The British Journal for the History of Science

Telegraphy is an occult art: Cromwell Fleetwood Varley and the diffusion of electricity to the other world

a1 School of Philosophy, Division of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Leeds, LS2 9JT.


In May 1862 Desmond G. Fitzgerald, the editor of the Electrician, lamented that

telegraphy has been until lately an art occult even to many of the votaries of electrical science. Submarine telegraphy, initiated by a bold and tentative process – the laying of the Dover cable in the year 1850 – opened out a vast field of opportunity both to merit and competency, and to unscrupulous determination. For the purposes of the latter, the field was to be kept close [sic], and science, which can alone be secured by merit, more or less ignored.

To Fitzgerald, the ‘occult’ status of the telegraph looked set to continue, with recent reports of scientific counterfeits, unscrupulous electricians and financially motivated saboteurs involved in the telegraphic art. Nevertheless, Fitzgerald reassured his readers that the confidence of ‘those who act for the public’ had been restored by earnest electricians, whose ‘moral cause’ would ultimately be felt and who ‘may be safely trusted even in matters where there is an option between a private interest and a public benefit’. As a prominent crusader for the telegraph, Fitzgerald voiced the concerns of many electricians seeking public confidence and investment in their trade in the wake of the failed submarine telegraphs of the 1850s. The spread of proper knowledge about the telegraph would hinge on securing an adequate supply of backers and the construction of telegraphy as a truly moral cause – an art cleansed of fraudsters, ignoramuses and dogmatists.