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History of the Atlantic Cable & Undersea Communications
from the first submarine cable of 1850 to the worldwide fiber optic network

The Whitehouse Perpetual Maintenance Battery

Introduction: Edward O.W. Whitehouse, “Wildman Whitehouse” as he generally styled himself, was a surgeon by profession and an electrical experimenter by avocation. In 1856 he was appointed Electrician to the Atlantic Telegraph Company and was responsible for the testing of the 1857/58 cables, and for the design and operation of the equipment which would transmit the telegraph signals between Ireland and Newfoundland.

This article from Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts, published in the issue of Saturday, August 22, 1857, gave a foretaste of just what might be in store for the cable...

See also this extract from a book published by the Atlantic Telegraph Company in 1857, which gives further details of Whitehouse's apparatus.

--Bill Burns and Steven Roberts



When the Atlantic telegraph-cable is once securely lodged on its shelf at the bottom of the sea, message will be transmitted through it from shore to shore of the great oceanic basin, by causing a current of electricity to flow from one end to the other of the include copper strand, and then to produce certain observable electrical effects upon its arrival. A surprising amount of ingenuity and skill has been expended upon the preparation of the apparatus by which this result will be obtained.*
[*The Atlantic Telegraph. A History of Preliminary Experimental Proceedings, and a Descriptive Account of the Present State and Prospects of the Undertaking. Published by order of the Directors. Jarrold and Sons]

The primary source of the electrical power which will be employed in this service—the fount whence the stream of electrical telegraphy will issue—is a voltaic battery of singular excellence and gigantic power. There are first ten large cells of gutta-percha, strengthened outside by a wooden casing, and filled inside by a mixture of sulphuric acid and water. Into each of these cells project a number of laminae or leaves. The laminae are composed of platinum-covered silver and mercury-amalgamated zinc alternately; but all the zinc leaves are connected together beneath by a long metallic bar; and all the silver leaves are connected together in a similar way by another bar above. Thus, all the silver element acts as one continuous plate, and all the zinc element (sic) does the same. Each metal exposes in one cell of the battery 2,000 square inches of surface to be operated upon by the acid. The battery is thus composed, in electrical language, of ten pair of voltaic plates, each having 2,000 square inches of silver, and 2,000 square inches of zinc, exposed. The zinc and silver elements of each cell have been arranged in separate laminae, instead of in one extended plate, because by this management it has been made possible for any portion of the acting plate to be removed for renewal or repair without there being the need to stop the activity of the battery for even a single instant. So long as this process of renewal of the corrodible zinc plate is carried on, the giant battery will maintain itself continuously in unimpaired operation. The battery is the invention of Mr Wildman Whitehouse, and well deserves, after his name and its own unrivalled characteristics, to be called ‘The Whitehouse Perpetual Maintenance Battery.’

This Atlantic battery is of exceeding power when its electricity-generating energies are allowed to come into unimpeded play. The wires by which the contacts are made between its poles, are broad fourfold straps of sheet-copper, and will ultimately be twisted ropes of copper. When contact is made and broken between these straps, flashes of mimic lightning play between them with brisk crackling snaps. If one is pressed upon some iron tool, while the other is drawn firmly down a sharp ridge or edge of the metal, the edge is smoothly cut away, just as if a file had been powerfully drawn three or four times over the angle. If the two straps are pressed down upon the end of a pair of pliers, or upon a thick iron screw, half an inch of either being included between the ends of the copper straps, the included iron becomes red-hot, and begins to burn with the emission of a shower of sparks in five seconds. The quantity of electricity generated by the plates of this large battery produces this powerful heating effect when it is thrown upon a small mass of such an excellent transmitter as iron is.

