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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
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Cromwell F. Varley

Cromwell F. Varley (1828-1883)

The Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review, 8 September 1883:

Obituary.—We have to announce, with regret, that Mr. Cromwell Fleetwood Varley, F.R.S., the eminent electrician, died unexpectedly at his residence, Cromwell House, Bexley Heath, on Sunday last [2 September 1883]. Mr. Varley was an exceedingly accomplished scientific man, and had patented or introduced many useful inventions.


The Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review, 15 September 1883:

The Late Mr. C.F. Varley

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.

Cromwell F. Varley from
The Atlantic Telegraph

[It has been erroneously stated that Mr. Varley’s mother was a Miss Fleetwood, this is, however, incorrect, his father’s mother was a Miss Fleetwood, a lineal descendant of General Fleetwood, who married Oliver Cromwell’s daughter Bridget.]

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 wire 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 gutta-percha 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 Electricity,” 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 submarine cables—an invention which he made a few years later—proved most valuable in connection with the introduction of my syphon recorder on the Eastern Telegraph Company’s lines, and soon came to be universally recognised as one of the most important of all the contributions of science to practical telegraphy. He was the first, I believe, to make condensers of the large capacity required for signalling through submarine cables. His ‘artificial line,’ a working model, as it were, of a great submarine cable, which his great condensers allowed him to realise —is the foundation of the method of duplexing submarine cables, which has been brought into successful practical use by Muirhead and Stearns, and which is undoubtedly by far the greatest improvement in the practice of submarine telegraphy that has been made since the completion of the instrumental methods for signalling now in use. I look back with great pleasure and satisfaction to all my intercourse with Cromwell Varley, as a friend, during the eight years of work ashore and afloat for realising Transatlantic telegraphy in which both of us had the privilege of taking a part.”


Mr. J. Brailsford Bright, of 31, Golden Square, W., writing to the Times of Tuesday, says:

“My attention has been drawn to the obituary notice in the Times of the late Mr. Cromwell Varley. While bestowing all honour due to the illustrious dead it is just to avoid even indirectly denying any of that which belongs to the living; and it is for this reason that I beg your leave to correct the account given by your writer of Mr. Varley’s connexion with the Atlantic telegraph, an account which would mislead all but the best informed of your readers. The laying of the first Atlantic cable was successfully completed on the 5th of August, 1858. The engineer in charge was my father, Sir Charles (then Mr.) Bright, who received the honour of knighthood chiefly for this, one of the most arduous engineering tasks of modern times. He was assisted by Mr. Canning (since Sir Samuel), Mr. Henry Clifford, Mr. Woodhouse, and Mr. Everett. The chief electrician was Mr. Whitehouse, and the manager the well-known American, Mr. Cyrus Field. This cable subsequently failed through defects in the manufacture—a matter over which those in charge had no control. In the Illustrated London News of the 4th September, 1858, and other contemporary journals, full descriptions of this earliest Atlantic cable may be found. As telegraphic engineering developed itself, particularly in the departments of paying-out machines and of insulation, the difficulties of laying and maintaining subsequent cables have greatly diminished. In these improvements the late Mr. Cromwell Varley took a considerable share, I believe. The notices of him which have as yet been published certainly err by no means on the side of too great completeness or too great praise of his varied and indefatigable researches and of the useful part which he has played in electrical science.”


The Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review, 22 September 1883:

The Late C.F. Varley.

In justice to the memory of my late brother, Cromwell Fleetwood Varley, allow me to correct an error which I am sure is unintentional on your part, in respect to the invention of the artificial line. Of all his numerous inventions nothing was more characteristically his own than that particular contrivance.

It is indeed quite new to me that S. Alfred Varley ever laid any claim to its invention ; though it is quite true that he read a paper, and showed experiments with resistance coils and condenser, at the Society of Arts in 1859, but in so doing he was merely traversing the ground travelled over by Cromwell Fleetwood Varley five years previously.

The facts are these. Cromwell Fleetwood Varley patented and used condensers in 1854. Most of these were made of alternate sheets of tinfoil and paper, the latter being saturated with a heated preparation of Venice turpentine.

The condensers with resistance coils were brought into play, and enabled Cromwell Fleetwood Varley to hold his own in the controversy respecting aerial versus subterranean telegraph circuits, to which you have ably referred.

