The Artist-Scientist in the history of the Submarine Telegraph

Samuel F. B. Morse’s painting “Gallery of the Louvre” from Art Knowledge News

Previously I’ve briefly discussed some thoughts on the links between art and science through the telescope of history. Through my research into the history of submarine telegraphy I’ve been struck by a continued link, and not just through representations and display, but through professions.

At least two telegraph engineers (that I’ve come across so far) had a previous career as an artist before turning to a life of experiment and science. One is probably one of the most famous men linked to electrical telegraphy, Samuel F. B. Morse. Morse’s career as a painter brought him to England in 1811, where he studied under Washington Allerton, and was eventually allowed into the Royal Academy. Morse went back to America in 1816 and enjoyed a successful career painting portraits of many prominent politicians. In 1830 Morse decided to return to Europe to improve his painting skills, and it was on this trip that he began to develop his concept of the single-wire electric telegraph.[1]

The second artists turned engineer was John W. Brett, one of the pioneers of submarine telegraphy. . In 1831 it appeared he was on the cusp of breaking through as an artist himself, but in October, a few days before the infamous Bristol riots, a fire broke out that destroyed his entire collection which included his own work as well as rare works he had acquired.[2] It appears that this personal disaster spurred Brett on to achieve success in an alternative way, through study and collecting Old Masters, this wide-ranging collection of fine art was highly credited and Brett consequently loaned works to exhibitions held in Manchester, the South Kensington Museum and the Royal Institution of British Architects.[3] However this wasn’t the only source of his fortune, like many people Brett’s imagination had been ignited by the recent success of the overland telegraph. In a conversation with his younger brother, Jacob Brett, it was suggested that if cables had been laid underground, why not underwater. The seed had been sown, but France wasn’t the first location the brothers wanted to connect via submarine cable, in 1845 Jacob Brett registered a company to unite Europe and America, when this was deemed too risky and large a scheme for such a young business the Bretts suggested a cable between England and Ireland, but this was declined by the British Government. According to the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography an agreement was eventually made with the French government in 1847 and it was decided to lay a telegraph cable between Dover and Calais.[4] A cable was eventually successfully laid in 1851, and was the first international submarine telegraph cable.

I’m sure there are many more artist turned scientists, there is after the Jungian Archetype of the Artist-Scientist, of which Wikipedia suggests Su Song, Archimedes, Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin (another pioneer of electricity). Perhaps it is the showman ship early electricity experiments encouraged, or the creativity of invention that attracted the cross-over, or perhaps it is some sort of psychological trait and there are many modern and ancient examples that I haven’t discovered yet.

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Collecting Cables

From Sheerness to Valentia, on board Brunel's paddle steamer 'Great Eastern'. Copyright National Maritime Museum. The NMM got some cable samples thrown in when they bought this at auction!

Last week I got into the National Maritime Mmuseum’s institutional archives, held at the LTE stores, to try and find out a bit more about the provenance of some of the cables now at the NMM. As with most museum archives the records held on objects were a bit hit and miss, some had a large file full of correspondence, and others didn’t even have a file, well not one I could find!

However, from the files I did get a look at, there did seem to be a pattern emerging; the cables themselves were not something the keepers of yester-year found exciting. More often than not the bits of cable appear to have been acquired along with other objects, and was often just listed on an inventory list or, my favourite, appeared as a condition for acquiring a painting at auction. (It appears the presentation box of cables wasn’t listed along with the painting and just suddenly turned up on the later paperwork, I imagine the Museum was very surprised).

Interestingly some of these objects were family papers, or other items, linked to men that either worked in the cable-laying industry or had another maritime or naval connection. It is generally assumed that the section was acquired in their line of work, though I found it interesting that one set of objects were part of an Admiral’s collection of ‘relics’.

Another large group of cables came from the Royal Artillery Museum along with a number of ship models, I think, and I’ve found documents relating to transfer of the ship models, but not the cables. A book on ship models at the NMM does detail that a number of objects were transferred over as the Royal Artillery Museum realised they had a lot of objects not related to artillery in their collection, but I seem at a dead-end for paper work related to this.[1] Furthermore the Royal Artillery Museum couldn’t find any documentation related to the move either (though I have to commend them on the speed at which they got back to me!)

Overall I’ve learnt a valuable lesson about the difficulties in obtaining an object biography of particular objects, you’re often relying on the administration principals of past policies of a museum, and record keeping culture, like collecting culture, changes over time. Some of these records seem to portray the perceived importance of what the object represents and the larger story it can tell rather than an interest in the object’s individual story. This leaves me at looking for the bigger picture myself, but taking into consideration the individual clues left by the object, in this case clearly pointing in the direction of the cable repair ships in collecting and possibly disseminating the sections of cable.


