Alexander Bain lived from October 1811 to 2 January 1877. He was an instrument maker, an inventor and a clockmaker best known for inventing the fax machine and the electric clock. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Bain was born in the Caithness village of Watten near Wick, one of thirteen children. Never a success at school, he moved to Wick as an apprentice clockmaker. Having completed his apprenticeship he moved to work in Edinburgh, and then, in 1837, to London. Here he worked as a clockmaker while studying and establishing his own workshops.
By 1840 Bain was working on an idea for an electric clock but had insufficient funds to develop it. He was introduced to the eminent scientist Sir Charles Wheatstone, who advised him that the idea was not worth pursuing. Three months later Wheatstone demonstrated an electric clock to the Royal Society, claiming it to be his own invention. Unfortunately for Wheatstone, Bain had already applied for a patent. The legal wrangle that followed caused great damage to Wheatstone’s reputation and led to a compensation payment to Bain large enough to securely set himself up in business.
Bain was granted a patent for the electric clock on 11 January 1841. His first clock used a pendulum kept moving by electromagnetic impulses and he later improved it by the addition of a battery. Bain’s second most important patent was granted in 1843 and covered the use of a clock to synchronise the movement of two pendulums so that a message could be scanned line by line, and printed remotely. In essence, he had invented the fax machine.
In 1846 Bain, by now living in Edinburgh, invented a “chemical telegraph” which improved dramatically on the speed of transmission of Samuel Morse telegraph technology. However, this became embroiled in a patent dispute with Morse and never took off.
In later life, Alexander Bain was granted a public pension in recognition of the importance of his inventions. He died in 1877 and was buried in Kirkintilloch. He is remembered in the name of a pub which stands close to where he served his apprenticeship in Wick, and in the name of British Telecom’s main building in Glasgow, Alexander Bain House.