Quantity and intensity, or motor energy, in electrical matters are, however, by no means identical things. Although the current set going by this battery is powerful enough to produce the heating effect described when it is thrown upon a substance not offering much resistance to its passage, it is altogether unable to force a path through any body that does offer any considerable degree of resistance. If the frame of a living man being, for instance, be made to assume the place the screw, by one of the polar copper straps being taken in each hand, previously moistened, not enough the current passes through the arms and chest even produce a thrill when contact is made and broken. The electrical current that burns up the iron screw-like paper, cannot force its way through four or five feet of flesh and blood. Yet a real lightning flash which had not a hundredth part of the battery-produced current in it, so far as quantity is concerned, would penetrate by virtue of its superior intensity through that flesh and blood in the fraction of a moment, and reduce them to lifeless ashes. The great heating power of the Atlantic battery is inconvenient in one sense, on account of the transmission of the current having necessarily to be made through a make and break key of metal. The electrical current eats up portions of the metal at each passage with a bright spark and a loud snap, although the key is composed of thick brass springs, and an iron angle, almost a foot long; and so threatens to be continually deranging the mechanism of the commutator by its devouring propensities. This spark-difficulty has, however, nearly disappeared in the hands of the cunning Prospero who wields the rod of electrical magic. Mr Whitehouse now leaves a small curl of fine platinum wire constantly in circuit between the two poles of the voracious monster—the platinum is too tough a morsel be disposed of; it cannot be eaten up like iron. But it would be kept at an intensely red or white heat, if this were not prevented by further contrivance. The curl of platinum is kept in a vessel of water, and the heat goes to make the water boil, instead of to make the wire red-hot. A wreath of steam is continually issuing from the hissing liquid. When this ‘perpetual steaming apparatus’ of Mr Whitehouse is at work, as an appendage to the ‘perpetual maintenance battery,’ no spark appears on making and breaking the circuit by the key. There is a perpetual slight electrical leak in going on through the platinum wire, which in no way interferes practically with the full stream through the copper straps, when the complete contact is made. The leak, then, merely serves to absorb into itself the redundant and mischievous spark, and so protects the mechanism of the key from harm. The ten-celled battery employed at each terminal station of the Atlantic telegraph line, will be sustained in steady activity at a cost, for consumption of acid and zinc, of about one shilling per hour.

The electrical current of superabundant quantity which is generated in this perpetual maintenance battery of 20,000 square inches of excited surface, is not, however, the agent which will actually traverse e wide ocean. It has been found upon experimental trial that voltaic electricity is at the best but a lazy in sluggish traveller. On this account, the voltaic current is simply employed to generate a fresh force near home. It is strictly but a generating current. It is thrown upon a new piece of ingenious apparatus, consisting of coils of silk-covered copper wire, wound around a long bar of soft iron. There is about a mile and a half of the wire, and this wire is a continuation of the metallic plates of the battery. The current produced in the battery courses round and round through the coil, and so engirdles the soft iron bar many times in succession. But the coursing current makes the iron bar a magnet for the time, and a very powerful one too, on account of the multiplying turns of the long coil. Within the wire coil, and also surrounding the iron bar, another coil of much finer silk-covered wire is rolled. This wire is many miles long, and after being wound almost a countless number of times round the bar, it goes off into the strand of the Atlantic cable. It has no metallic communication, indeed, with anything else. Now, as the generating current, issuing from the battery, makes the soft iron bar into a magnet, so the powerful magnet, by mere sympathetic influence, or induction, as it is termed, calls up an independent stream of a new kind of electricity in the second finer coil, and this current flows forth through the cable from one coast to the other of the wide ocean. It is the real transmission current; that which goes forth ready girded and bound for the arduous journey. The instrument which receives the battery current is thus properly a double-induction coil. Electricity induces magnetism, and magnetism induces electricity, which differs in character from the primary generating influence in the fact that it is of inferior quantity, but of very much higher capacity for speed. This magnet-induced electricity comes forth from its coil as a thoroughly equipped fleet messenger, prepared for the effort of leaping across the Atlantic in the fraction of a second of time. In practice, there are two large coil-magnets, each five feet long, placed side by side, because under this arrangement each magnet proves to be a support and a helper to its companion and neighbour. Each, by the mere influence of propinquity, makes the other stronger in its magnetic energy, and thus enables it to induce so much the more vigorous transmission current in the investing coil.