[1] B. Lavery & S. Steohens, Ship Models: Their Purpose and Development from 1650 to the Present, (London, 1995)

The Chartists’ ‘Dangerous Experiment’: The National Petition of 2 May 1842 through a Chartist Engraving

Procession Attending the Great National Petition of 3,317,702, to the House of Commons, 1842. © The Trustees of the British Museum

I have spent the past month writing an essay about the 1842 National Petition, specifically looking at the engraving above to see what that can tell us about it. I’ve handed in the essay, but thought I’d share a few ideas from it.

On Monday 2 May 1842 London was host to one of the greatest events of popular political theatre in its history. A procession of approximately 100,000 people,[1] littered with banners and flags with a soundtrack provided by bands from across the country, escorted a National Petition from Lincoln’s-inn-Fields to the Houses of Parliament. The petition was the Chartists’ second National Petition calling for political reform and its largest to date, claiming a staggering 3,317,702 signatures and weighing over 2 cwt. (or 305kg).[2] The Chartists produced three National Petitions in total, all of which were unsuccessful, but compared to the previous petition of 1839 and the subsequent petition of 1848, the 1842 petition was a unique moment in the Chartist movement. Arguably more political; it had more demands than the other petitions, calling not only for the infamous six points of universal male suffrage, annual parliaments, secret balloting, removal of the property qualification for MPs and a salary for MPs; but also for the repeal of the Poor Law Act and the repeal of the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland.[3] It was also unique in its delivery and reception; the Chartists called it their ‘dangerous experiment’ and Parliament acknowledged it was ‘not an ordinary’ petition.[4]

So what does this engraving tell us?

The ‘1842 Petition’ engraving was given away as a free gift to subscribers of the Chartist newspaper, The Northern Star, [5] and was clearly a celebration of the petition. The central three images are  indicators of this celebration, showing the size of the procession that accompanied the petition through London to Parliament; the size of the petition, that had to be carried by several people in the procession and dwarfed the Table before the Speaker, and also the National Convention, the Chartist organisation put together to administer the National Petition.

Northern Star front page. Chartist Ancestors website.

These images have clear links to the petition and can tell us something about how Fergus O’Connor, a Chartist leader and owner of the Northern Star, wanted the petition to be represented and remembered. The National Convention is respectable and orderly, sitting around a table, in many ways mirroring the layout of the Parliament. This isn’t surprising when we look at the National Convention as a sort-of ‘alternative parliament’,[6] whose policies and procedures followed those the Chartists wanted Parliament to adopt. [7] One contrasting feature of the National Convention and the House of Commons is the body language of the men. Some in the National Convention are looking out at you, others look hard at work, however most in the House of Commons sit with their arms folded, perhaps showing their ambivalence to the National Petition that sits in front of them. The National Convention seems to be more inclusive and hardworking; this image suggests that perhaps the House of Commons could learn a few things from the National Convention. This is further underlined by the fact that the central image of the procession (as well as the two children at the forefront of the image) are walking away from Parliament and towards the National Convention.

The image of the procession presents another side of the respectable Chartists. This massive procession was orderly and peaceful; in fact it was a family friendly event, that encouraged as many spectators as there were marchers. This seems to be one of the key messages with the two children playing are at the heart of the engraving, just under the box containing the petition, and was supported by the news reports of the time. [8] Though what this image doesn’t include is equally as interesting as what is included. As mentioned one of the notable differences of this petition was that it was more political than the other National Petitions, however the additional claims, the repeal of the Act of Union with Ireland and the repeal of the Poor Law Act don’t feature. The traditional Chartist demands feature on the Petition box or on flags, but none of the more controversial images or slogans that were seen at demonstrations or even the Petition procession including tricolours, or caps of liberty. [9] This is very a conventional almost acceptable image of Chartism.

There are also very few women featured in the engraving, none seem to be in the procession itself, they are just spectators. The National Convention does have the image of two women at the back of the room, but their role is unclear. However we do know that women had an active role in Chartism and especially in the coordination of petitions, [10] in this way this engraving supports the Gentleman image of Chartism as described by Malcolm Chase in his analysis of the portraits issued by The Northern Star. [11]

Image of Mary Ann Walker, female Chartist, from Punch. Chartist Ancestors

One aspect that has really intrigued me is the inclusion of the London landmarks at the top and bottom of the engraving. The top row shows images of Temple Bar, Somerset House, Northumberland House, Whitehall, Richmond Terrace, Westminster Bridge, Westminster Hall, and the Houses of Parliament. The bottom row displays St Clements Danes, St Mary Le-Strand, Adelphi Theatre, Nelson’s Monument, the Admiralty, Horse Guards, the Treasury and finally Westminster Abbey.

These landmarks trace a route from Temple Bar, down the Strand to Trafalgar Square and down Whitehall to Parliament Square. At first I thought they must trace the route of the procession; however the actual route followed Lincoln-inn-Fields, Holborn, Museum Street, Russell Square, Tottenham Court Road, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Pall Mall, Charing Cross, Whitehall on to Parliament Square.[12] It could be that this route was a last-minute change, but I would need to do more research to conclude this.