There was, therefore, in 1854 a germ—nay, more than a germ, a complete image, a fully-fledged artificial line, with a healthy and vigorous constitution, doing good suit and service in the cause of electrical science, the creation of which, like Minerva, proceeded from a fertile brain. The paternity of this creation (i.e., the artificial line), by direct lineal descent from the germ, was justly claimed by Cromwell Fleetwood Varley.

Frederick H. Varley, Sept. 18th, 1883.

[We publish this letter of Mr. F.H. Varley, but we must remark that a little inquiry on his part would have saved the necessity of its having been written.

We have before us the paper read by Mr. S. Alfred Varley before the Society of Arts, March 30th, 1859, in which the construction of an artificial line is minutely described, and also the discussion which took place upon it. In this, Mr. C.F. Varley, Professor Tyndall, Sir W. Fothergill Cooke, Mr. C.W. Walker, and the then Dr. Charles Siemens took part. No suggestion was made as to any previous claim for the invention of “artificial lines.”

We have also recently consulted the patents of the late Mr. Varley, and we find that the first mention of the artificial line occurs in a specification dated Dec. 26th, 1862, nearly four years after the Society of Arts meeting. In this patent he says:—“Part of my invention consists in the employment of a test circuit formed of induction plates and resistance coils, so adjusted to each other as to produce an artificial line possessing the same amount of retardation as the cable itself.” In the final specification of this patent no claims whatever are made. In two previous patents, however, bearing dates Dec. 5th, 1854, and Jan. 7th, 1860, we find there is mention of induction plates made of sheets of tinfoil separated by gutta-percha, or oiled silk, and also, the use of fluid induction plates, to be used in connection with a galvanic battery, for giving an instantaneous discharge on closing the circuit; but he says, in the complete specification of the latter patent, that he was aware that Jacobi had used for many years similar induction plates for an analogous object on lines in which single currents are employed. He therefore only claims their use in connection with his double current system. These early patents do not, however, allude to artificial lines, although they are the first in which there is any mention of induction plates. We shall probably publish an extract from Mr. S. Alfred Varley’s paper in our next.—Eds. Elec. Rev.]


The Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review, 29 September 1883:

Artificial Lines

In our correspondence columns last week, we said, in replying to the letter of Mr. Frederick H. Varley, that we would publish that portion of Mr. S. Alfred Varley’s paper, read before the Society of Arts in 1859, in which he had so minutely described an arrangement for an artificial line. As this subject will probably form a theme of interest to the majority of our readers, we herewith give the extract to which we have referred:—

“The amount of retardation which will be experienced in submarine circuits possessing conductors of varying resistance, and insulated with different thicknesses of insulating material, it appears to me can (comparatively speaking) be readily determined by actual experiment.

“I have for a long time been engaged in designing an apparatus for this purpose, and at the time I arranged to give this paper I fully expected to have had the apparatus completed, and to have been able to lay it before you on this occasion, and though I regret not being able to do this, yet I feel I have sufficiently advanced to warrant my explaining the principles of its construction.

“The principles upon which it is based are—that a body which offers the same resistance as another, without reference to its substance or length, may, as far as conducting power is concerned, be considered electrically the same. If we make use of a substance or metal of any inferior specific conductive capacity to that of the metal employed in submarine circuits, and also of greatly diminished sectional area, the same resistance as that offered by the very longest circuits can be obtained in a very small compass, and such an arrangement will, as far as simple conducting power is concerned, fairly represent a long submarine circuit.

“The induction which manifests itself in submarine circuits can also be obtained if the conditions for its development are as favourable as they are in submarine conductors.

“The apparatus consists—

“1st. Of a series of resistances, the values of which are known.

“2nd. Of a series of induction plates, the values of which, when compared with a given surface of a gutta-percha coated wire, are also known.

“3rd. A mechanical arrangement to accurately measure minute periods of time.

“By a combination of the resistances and the induction plates, a conductor which will fairly represent a submarine circuit will be obtained.

“The resistance can be diminished or increased, and the inductive surface can be doubled or halved at pleasure, and thus circuits with conductors of varying length and sectional area, and different thicknesses of insulating material, be imitated, and the law which governs the retardation in the transmission of telegraphic signals determined by direct experiment.

“It may be argued that as the inductive surface in a telegraphic circuit is uniformly spread throughout, a. series of induction plates will not present the same conditions, but it is evident they may be divided throughout also, and although they will not then precisely represent what is actually the case, the result will approximate very closely to those obtained from a submarine conductor.