But it is not even the transmission current which will ultimately effect the telegraphic signals. When this current has made its way across the Atlantic, it will naturally be weak, and, in a measure, exhausted by so long a journey; consequently, instead of being set to hard work in this weary state, it will be received in a nursery or infirmary, and have its worn-out vigour recruited and renewed. The transmission current will operate upon a receiving instrument of great ingenuity. The continuation of the conducting strand of the cable will, on the other side of the Atlantic, be curled into a coil, and this coil will surround a horseshoe-shaped bar of soft iron. The current, when flowing through the coil, will make the iron bar into a temporary magnet; and the poles of this temporary magnet will be reversed according as it is a current from the positive or negative pole of the transmission apparatus that flows through the coil. Between the extremities of the temporary magnet there will be a small permanent magnet traversing on a pivot, so that its north pole may be attracted to, or repelled by, a corresponding pole of the temporary magnet. In this way, the permanent traversing magnet will jerk to the right or to the left, accordingly as the giant voltaic battery on the other side of the ocean is made to send a positive or a negative transmission current through the cable. The weakened transmission current will, notwithstanding its own debility, render these magnetic movements comparatively brisk and strong, because it will course many times round the iron bar in its coil, and each time repeat the same influence and call up the same addition of magnetic energy in the iron bar. It will be the old trick of twenty men on the stage making an army a thousand strong, by marching round and round, behind and before the scene. There will be but one current, but the iron horseshoe will feel as if there were a myriad, because of the one running round and round. Now, when the permanent magnet traverses one way, it will complete a circuit, and open the electrical flood-gates of a small local voltaic battery near at hand. That fresh battery, its floodgates being opened, will set to work, and print or record a signal on paper prepared for the occasion. When the permanent magnet traverses the other way, the circuit will be broken, the flood-gates of the local battery will be closed, and the printing will be stopped. Thus the hand which holds the break-key on the west coast of Ireland, will, by this complication of inductive influence, make the small permanent magnet on the shores of Newfoundland open and close the outlet of the printing-battery stationed there near at hand. When the winch of the break-handle is turned to the left in Ireland, the battery in Newfoundland will print; when the winch is turned to the right, the battery in Newfoundland will be inoperative and still.

The printing-battery performs its work by the agency of a recording instrument, which consists of a ribbon of paper slowly and evenly unrolled from the inside of a hollow cylinder by means of clock-work, and of a sharp style, which indents a series of dots or lines upon the paper as it unrolls, when magnetically directed to do so. When the style is pressed down for an instant, as the paper is dragged along beneath, a dot is marked; when it is kept down for a little more than an instant, a prolonged trace or dash is left. The style itself is held up by a spring when not at work; but beneath the style there is a soft iron bar, which becomes a magnet whenever a current of voltaic electricity is sent from the printing-battery through a coil curled around it. The temporary magnet then draws down the style to make its dot or dash, accordingly as the case may be. When the soft iron bar is an electricity formed magnet, it is stronger than the spring, and pulls down the style upon the paper; when it ceases to be a magnet, the spring comes into play, and lifts the style up, so that the paper traverses beneath it without a mark. The style is held down an instant or longer, accordingly as an instantaneous or a longer voltaic current is passed through the coil surrounding the bar.

The dot-and-dash code of telegraphic communication is an invention of Professor Morse of the United States. It is a very important contrivance, because it enables complete words to be spelled out when there is but a single wire to transmit the signals through. Different arrangements of these two elementary signals can easily be made to symbol all the letters of the alphabet, and the several numerals to boot. Thus, a dot and a dash signify a; a dash and three dots, b; a dash and dot once repeated, c; and so on. The clerks who are engaged in reading these signals, become so expert in their occupation, that they can close their eyes, and tell what the message is that is being telegraphed, merely by the clicking sounds of the style. They get to understand the speech as well as the writing of their instruments.

It has been already remarked, that one of the most extraordinary circumstances connected with the working of the Atlantic telegraph apparatus, is the very trifling electrical power which proves sufficient to transmit intelligible signals through long extents of the cable. In an experiment made since the first allusion in our Journal to this subject, Mr Whitehouse was working with 1,000 miles of the cable, and succeeded in spelling words through this length by a battery consisting only of two minute fragments of zinc and silver, excited by a single drop of brine suspended between them. When one drop of water and a fiftieth part of a square inch of zinc can electrically spell out a word through a distance equivalent to half the breadth of the wide Atlantic, there need not be any doubt entertained that the leviathan laminated battery, with its 20,000 square inches of zinc, and many gallons of acidulated water, will be quite equal to the task of doing the same thing through the entire breadth of the ocean-basin. In 1851, Professor Morse said the Atlantic would one day be crossed by a telegraphic cable capable of transmitting electrical messages; in 1857, the prophetic seer, in all human probability, will enjoy the gratification of witnessing the fulfilment of his bold prophecy.

From Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Arts. Volume VII, Number 190, Saturday, August 22, 1857.

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Last revised: 3 June, 2010

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