Introduction: John Clement Cuff was born in Bristol in 1851 to Robert C. Cuff, a “Chemist Master employing 2 men & 1 boy”, and Ellen Cuff [1861 UK census]. His obituary (see below) records that he was a pupil of William Thomson at Glasgow University after leaving school in Bristol, where he worked with Thomson on the development of the siphon recorder. He presumably moved to London after this, as on the 1871 UK census, at age 19, he was a boarder at 6 Westbury Road, Paddington, with the occupation of “Philosophical Instrument Maker.” He subsequently worked in the cable industry for many years and patented a number of inventions.
In 1873 Cuff published a pamphlet on Sir William Thomson’s siphon recorder, and on 10 November that year he sailed from England to Madras (from where a cable had been laid to Singapore in 1871). A note published on his retirement in 1906 stated that “Mr Cuff has served almost continuously from November 1873 in the Far East.” It is possible that he had worked overseas in the cable industry prior to that, as he does not appear on the 1871 UK census.
In 1876 Walter Judd, Superintendent of the Eastern Extension Australasia and China Telegraph Company, published an 18-page booklet titled “Notes for Telegraphists”, on the first page of which the author wrote, “The assistance given by Mr J.C. Cuff is cordially acknowledged”.
Image courtesy of IET Archives
On 22 September 1878, Mr John C. Cuff of Singapore was proposed for admission as an Associate Member of the Society of Telegraph Engineers (now the IET) by William Edward Ayrton, with the following details of his qualifications:
“Formerly pupil of Messrs. Elliott Bros: subsequently of Prof. Sir William Thomson now engaged at different telegraph stations at the East studying the working of the lines on behalf of Sir Wm. Thomson and Prof. Fleeming Jenkin.”
He was elected as Associate of the Society of Telegraph Engineers on 11 December 1878.
In 1880 the Society of Telegraph Engineers published his paper, “The Practical Management of Sir William Thomson’s Tray Batteries”.
In 1881 Cuff was listed as Assistant Electrician of the Eastern Extension, Australasia and China Telegraph Company at Singapore, part of John Pender’s world-spanning group of cable companies (later Cable & Wireless); regional directories from 1877 through 1905 show him as "Electrical Engineer" for the cable company, and in 1906 he retired as Superintendent of its Workshop and Testing Departments. Detailed information on the company’s operations at Singapore during Cuff’s time there may be found in the 1921 book “One Hundred Years of Singapore”.
Cuff had patents in several areas of technology. On 24 May 1881 he filed this patent application:
2263. John Clement Cuff, of Old Broad Street, in the city of London, Electrician, for an invention of “Improvements in the construction of apparatus for effecting electrical measurements.”
This was produced in 1882 as Cuff’s Resistance Box, a drawing and description of which were published in Engineering on 28 July that year. The paper noted that “Our illustration is taken from a box exhibited at the Paris Electrical Exhibition and made for the inventor by a Hindoo in Singapore. It is peculiarly interesting as a specimen of native manufacture; but more finished boxes are now made by Messrs. Latimer Clark Muirhead, and Company, of Regency-street, Westminster.”
On 12 July 1881 he registered a design patent for “A receptacle for office necessaries.”
In its issue of 16 September 1882 the Electrical Journal recorded this patent application:
541. “Electric or magnetic motor.” T. Morqan. (A communication from abroad by J.C. Cuff, of Singapore, and W. Judd, of Penang.) Dated February 3. 6d. This invention is for the purpose of supplying a simple motor for those purposes which require a reciprocating movement, without employing any crank or rotary motion to produce it.
On 22 March 1884, with N.B. Denny, Cuff was issued GB patent 5287, “Producing and regulating electric currents.”
On 1 January 1891 Cuff wrote a letter about his 1881 patent to the Electrical Journal, and it was published in the issue of 6 February 1891.
In 1895 he was responsible for all the electrical arrangements in the Eastern Extension Company’s new offices at Raffles Quay in Singapore.
In 1901 he filed this patent application:
Automatic Regulators For Heating Gas Burners—25,565. A.B. Buff, 40, Chancery Lane, London. Communicated by John Clement Cuff, Singapore.
Note: Patents “communicated” by overseas residents were commonly filed by the inventor’s agent in Britain.
In Singapore, Cuff was an active member of the Debating Society and was often mentioned in newspaper reports of the debates. Here is just one example.
On 18 August 1906 Cuff’s land and houses in Singapore were advertised for sale at auction, and he retired in November of that year. A report in the Singapore Free Press issue of 21 November provides these details:
On Saturday afternoon last Mr. J.C. Cuff, late Superintendent of the Workshop and Testing Departments of the Eastern Extension A and C Telegraph Co., Ltd., was presented at his residence, Avondale, Serangong Road, by the workmen serving under him, with an address, which was enclosed in a polish teak box and a 400 day clock, as a mark of their esteem. Mr Cuff has served almost continuously from November 1873 in the Far East and has, during that period, by his kindness and willingness at all times to assist, endeared himself to the numerous employes who have served under him and it was with pangs of the greatest distress that they view his impending departure, owing to his retirement from Active Service in the Company. Unfortunately the rain precluded a group photograph being taken of the occasion but hopes are entertained that when the weather clears up sufficiently, as many of the signatories to the address as possible, will assemble and be photographed together.
As a further indication of the regard in which Cuff was held in Singapore, at a meeting of the Municipal Commissioners of Singapore on November 30th, Cuff Road was one of a group of new street names officially approved for side-roads off Serangoon Road in the district know as Little India. This note appears in the book, "Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics" by Victor R Savage and Brenda Yeoh (Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013):
This road was named after J.C. Cuff, an electrician with Eastern Extension Telegraph Company. Cuff was supposed to be a very able lecturer on scientific subjects. He lived here and had a studio erected here in 1894. The street name was officially approved in 1906.
SOURCE: MPMCOM, 30 Nov 1906; Siddique and Puru Shotam, 1982:38
A 1915 “To Let” advertisement gives the address of Cuff’s former house, “Avondale”, as 8 Cuff Road.
Following his retirement, Cuff and his family left Singapore on 10 December 1906 and moved to New Zealand. A note in the Singapore Free Press issue of 4 March 1907 reads, “Mr and Mrs J. Clement Cuff desire that their old Singapoer friends should be informed that their new address is ‘Emerald Hill, Epsom, Auckland, N.Z.’”
In 1907 Cuff became a member of the Royal Society of New Zealand, and in November 1909 he read a paper on "The Cam-lever Balance" at the Auckland Institute, one of the constituents of the Royal Society. A PDF of the article is available here.
John Clement Cuff died at Epsom, Auckland, on 19 October 1920, survived by his wife Annie Cuff and leaving an estate valued at £1251. His obituary in the Hawera & Normanby Star, Volume XLI, 27 October 1920, reproduced here by kind permission of the National Library of New Zealand, gives some further details of his life and career:
A resident of Auckland, who has carried out much scientific research and invention, Mr John Clement Cuff, died this week. Mr Cuff, who was born at Bristol in 1851, was educated at Bristol Grammar School, on leaving which he became a pupil of the late Lord Kelvin at the Glasgow University. Ultimately he became Lord Kelvin’s assistant in scientific research, and their joint efforts produced the instrument that made submarine telegraphy possible as a commercial proposition.
John Clement Cuff’s entry at Find A Grave.
Several letters to Cuff on technical topics, dated between 1885 and 1890, were recently discovered, and they give an interesting insight into the challenges of running a far-flung cable network in the late 19th century. The text of each of the letters is reproduced below. Sadly, we do not have Cuff’s replies.