“Perhaps it would have been prudent not to have called attention to an apparatus before its completion. I have done so, however, because I have felt it, was due from me to endeavour, at least, to point out how some of the important problems involved in submarine telegraphic communication between distant stations may be resolved.”

After a discussion, in which Messrs. C.V. Walker, Cromwell Varley, C.W. Siemens, Leonard Wray, and Professor Tyndall took part, the Chairman, W. Fothergill Cooke, Esq., expressed his opinion, in the following terms, on the result of the discussion. He said they had advanced very little in practical knowledge since the failure of last year with the Atlantic cable: but the proper way of doing so was to follow the course pointed out by Professor Tyndall. At the same time he thought it was well that theories should be advanced with a view to set men thinking; but the Professor no doubt meant to pay Mr. Varley the compliment that his knowledge of this matter would be better applied to the practice than the theory of the subject. But Mr. Varley was, in fact, doing what had been asked of him; and it was only owing to some delay in the completion of an elaborate instrument that he was not able to lay before them the results of actual experiment. The experimentum crucis was what they really wanted; wires of different conducting powers tested against each other, and the results ascertained by the best class of instruments, and, he would add, by a variety of experimenters. He found that electricians still remained true to their colours, in the absence of positive results one way or the other. His friend, Mr. Walker, still adhered to the small wire, whilst others appeared as the consistent advocates of a large wire as the best conducting medium. In this country, such opportunities were presented for experiment upon a large scale, that they had nothing to fear from theory; and he hoped such experiment? would be made as would solve many of the points upon which so much diversity of opinion now prevailed.


Artificial Lines.

I feel I ought not to let pass in absolute silence the letter which Mr. F.H. Varley has addressed to you. He really ought to know that induction plates, the invention of which as well as their consequences he claims for my late brother, are more than 100 years old. Crosse long years ago constructed a condenser of sheets of tinfoil and thin plates of mica, which he used in connection with his large water battery, consisting of 2,500 cells; a drawing and description of this condenser is given in the older editions of Noad’s “Lectures on Electricity.” I have the misfortune to be several years older than Mr. F.H. Varley, and I think I shall have the support of your readers and not be considered guilty of that common fault, conceit of age, if I say a certain amount of modesty is becoming when discussing what has occurred in our childhood. Now, at the period, December, 1854, which Mr. F.H. Varley speaks so confidently about, he had just attained the mature age of twelve years.

I confess to having been taken somewhat aback when I read his dogmatic assertions, for plodding people like myself feel the necessity of fortifying themselves before writing, by searching for established facts. Mr. F.H. Varley evidently does not feel this necessity; his so-called facts, to quote a sentence from his letter (which, I believe, is quite original), “proceed like Minerva from a fertile brain,” and therefore he experiences no difficulty in laying down the law and in giving a full and exact account of the scientific work accomplished by his elder brothers nearly 30 years ago, at a time when, without irreverence, he may be fairly spoken of as a “small boy;”and he feels himself quite equal to describing the full scope of my communication to the Society of Arts, as well as to telling your readers what I did on that occasion. Now, as I wrote and read the paper referred to, and as I have the printed report of it to assist my memory, I think it will be conceded I am likely to be better informed, and I have to say that what Mr. F.H. Varley has stated in regard to it is wholly and absolutely untrue.

Mr. Cromwell Varley, as you have mentioned in your editorial comments, took part in the discussion of my paper. He spoke at great length, and had there been an artificial line in existence then, “doing good suit and service in the cause of electrical science,” to quote Mr. F.H. Varley’s own words, he would have referred to it.

Mr. F.H. Varley certainly refers to a patent taken out in December, 1854, in which condensers are mentioned. This patent, as you have pointed out, was not for artificial lines, but for what, in a subsequent patent, Mr. Cromwell Varley said was an adaptation to his double-current system of an invention of Prof. Jacobi. Mr. F.H. Varley also states that the condensers constructed by the late Mr. Varley in 1854 were-“mostly made of alternate sheets of paper and tinfoil;” this could hardly have been so, as the use of paper for the insulating material would have been a valuable novelty and consequently it would have been claimed in the patent; but the only substances specifically mentioned are gutta-percha and oiled silk. That my late brother in 1854 tried to make condensers with paper I think is probably true, and for this reason.

