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A Great Unknown Scot
By W. J. Douglas


THE mother-spirit of the modern world is the printing press. Without it the civilisation kindled in Italy from the old Greek and Hebrew fires would have gone out or sunk to the thinnest flame, like the hundred civilisations that before had come and gone, if the Germans, ever thoughtful and intent to save, had not made for it a lamp that cannot break and cannot be lost—the lamp of printing. This spirit had offspring, two children, one rough, boisterous, strong, and terrible as the winter winds, and men called the young giant Steam; the other, fine, subtle, delicate as the light of heaven, and its name is Electricity. But these great spirits needed education. Masters must teach them to obey the will and wish of man. Such a master was James Watt. He took in hand the young giant of steam, he waited and he watched by it, he guided and he trained it, until, from a rough and dangerous barbarian, he made it the wondrous and harmonious worker that it is. Would it not be strange if one born in the same town as Watt, about the same time, had brought out of electricity its fine qualities that enable it to abolish distance? This is what actually was done by a fellow-townsman and contemporary of James Watt. To drop all metaphor, in this case so entising, Charles Morison, a native of Greenock, did, in the middle of last century, discover the principle of the electric telegraph, and did construct an instrument by which messages were conveyed from place to place.

Were not the evidence, as we shall show, too plain to be mistaken, I should much incline to doubt it. Whenever anybody discovers anything, half a dozen envious spirits are ready to flood every newspaper with columns of controversial matter to the effect that he did not discover it but stole it. If you found out a way to make gold from brass, or statesmen from demagogues, you would be told that it was all set down in papers that your grandfather most unlawfully took it from some one else's grandfather, and that you had no more right to he called a discoverer than you had to be called Emperor of China. That is human nature. But here the facts are simple, clear, and past dispute. Years before the discovery is claimed for any other man, Charles Morison knew that subtle process by which thought flashes round the earth almost with thought's own swiftness.

In the early part of last century electricity was a toy, a pet of the study. Men no more dreamed of what it could do than they might dream that a pink morsel of baby-humanity would grow into a Napolean and cover Europe with graves. In 1736, James Watt came into the world that he was to turn upside down. It is probable that Charles Morison was born not far from the same time. Think of it. Greenock was then a cleanly, sleepy, little place. Even Glasgow was hardly bigger than a market town of to-day. Into the Greenock streets came the hardy Highlanders to traffic, and—it must be confessed—to spoil the Saxon as completely as they could. Prince Charlie had not yet made his desperate struggle for his father's throne. Here in this quiet place, with its steady-going, decent people, more intent upon some venture to the Indies than upon all the politics that agitated far-off London, were born, and grew, and had their training in the world's work, two youths, each of whom had in his mind ideas the full extent and vast influence of which they themselves could as little dream as the Virgin-mother with the Holy Infant in her womb could foresee Christian Europe. Did they ever meet? Perhaps they went to school together, perhaps heard the same long sermon in the Parish Church, perhaps bright eyes long gone out, sweet lips long since ashes, gleamed and smiled with simple coquetry on both. Perhaps—but we must stop. The speculation is too romantic, too fascinating. They must have met, probably they have spoken. Whether they interchanged ideas is profitless to discuss. A great mind self-centred, self- absorbed, is not so apt to detect greatness in others as the hero-worshipping public would love to think. In 1753 Charles Morison was living in Renfrew, and had already found out his great world-changing fact. The Scots Magazine of that year contained the following letter, the extreme interest of which warrants us in publishing it without abbreviation:-

AN EXPEDITIOUS METHOD OF CONVEYING INTELLIGENCE BY MEANS OF ELECTRICITY.
Renfrew, Feb. 1, 1753.

To the author of the Scots Magazine-

Sir,—It is well known to all who are conversant with electrical experiments, that the electric power may be propagated along a small wire, from one place to another, without being sensibly abated by the length of its progress. Let then a set of wires, equal in number to the letters of the alphabet, be extended horizontally between two given places parallel to one another, and each of them about an inch distant from that next to it. At every twenty yards end, let them be fixed in glass, or jeweller's cement, to some firm body, both to prevent them from touching the earth or any other non-electric, and from breaking by their own gravity. Let the electric gun barrel be placed at right angles with the extremities of the wires, and about an inch below them. Also let the wires be fixed on a solid piece of glass, at six inches from the end; and let that part of them which reaches from the glass to the machine, have sufficient spring and stiffness to recover its situation after having been brought in contact with the barrel. Close by the supporting glass, let a ball be suspended from every wire; and about a sixth or an eighth of an inch below the balls place the letters of the alphabet, marked on bits of paper, or any other substance that may be light enough to rise to the electrified ball; and at the same time let it be so contrived, that each of them may reassume its proper place when dropt. All things constructed as above, and the minute previously fixed, I begin the conversation with my distant friend in this manner. Having set the electrical machine a-going as in ordinary experiments, suppose I am to pronounce the word Sir; with a piece of glass or any other electric per se, I strike the wire S, so as to bring it in contact with the barrel, then :, then r, all in the same way; and my correspondent, almost in the same instant, observes these several characters rise in order to the electrified balls at his end of the wires. Thus I spell away as long as I think fit; and my correspondent, for the sake of memory, writes the characters as they rise, and may join and read them afterwards as often as he inclines. Upon a signal given, or from choice, I stop the machine; and taking up the pen in my turn, I write down whatever my friend at the other end strikes out.

If anybody should think this way tiresome, let him, instead of the balls, suspend a range of bells from the roof, equal in number to the letters of the alphabet; gradually decreasing in size from the bell A to Z: and from the horizontal wires, let there be another set reaching to the several bells; one, volt., from the horizontal wire B to the bell B, &c. Then let him who begins the discourse bring the wires in contact with the barrel, as before; and the electrical spark, breathing on bells of different size, will inform his correspondent by the sound what wires have been touched. And thus, by some practice, they may come to understand the language of the chimes in whole words, without being put to the trouble of noting down every letter.

The same thing may be otherwise effected. Let the balls be suspended over the characters as before, but instead of bringing the ends of the horizontal wires in contact with the barrel, let a second set reach from the electrified cake, so as to be in contact with the horizontal ones; and let it be so contrived at the same time, that any of them may be removed from its corresponding horizontal by the slightest touch, and may bring itself again into contact when left at liberty. This may be done by the help of a small spring and slider, or twenty other methods, which the least ingenuity will discover. In this way, the characters will always adhere to the balls, excepting when any one of the secondaries is removed from contact with its horizontal; and then the letter at the other end of the horizontal will immediately drop from its ball. But I mention this only by way of variety.

Some may perhaps think that although the electric fire has not been observed to diminish sensibly in its progress through any length of wire that has been tried hitherto; yet as that has never exceeded some thirty or forty yards, it may be reasonably supposed, that in a greater length it would be remarkably diminished and probably would be entirely drained off in a few miles by the surrounding .air. To prevent the objection, and save longer argument, lay over the wires from one end to the other with a thin coat of jeweller's cement. This may be done for a trifle of additional expense; and as it is an electric per se, will effectually secure any part of the fire from mixing with the atmosphere.—I am, &c.,

C. M.

Is it not wonderful? Here is the electric telegraph. In 1753 this Greenock man, Charles Morison, had, and used that which, even in 1886, we regard as a marvel surpassing all other marvels. We have developed and improved it, but we have done no more. The same principle is still applied in the same way. Unfortunately this man, Charles Morison, does not seem to have had that intense power which generally accompanies invention, the power of impressing ideas upon other people. That he could lucidly and completely write down his thoughts, appears by his letter, which is remarkably clear and even elegant in expression. But having written this letter, having sown, as it were, his idea in the Scots Magazine, he left the matter to time, chance, and his ideas surpassing worth. No Boulton was at hand to take it up and to translate it even then into a world-encircling net-work of nerve-like wires. Twenty-one years later Lesage, in Geneva, by means of twenty four wires, conveyed messages from place to place, and then Europe became too much engrossed in revolution for such a useful invention to reach early maturity.

In 1859 Sir David Brewster disinterred this long forgotten letter from the Scots Magazine, and republished it in the North British Review. In his remarks upon the letter he says—" Here we have an electric telegraph upwards of a hundred years old, which at the present day would convey intelligence expeditially, and we are constrained to admit that C. M. was the inventor of the electric telegraph . . . . Everything done since is only improvement."

But who was C. M.? From modesty or other reasons Charles Morison had only signed his initials. Sir David Brewster was in the dark. At last light came in letters now fully given to the world for the first time. These letters, after the death of Sir David, were found among his correspondence by C. Brewster Macpherson, Esq. of Belleville House, Kingussie, and by him generously presented to the Watt Library, Greenock. Here they are, and very interesting is the story they tell :-

Port-Glasgow, 31st October, 1859.

Sir,—Having the other evening been reading a portion of the North British Review, vol. 22, P. 545, regarding the invention of the Electric Telegraph, and having by mere chance come upon the passage which says, "It was reserved for a Scotchman, a gentleman residing in Renfrew, to suggest the idea of transmitting messages by Electricity along wires passing from one place to another. The remarkable proposal was published in the Scots Magazine for February, 1753, in an article bearing the initials 'C. M.', the only name which we shall ever probably obtain for the first inventor of the Electric Telegraph "—a friend of mine at present living with me here, on being shewn the passage, and thinking for a minute, told me he could solve the mystery regarding the gentleman in question, with the view of sending the same to you, presuming that you were the writer of the article referred to, or connected with the publishing of the North British Review. He stated that in a letter which his great grandfather had written to Margaret Wingate, Craigengilte, near Denny, in the year 1752, which letter he recollects having seen, and which he believes is still in preservation, his great grandfather describes having seen a gentleman in Renfrew, of the name of Charles Morrison, who was a native of Greenock, and was a bred surgeon, but it is a question whether he ever practised his profession, as it was known he was sometime connected with the tobacco trade in Glasgow. It is presumed he had not continued very long at the business of dealing in tobacco, but had made the study of finding out this noble science his daily theme. The people of that age were so superstitious that they believed Mr. Morrison was crazy, and that the Devil was acting in concert with him, and my friend's grandfather and grandmother also thought so, and all who heard or saw him transmitting intelligence along wires by invisible means, were actually persuaded that the man was assisted by some supernatural being. From what my friend can remember of hearing, it is thought that Mr. Morrison had to leave Renfrew, in consequence of the superstitious notions of the age. Mr. Morrison did leave Renfrew, whether from this cause or not he cannot affirm, and went to Virginia, U.S., where he afterwards died.

My friend remembers perfectly well when a boy of his grandfather coming to his father's house, and telling all sorts of stories about the gentleman in Renfrew, who could transmit messages along wires, and what the general opinion was regarding him. The subject being new and interesting, caused him to listen to it with greater attention, and this is the reason he says why he recollects so well about Mr. M. at the present day.

Perhaps I am only troubling you with this long epistle for no use, as you may ere now have obtained from some one else a better history of Mr. M.'s pedigree.

My friend advised me to send the above information as an article for publication in the newspapers, but I thought it would be better to send the same first to you, and probably you might inform me if you had not already been favoured with the intelligence, and advise whether you would wish to publish the same yourself.

If you desire any further particulars regarding Mr. Morrison, I shall be happy to be at your service, and endeavour to obtain anything you may suggest.

I have the honour to be, Sir,
Your most obedient faithful humble Servant,
R H. LOUDAN,
At ALEX. LADE, Esqr.'s. Answd. Nov. 2, 1859. (Jotting by Sir David Brewster.)

Wrote again, Jan. 2, 1860. (Jotting by Sir David Brewster.)
Port-Glasgow, 4th January, 1860. Sir D. Brewster, St. Andrews.

Sir,—I have to acknowledge receipt of your letter of the 2nd instant, and, in answer, beg to state that my friend, Mr. Foreman, has been endeavouring to get the letter written by his grand- father, but as yet he has not been successful. It appears the above letter, among others, are in the custody of an aunt, who lives in a small village in Perthshire. He wrote about the middle of November last to make a search for the letter, and to send it, or a copy thereof, but she wrote back saying she had not been able to find it. Mr. Foreman then stated that he would, perhaps, go and pay her a visit about the New Year, when he would make a search himself, but circumstances having prevented him from going, nothing farther has been done. He has again written today to his aunt to renew her search, as it is possible she, being an old woman, might not know it, although she laid her hands on it. For these reasons I have delayed writing you in answer to yours of the 2nd November. So soon as a reply comes, I shall again write you, either with the letter or the statement you refer to. I would like very much the letter. could be got, as it would at once settle a matter of great importance to Scotland.

l am,
Yours respectfully,
R. H. LOUDAN.

Port-Glasgow, 30th January, 1860. Sir David Brewster, St. Andrews.

Sir,—In reference to my letter of the 4th instant, I now beg to send you annexed a statement by my friend, Mr. Foreman, regarding Mr. Charles Morrison. So far as he recollects he can vouch for the truth of what is therein contained. I am sorry he has not been able to get either of the letters therein referred to. His aunt being a very old and frail person, and not considering the importance of the letters, I suppose cannot be fashed to make a search for them. Mr. F. has written her twice, and the only answer he has got was that she has not been very well, and if he wanted the letters in question, he should come himself and look for them. He says that she looks upon all the old papers and books as great relics, and would not part or lend any of them to any one upon any account whatever.

My friend has not the means, I know, else I believe he would go himself, as he appears very anxious that the matter could be solved. He says that he hopes we wont be beat, as he intends ere long of going himself, and making a search if the annexed does not suffice. Trusting that the annexed particulars may answer the object you have in view in the meantime,
I am, Sir,
Yours respectfully,
R. H. LOU DAN.

In answer to your enquiries respecting Charles Morrison, I now beg to inform you that I recollect of having seen a letter about 30 years ago addressed by my great grandfather, Mr. Foreman, farmer, Blackdhu, near Stirling, in Perthshire, to Miss Margate Wingate, residing at Craigengelt, near Denny (to whom he was subsequently married), and which I now fully believe was dated in 1750 (instead of 1752, as I lately stated to you), referring to a gentleman in Renfrew who transmitted messages along wires short distances by means of electricity. His letter gave the gentleman's name as Charles Morrison, and described him as being a very bashful and eccentric individual, a native of Greenock, and bred a surgeon. I also recollect of having seen and read a letter in the handwriting of this same Charles Morrison (it being signed by him), addressed to Mr. Foreman, dated 25th September, 1752, giving a detail of his experiments in sending messages along wires by means of electricity, and stating that he had sent a description of the same to Sir Hans Sloan in London, by whom he was encouraged to perfect his experiments, and that he intended giving him a more detailed account in the following year, 1753, when he hoped also to be able to publish a minute narration thereof in the Scots Magazine. His letter also stated Sir Hans Sloan at that time was an aged man, and very frail, and that it would probably be about the month of May, 1753, before he could comply with the requirements of Sir Hans; but Mr. Morrison appears to have been able to comply sooner than he expected, as the letter is dated February in the Scots Magazine. It also stated that as he was likely to be ridiculed by many of his own acquaintances, and as it was a thing the great world cared little about, he would only publish his initials. What causes me to recollect the date 25th September, of the above letter at this day is, that I was born on that day and month.

The letters above referred to I believe are still in preservation, and if I had an opportunity I would go myself and make a search for them. They are in the possession of an aunt of mine who resides near Stirling. If they have been destroyed it must have been within the last few years, as I know she had them lying in a garret among a great number of other old papers and books.

I forgot to say that there are descendants of Margt. Wingate above referred to, of that name, who are shawl manufacturers in Glasgow, and I have no doubt if they were communicated with they might in some way or other verify the truth of the above statements. D. W. FORMAN.

And this is all we know of the great man who first found out the great idea of electric thought-communication. He was "very bashful and eccentric," crazy, devil-aided, a surgeon who never practiced surgery. We can well believe the last. Who would trust the cure of his body to a man who professed to be able to do such dreadful things? He was either a rank impostor, or imagination shuddered to think what. One may readily imagine the trembling mother drawing her brood around her and looking upon the unhappy person with wrath and suspicion, who ventured to suggest that the demon-doctor should be sent for to look at her poor sick baby. Was it not a condition of the fiend that once a year a child should be offered at the devil's sacrament? Poor "bashful and eccentric" Morison. Readers smile sadly to think of him with his idea, shyly shuffling along, while the parish minister perchance stopped him to give• him solemn warning; while the wise, common-sense spirits, too well taught to believe either in the old or the new, tittered as he passed, and made jests which, witty or no, received tremendous applause. The poet of the place made verses about him, no doubt, and when the minister preached about the Witch of Endor every eye in the church was turned upon him. At last, tired of it all, he went away; he emigrated to the United States. Search is being made in Virginia to see if he has left any traces there. We doubt if the searchers will succeed. A man of his nature, if he makes an effort and fails, rarely tries again. Probably his invention made his life in Scotland so intolerable to him that he would ever afterwards seek to bury himself and it from human investigation. Scotland, in 1753, to a "very bashful and eccentric" man, with a great idea, must have seemed a very considerable distance from heaven. At any rate, that is all we know about him. These few stray lights fall upon what was certainly a great and strange, and was probably a lonely and lovely nature. We would fain know more. Scotsmen throughout the world must look with reverence upon this brother Scot, whose name should be placed high on the long roll of their illustrious dead. It may be that written or oral tradition of him lingers hidden, dusty, and dim in manuscript or memory. If such there be, and these lines meet the eye of anyone in whose mind is the slightest hint of these hid treasures, we earnestly entreat him to search diligently until he find them, and to communicate with Allan Park Paton, Esq., the learned and well-known librarian of the Greenock Library. This gentleman—the editor of that Hamnet Shakespeare, so much regarded by actors and students, and so well appreciated by the general public—has set himself with characteristic zeal to rescue Morison's name from the waters of oblivion that seem well nigh to have overcome it; for-,in the above article of Sir David Brewster, and a passing allusion of Mr. Tyndal, is summed up all the honour that has been paid to his memory. In a glass frame, hung upon the walls of the noble Greenock Library, Mr. Paton has, very lately, placed all that has been written about this great unknown. Surely the people of Greenock will come to his help. What a noble boast it would be of any town to be able to take strangers and to point out to them two great monuments, placed side by side, saying, "By the thoughts of these two men has the whole modern world been more changed than in all the ten thousand years of old history. These two sons of Greenock, born on this shore, bred beside these hills, nurtured in our schools, mastered the two giant powers of steam and electricity, and tamed them to obey man more perfectly than ever plantation slave obeyed his master." Greenock people should insist that henceforth their town be known as the birthplace of James Watt and Charles Morison.


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