Smith, Willoughby

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b. 16 April 1828 Great Yarmouth, England
d. 17 July 1891 Eastbourne, England
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English engineer of submarine telegraph cables who observed that light reduced the resistance of selenium.
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Smith joined the Gutta Percha Company, London, in 1848 and successfully experimented with the use of gutta-percha, a natural form of latex, for the insulation of conducting wires. As a result, he was made responsible for the laying of the first cross-Channel cable between Dover and Calais in 1850. Four years later he laid the first Mediterranean cable between Spezia, Italy, and Corsica and Sardinia, later extending it to Algeria. On its completion he became Manager of the Gutta Percha works, which in 1864 became the Telegraph and Construction Company. In 1865 he assisted on board the Great Eastern with the laying of the transatlantic cable by Bright.
Clearly his management responsibilities did not stop him from experimenting practically. In 1866 he discovered that the resistance of a selenium rod was reduced by the action of incident light, an early discovery of the photoelectric effect more explicitly observed by Hertz and subsequently explained by Einstein. In 1883 he read a paper to the Society of Telegraph Engineers (later the Institution of Electrical Engineers), suggesting the possibility of wireless communication with moving trains, an idea that was later successfully taken up by others, and in 1888 he demonstrated the use of water as a practical means of communication with a lighthouse. Four years later, after his death, the system was tried between Alum Bay and the Needles in the Isle of Wight, and it was used subsequently for the Fastnet Rock lighthouse some 10 miles (16 km) off the south-west coast of Ireland.
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Principal Honours and Distinctions
Founder and Council Member of the Society of Telegraph Engineers 1871; President 1873.
Bibliography
The effect of light on the resistance of selenium was reported in a letter to the Vice- Chairman of the Society of Telegraph Engineers on 4 February 1873.
7 June 1897, British patent no. 8,159 (the use of water, instead of cable, as a conductor).
November 1888, article in Electrician (describes his idea of using water as a conductor, rather than cable).
Further Reading
E.Hawkes, 1927, Pioneers of Wireless, London: Methuen.
C.T.Bright, 1898, Submarine Cables, Their History, Construction and Working.
KF

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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