In any case there is still the question of why include these buildings. Most of the buildings can be seen as symbols of the ‘Old’ and ‘New Corruption’, symbols of aristocratic power, religious establishment and government. The juxtaposition of these grand and powerful buildings against the centrepiece of the petition procession presents a bit of a puzzle. It could simply be to give a sense of place; this momentous occasion occurred amongst some of the historic, political and religious landmarks of the capital, not any other city. Alternatively they could present the 1842 Petition with a sense of significance and grandeur, just as important as the landmarks, making the procession and presentation of the petition another London landmark. However the political significance of most of the landmarks suggests that it is more likely that by including these symbols of power, the Northern Star is saying the demands of the people, through the petition, is just as powerful. By aligning the procession and presentation with places like Horse Guards and Westminster Bridge, they are underlining the Chartist’s respect for the establishment and placing the Chartist procedures as part of the establishment. Through the constitutional rights of petitioning, they had a legitimate claim and deserved to be listened to and taken seriously.

I feel the significance and meaning of this engraving deserves more research, especially why the Adelphi Theatre is one of the landmarks included, it feels a bit like the odd one out in terms of theme. I feel like I’ve just started to uncover the deeper meaning, but hope to explore it more in the future. Feel free to get in touch if you have any further information or ideas!


[1] The Times, 3 May 1842, claim 50,000 attended, the Northern Star, 7 May 1842, claim there were ten times that number. D. Goodway, London Chartism 1838-1848 (Cambridge, 1982), p.50, estimates between 100,000 and 150,000.

[2] Times, 3 May 1842, conversion from M. Chase, Chartism: A New History, (Wiltshire, 2007), p.205

[3] M. Taylor, ‘The Six Points: Chartism and the Reform of Parliament’, in O. Aston, R. Fyson & S. Roberts, eds., The Chartist Legacy(Finland, 1999), p. 1

[4] Northern Star, 7 May 1842, & Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 3 May 1842

[5] M. Chase, ‘Building identity, building circulation: engraved portraiture and the Northern Star’, in  J. Allen & O. R. Aston, eds., Papers for the People: A Study of the Chartist Press (Cornwall, 2005), p.47

[6] D. Thompson, The Chartists (London, 1984), p.63

[7] Taylor, ‘The Six Points’,p.16

[8] Times, 3 May 1842

[9] Northern Star 11 May 1842, & Times 3 May 1842

[10] P. Pickering, ‘And Your Petitioner &c’: Chartist Petitioning in Popular Politics 1838 – 48’, The English Historical Review, 116 (2001), pp.381-3

[11] Chase, ‘Building identity’ p.32

[12] Northern Star 11 May 1842, & Times 3 May 1842

History: an Art or Science? How different are they?

Conrad Shawcross is the Artist in residence at the Science Museum, London. The Science Museum is one of many scientific institutions that see a value in having artists in residence to engage their audience.

This is an age old question, and as I was trying to put together a presentation on it for University, I’m not planning on trying to answer it at length here.

But while mulling it over I began to realise just how intermingled the two disciplines are today.

History is a bit of a confusing subject, it sits under the branch of learning called Humanities (defined as the study of human culture), different History masters courses can get you a MA or a MSc, and funding for the Arts and Humanities Research Council comes from the Science and Innovation Group, part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. None of these points help.

Most arguments of this nature seem to focus on whether or not History is a science, assuming that if you are not a science you must be an art. But I’m not entirely convinced they are exact opposites. Both generally speaking build on previous knowledge or thought, and Postmodernists are able to demonstrate cultural influences on scientific thought as much as artistic, I’ve included a picutre of a piece of work by Conrad Shawcross, and here is a link to an interesting article about Salvador Dalí’s relationship and interest in science. Some of the most interesting pieces of modern art can come out of scientific influences, and scientists can get inspiration or that spark from the arts. Thomas Kuhn demonstrated that even scientific discoveries have been influenced by cultural factors, and it is clear that some sciences are heavily influenced by interpretation. It seems to be increasingly important for science to borrow from the arts to help engage a wider audience with their work and from the large amount of ‘popular’ science books out by authors like Brian Cox and Robert Winston it seems to be a healthy relationship.

I’ll finish up with a letter by Gregory Petsko, a Professor in Biochemistry and Chemistry, recently published in the Genome Biology journal arguing that science needs the arts and humanities:

One of the things I’ve written about is the way genomics is changing the world we live in. Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn’t a question for science alone; it’s a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including – especially including – the humanities and arts. Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I’m right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future. You’ve just ensured that yours won’t be one of them.

The rest of the letter can be found here.

This letter was written in reaction to the State University of New York at Albany deciding to get rid of its departments of French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts. As cuts loom over the UK and both the sciences and arts feel the need to defend their purpose and position it is worth remembering the similarities and benefits of both.