When I told him in 1858 I proposed to make them with paper, he tried to dissuade me from doing so, on the ground that it would not insulate sufficiently. The secret of my success consisted in thoroughly dessicating the paper before it was immersed in the insulating material, and I had the pleasure of convincing him they could be so made by discharging in his presence my first two sets of condensers fourteen hours after they had been charged.

When the artificial line which my late brother used and exhibited was constructed (and this was several years after the Society of Arts meeting), I rendered him all the assistance I could. I furnished him with instructions how to make the paper condensers, which were, made by a workman acting under him. The resistance coils which formed part of the artificial line, and which were, I believe, the largest and most complete set which had been constructed up to that period, were made by a firm of which I was the active partner, and, acting for the firm, I made a present of these coils to my late brother. After your editorial comments it may seem somewhat unnecessary for me to enter so minutely into detail, but I feel it is only due to myself to show how baseless are the grounds of this unprovoked personal attack.

The following sentence which appears in Mr. F.H. Varley’s letter “it is, indeed, quite new to me that S. Alfred Varley ever laid any claim to its invention” is true, but not in the sense implied; for I have never during my late brother’s lifetime, except by describing the invention (nearly four years before he patented it) when I read my paper before the Society of Arts, publicly claimed the invention of artificial lines, and I am truly sorry that Mr. F.H. Varley, by his ill-advised letter, should have brought to light matters which, without disadvantage to anybody, might have been allowed to remain shrouded in comparative oblivion.

S. Alfred Varley.


The late C.F. Varley.

It is sometimes difficult in upholding the merits of the dead to avoid wounding the susceptibilities of the living, yet it is also unfair for the living to attack or impugn the honoured memory of the dead, when the voice is silent and the lips sealed for ever. To continue the battle of rival claims would involve my entering into the lists in a partisan spirit. This I particularly desire to avoid. I therefore confine my observations to your editorial footnote. Notwithstanding your remarks in reference to S. Alfred Varley’s paper read before the Society of Arts in 1859, and the perusal you have made of Cromwell Fleetwood Varley’s patents, I still adhere entirely to the text of my letter. I write from personal knowledge from being engaged in assisting in the manufacture of the elementary artificial line as used by S. Alfred Varley, and upon the subsequent apparatus supplied in accordance to Cromwell Fleetwood Varley’s specification, and made by the firm of Cornelius and S. Alfred Varley, the whole of the resistance coils of which were adjusted and finished by myself. I see that in a contemporary S. Alfred Varley lays claim to the invention of the artificial line. This is the first time I have heard of it, inasmuch as he never made any such pretension, that I am aware of, during the years we worked together, nor indeed to any other members of the family, a fact which is somewhat remarkable.

Let me, however, not be misunderstood. I do not wish to detract from the share of credit to which S. Alfred Varley is justly entitled from the papers he read before the Institute of Civil Engineers and the Society of Arts, all of which contributed to make clear the promise science afforded to the commercial fulfilment and realisation of Atlantic telegraphy.

Frederick H. Varley.

P.S.—I would also draw your attention to page 11 of Cromwell Fleetwood and Cornelius John Varley’s patent of 1859, line 12, and though the patent was applied for in June, 1859, my father, Cornelius Varley, being the patent agent, S.A. Varley never claimed that Cromwell was infringing upon his invention, as he surely would have done had he a fair ground then. Now that he is dead the claim comes too late.

Mildmay Park Works, Mildmay Avenue, Sept. 22nd, 1883.

[We would call our correspondent’s attention to the letter of Mr. S.A. Varley, and also to the extract from the paper read before the Society of Arts (see our other columns), and we would suggest that this subject be no further discussed, as, in our opinion, the evidence now before our readers is ample for an unbiassed judgment to be formed as to the true originator of artificial lines. In reference to Mr. Varley’s postscript, it is only necessary to remark, that Mr. S.A. Varley’s paper was read on the 30th March, and that patent agents are not usually in the habit of divulging their clients specifications, even when the parties are related. —Eds. Elec. Rev.]


Dictionary of National Biography, 1909:

VARLEY, CROMWELL FLEETWood (1828-1883), electrical engineer, son of Cornelius Varley [q.v .], watercolour painter, and nephew of John Varley [q.v.], was born at Kentish Town, London, on 6 April 1828, and was named after two of his ancestors, Oliver Cromwell and General Fleetwood. Andrew Pritchard [q.v.] was his first cousin. He was educated at St. Saviour’s, Southwark, where he was a schoolfellow of Sir Sydney Waterlow. After leavingschool he studied telegraphy, and, through the influence of William Fothergill Cooke [q.v.], was engaged in 1846 by the Electric and International Telegraph Company, with whom he remained until the acquisition of the telegraphs by the government in 1868, when he retired into private life, spending his time in bringing out new inventions. During the early part of his business career he attended lectures at the London Mechanics’ Institute, and, in connection with his brother Theophilus, he inaugurated the chemistry class there.

The first improvement he introduced in telegraphy was the ‘killing’ of the wire by giving it a slight permanent elongation, which breaks out the bad places and removes the objectionable springiness which results from the drawing process. Next he devised a method of localising the faults in submarine cables, so that they could be easily found and remedied. On 16 Feb. 1854 he patented his double current key and relay (No. 371), by which it became possible to telegraph from London to Edinburgh direct; then came his polarised relay, his English patent anticipating by two days the date of Siemens’s German patent for a like invention. His next improvement was the translating system for use in connection with the cables of the Dutch lines, and by its means messages were sent direct from England to St. Petersburg with the aid of two intermediate relays. In 1870 he patented an instrument, which he called a cymaphen, for the transmission of audible signals, and it is claimed for him that it contains the essentials of the modern telephone. However that may be, a year before the date of the Bell patent—namely, in 1870—music was transmitted by this instrument from the Canterbury Music-hall in Westminster Bridge Road to the Queen’s Theatre in Long Acre over an ordinary telegraph wire with complete success.

Varley’s name is probably chiefly remembered in connection with the Atlantic cable. The first cable, laid in August 1858, was a failure. Before the project for the second cable was published, it was referred to a committee, consisting of Robert Stephenson, Sir William Fairbairn, and Varley, to report as to its capabilities and the probability of its success. It was at this time that Varley conceived the idea of making an artificial line, composed of resistances and condensers, which should exactly represent the working conditions of a submarine cable. The resistances corresponded to the copper conductor, while the condensers reproduced the induction which takes place between the two sides of the dielectric, and thus by the aid of the artificial line it became possible to predicate the speed of signalling through any proposed cable, and a subject which up to that time had been much obscured was placed upon a scientific basis. As a result of his experiments he offered to guarantee that the proposed cable should transmit twelve words a minute, a rate of speed which in practice was soon exceeded. He afterwards, in 1867, read a paper at the Royal Institution (Proceedings, 1869, pp. 45-59) ‘On the Atlantic Telegraph,’ when his lucid explanations and practical demonstrations contributed greatly to the restoration of public confidence in Atlantic telegraphy, and to the renewal of that most important enterprise.

In 1866 he was elected a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and on 8 June 1871 a fellow of the Royal Society. He likewise took a great interest in the establishment of the Society of Telegraph Engineers in 1871, and was a member of the council. His papers in the ‘Philosophical Transactions,’ the ‘Reports of the British Association,’ and the ‘Electrician’ are all connected with the subjects of electricity and telegraphic communication. Like his uncle John, Varley was a rather credulous investigator of spiritualistic and other occult ‘phenomena.’ He died at Cromwell House, Bexley Heath, Kent, on 2 Sept. 1883, and was buried at Christ Church, Bexley, on 6 Sept. His second wife, whom he married on 11 Jan. 1877, was Jesse, daughter of Captain Charles Smith of Forres, Scotland. By a former wife, from whom he was divorced, he left two sons and two daughters. His two brothers, Frederick Henry Varley and Samuel Alfred Varley, were also improvers and inventors in connection with telegraphy.

[Times, 3 and 11 Sept. 1883; Engineering, 7 Sept. 1883; Telegraphic Journal, 15 Sept. 188.1 ; Electrical Engineer,! Oct. 1883; Ronald’s Cat. of Books on Electricity, 1880, pp. 608-9; Maxwell’s Treatise on Electricity, 1892.]

Last revised: 14 January, 2010

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The Atlantic Cable website is non-commercial, and its mission is to make available on line as much information as possible.

You can help - if you have cable material, old or new, please contact me. Cable samples, instruments, documents, brochures, souvenir books, photographs, family stories, all are valuable to researchers and historians.

If you have any cable-related items that you could photograph, copy, scan, loan, or sell, please email me: billb@ftldesign.com

—Bill Burns, publisher and webmaster: Atlantic-Cable.com