Company to inquire into and report upon deep-sea submarine telegraphy. In the reports drawn up by that Commission, Mr. Varley published useful tables for calculating the speed of electric signalling through submarine telegraph cables of various dimensions.

“He has invented many other useful apparatus, has made original investigations in science, and has contributed very largely to the practical development of submarine and other telegraphs. After the failure of the first Atlantic cable in 1858, the late Mr. Robert Stephenson, who was then Chairman of the Electric and International Telegraph Company (of which Mr. Varley was electrician), became an adviser of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, and Mr. Varley undertook the duties of electrician without remuneration up to the year 1864.

“In the year 1863 he assisted Sir W. Fairbairn, Sir Joseph Whitworth, Captain D. Galton and myself, in the experimental determination of the proper form and material for the external covering of the Atlantic cable, and by means of his artificial cable assisted in estimating the dimensions proper for the conductor and insulator.

“In 1864-5 he tested, for the Atlantic Telegraph Company, the whole of their cable. He accompanied the expedition as their chief electrician, and has been connected with each subsequent cable which has united Great Britain and America.

“In 1865 and 1866 he and I were deputed by the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company to draw up new plans for testing the 1866 cable, which was successfully laid, and is now working. The apparatus we invented and adopted has been regularly used in the ship and shore testing during the laying of all long and many short cables laid since that date.

"He began his career in 1846 as electrician, when the Electric Telegraph Company was established, and rose up gradually by his own unaided exertions in their service. In 1852 he was appointed their Resident Engineer in London; in 1858 was appointed Chief Electrician, and in 1861 he became the Engineer-in- Chief. He remained in the service of that company until their telegraphs were purchased by the Government.

“He has laid and repaired various cables in different parts of the world, and has contributed several improvements in the machinery used in such operations.

In 1861 he invented and constructed an automatic apparatus called the chronopher, by which the electric time signals which the Astronomer Royal had established between Greenwich and London are accurately re-transmitted over the whole of Great Britain. It is through this apparatus, which is purely automatic, that the clocks of nearly all the railway companies of the United Kingdom are corrected every morning, time-guns fired, and timeballs dropped in the various towns.”

The generous testimony thus afforded by Sir William Thomson has been further supported by the late eminent Astronomer Royal, Sir George B. Airy, who, writing to Mr. Cyrus Field, so intimately connected with Atlantic telegraph enterprises, under date May 27, 1873, says :-

“I understood from Mr. C. F. Varley that he is desirous I should state to you the nature of the connection which I had with him some time ago, in regard to the use of galvanism for the purpose of the Observatory, and especially for the dissemination of signals of accurate time. I can hardly say when I was first in communication with Mr. Varley; whether before I had established galvanic connection with London Bridge, or after that time. I remember well that in all which took place after that time for the accurate distribution of the signals originating from this Observatory, Mr. Varley effected (gratuitously) almost everything. The spreading abroad of these signals was a favourite object with me, and quite as much so with Mr. Varley. We consulted him on almost every point, and finally, by his invention of the Chronopher (an apparatus which, as I understand, the increasing popularity of the signals has made it necessary to extend), he gave a degree of accuracy to the operations which never could be given before by anything but a self-acting machine. The establishment of the time-signal system, as an accurate and valuable institution, is almost entirely due to Mr. Varley.

“In what I have stated above I refer to matters which passed under my own eye and within my personal knowledge. But for all that I have read in the writings of Du Moncel and others, I fully believe that a much higher praise is due to Mr. Varley for the improvements which, guided by a theory of great generality, he has introduced into the operations of telegraphy in general, and sub-oceanic telegraphy in particular.”

The important service which Mr. Varley had rendered in making deep-sea telegraphy practicable, and in ensuring the confidence of the subscribing public to take a pecuniary interest in an enterprise held by many at the time to be foolhardy and chimerical, would doubtless have received some suitable recognition for his services, which culminated in uniting America with England, but for an unfortunate accident explained in the following extract from the Times, August 29, 1866 :-

“As soon as the cable was laid, the North Sea expedition to connect England with Prussia took Mr. Varley out of the country. On his return he found, in the public recognition of those who had contributed to the success, not a word about his long, arduous, and successful services. Sic vos non vobis.

“The public work has been accomplished, and probably the public are not very particular, so long as they are served, who meets the reward. Yet after all, it is of some consequence that men who devote conspicuous ability and scientific ardour to an achievement of world-wide importance, should not. be made to feel that rewards are less the consequence of merit than a happy accident.”

From this time forward he devoted his chief energies to improving the speed by which signals could be transmitted through long submarine cables, and united with Sir William Thomson and Professor Fleeming Jenkin in working their several patents for this purpose; and by the employment of curved signals, condensers, and the Thomson recorder and mirror galvanometers, the present successful working of long submarine cables was and is rendered successful. The condenser completely cuts off the effect of earth currents, and adds materially to the distinctness of the signals.

He attended - and, when his health permitted, took an active part in - the proceedings of the Royal Society. He lectured on Long Submarine Telegraphing at the Royal Institution, and was a frequent attendant at the meetings of the Institution of Civil Engineers; he likewise was, as far as his failing health permitted, an active member of the Society of Telegraph Engineers.

Those who desire more fully to know the problems involved in long submarine telegraphy and their solution, will find full details in the work of the late Count T. du Moncel, entitled 'Expose des Applications de l'Electriciti.,” Paris, 1872-78, in which the labours of Mr. Cromwell Varley are clearly set forth.

In 1870 he obtained a patent for a new mode of telegraphing by means of waves transmitted electrically through a conductor an invention which anticipated the labours of Elisha Gray in harmonic telegraphy, and the subsequent work of Professor Graham Bell with his modification of Gray’s receiver and the electric telephone, to which he gave the name of Cymaphen (i.e., wavewriter); and to an apparatus employed in separating the systems of signalling he gave the term Echo-cyme (or wave-stopper).

From 1870 till the time of his decease he obtained several patents. Among some of his most recent work was that of electric lighting and improvement in the cymaphen. These latter he worked in conjunction with his brother, Frederick Henry Varley, and joint patents were applied for in 1661, for electric lamps and appliances connected therewith, also for improvements in cymaphens.

Mr. Varley was elected a Member of the Institution on the 5th of December, 1865. He died on the 2nd of September, 1883.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. The Engineer 1866/06/15
  2. 1884 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries