Patent pain and Bain

Continuing on the futility and stupidity of patents….

This article in Frontiers Magazine tells the story of Alexander Bain. He worked for a watchmaker, and started mixing electricity with clocks in wildly imaginative ways.

I’ve featured his absolutely futuristic tactile fax machine, reprinted below. This wasn’t practical for business use because it required turning the document into an etched stereotype plate first. Very few businesses had access to etching. Bain succeeded after he returned to his natural niche of electrically synchronized clocks. He made a fortune by equipping British railroads with sync’d clocks. His printing telegraph was also moderately profitable.

BUT THEN: Bain succumbed to Patent Envy. He wasn’t satisfied with a solid income from existing inventions. He had to conquer America, where he ran up against the Morse empire. Contrary to the usual story (which I’ve repeated before!), Samuel wasn’t an artist who happened to try inventing. Samuel’s father was politically powerful and wealthy. Samuel and his brothers all engaged in inventing and patenting and IPOs.

Ellsworth, the commissioner of patents, was an old friend and Yale classmate of Samuel.

Bain didn’t have a chance of victory, but he stupidly believed in the delusional myths of “law” and “justice”.  He stubbornly continued fighting into bankruptcy. He had to sell all of his patents and sell off his interest in the railroad signaling company to satisfy the lawyers. He ended up working for a watchmaker again.

= = = = = START REPRINT:

In this case I’m venturing up from the Ungreats into the Semigreats. Alexander Bain isn’t a household word like Morse, but Bain successfully competed with Morse for a while.

The earliest failed attempts at telegraphy used chemical processes. Most used electrolysis, with 26 separate wires running across the land. Each wire was switched by its own key. All 26 were immersed in water at the receiving end. When each wire was charged, the receiving end formed bubbles under the appropriate letter.

Bain continued using chemistry in a more sophisticated way. His best attempt, which was popular for a while, was a ‘ticker tape’ that received and recorded the impulses from Morse senders. The current passed from a pointer through a chemically treated paper tape to a grounded backplane, creating visible blue dots and dashes where the dye was activated. This wouldn’t have been fun for me to animate, since it was just a box with a paper strip coming out.

Bain’s first invention was more fun by my standards. It mixed chemistry with another early theme in telegraphy.

Morse’s original project was more like a linotype than a telegraph. The message to be sent was set up in type on a stick, then the sender would read the dots and dashes from specially formed patterns on the side of the letters. At the receiving end the codes would trigger a dispenser for letters, dropping the letters into a stick for printing. This idea never worked properly, and Morse finally realized that it was easier to use lots of human skill operating a simple key and sounder. The actual Linotype developed much later, completely separate from telegraphy and electricity. Even though it used Morse’s methods it wasn’t a direct evolution.

Here Bain was trying to read a fully set page of type or any other raised pattern as pixels. An engraving or etching, such as a copper stereotype plate, would serve especially well.


I’m calling it the TeleTact. Here I’ve placed it in my printery scene for obvious reasons. Polistra is loading the TeleTact with a stereotype plate.

Let ‘er rip!

A clock movement (hands on other side) powers the heavy pendulum. The pointer is forced to stay parallel, and it scans across the mysterious box line by line. When the pendulum makes contact with the ‘ticker’ points (just above Happystar’s eyes) it energizes an electromagnet that escapes the rope pulley, allowing the mysterious box to drop one line.

What’s happening inside the mysterious box?

A closeup view for orientation, with the pointer at the left end of the top line. The mysterious box contains a dense grid of wires running through an insulating mass like ceramic or hard wax. The top of the wires is just above the insulating surface, and the pointer gently brushes each wire as it scans. I’m showing three columns of (overly fat) wires for simplicity.

Here’s a partly transparent side view, with a slug of type touching the wires.

The wires that are touching the protruding parts of the type or engraving are grounded. (Shown in gold here.) When the pointer hits those wires, it conducts a current through a relay, sending a pulse through the telegraph wires to the receiver.

Bain’s system had one truly unique and elegant feature which hasn’t been repeated in any sort of TV or scanner or printer since then. The sender and receiver were exactly the same machine. How did this work?

On the receiving end, the pointer was sending current toward ground at the moments in the scan when the sending pointer had encountered a ‘high point’ in the engraving. In the receiver, a chemically treated paper was inserted between the wire grid and ground. The wires that received current from the pointer would cause a reaction in the dye, darkening the paper at those points.

So the sender became a receiver by inserting paper instead of an engraving. No other changes needed. ELEGANT.

The magnet on the bottom leg was used for a separate purpose, which Bain intended to be included in the scanning process. It wouldn’t have worked that way. The bottom magnet was a solenoid with a little latch bolt inside.

When energized it would pop out the latch bolt and hold back the pendulum for one tick. Bain seemed to intend this as a synchronizer during the scan. This would have been messy, with some ticks used for inking and some for syncing. Heavy pendulums keep time pretty well, so it would have sufficed to run a sync session between scan sessions. Then the signals wouldn’t have been confused.

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