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Louis John Crossley

(1842 - 1891)

by Bob Estreich

In 1877, the year after his patent application was filed, Alexander Graham Bell visited England while on his honeymoon. It was also a business trip. He demonstrated his telephone to various business and scientific groups, but he returned to America penniless and disappointed by the lack of interest shown. Lord Kelvin, who had seen the telephone in action in the United States, seemed to be the telephone's only European supporter.

In spite of this lack of public enthusiasm, European inventors took note of Bell's invention and started experimenting with it. Some had a good knowledge of the physical sciences, and the money to put their ideas into practice. One such was Louis Crossley. The son of British wool mill owners at Dean Clough in Halifax, Crossley was a young man of poor health but great ability. He had become familiar with the boilers and machinery at the wool mill at an early age, and at 19 began to study electricity at Halifax under John Waterhouse, an early pioneer in the electrical field. Crossley introduced electricity to light the family wool mill, a first in industrial Britain.

He married in 1865 and built a new home at Moorside. "Manor" would probably be a better description. The house was equipped with twin Otto engines for electricity generation, and was fitted with laboratories and workshops where Crossley could continue his experiments. The house was quite a local feature because of the electric lighthouse he had built on the roof. With careful design of the lenses and electric light , it gave off sufficient light to read a newspaper by up to two miles away. A Gramme generator provided power to run a small electric tramway around the grounds.

Crossley was interested in Bell's invention, and built a pair of telephones for his experiments based on the improvements by Breguet. He was able to demonstrate and study the principles of telephony, and installed telephones in the family mills. From here, his work on the telephone closely parallels that of Clement Ader in France. Both men quickly noticed the defects of Bell's telephone. Both men were better educated in scientific matters than Bell, and both were able to do something about it.

The Bell telephone had a very limited range, measured in hundreds of yards rather than miles. The range could be increased by adding more batteries to increase the voltage, but this caused noise from electrical arcing within the transmitter and eventually burnt the electrodes. The telephone used a Bell receiver as both receiver and transmitter, and so was clumsy in use. The receiver was adequate, but as a transmitter it left much to be desired.

Crossley and Ader independently turned to the work of Professor Hughes to improve the device. Hughes had developed and published, but not patented, a device that he called a Microphone. It used a carbon pencil mounted loosely in carbon blocks, glued to a diaphragm. It gave the varying signal needed to transmit speech. It also had its weaknesses.

Ader's solution was to arrange a group of up to ten pencils in a series/parallel arrangement. The extra contacts gave a more sensitive transmitter. Crossley used fewer pencils, usually four, arranged in a diamond pattern. This also produced a very sensitive transmitter. The Crossley was so sensitive compared with the Bell telephone that it is sometimes incorrectly referred to as an amplifier. Both men put an induction coil across the transmitter, which lifted the voltage and improved the range dramatically. Berliner in the United States was also developing Blake's transmitter along the same lines for Bell, but he was working on a single-contact transmitter which still had some distance limitations.

Crossley demonstrated his transmitter between Saltaire and Halifax, over a distance of eight miles. For a receiver, he used both Bell and Ader-type units at different times. The telephone was improved and put into production by Emmott and Blakely at their Bradford factory. One of Emmott's contacts was Walter Preece, the Electrical Superintendent of the British Post Office. Unlike many of the senior men in the Post Office, Preece saw the potential of the telephone and kept an eye on it.

The telephone was now coming into public usage, marketed by the United Telephone Company and others, such as Crossley's new West Riding Telephone Company. United was also painfully aware of the distance limits of Bell's telephones. In 1879 they bought the patent for Crossley's telephone for twenty thousand pounds. The Crossley was therefore the first carbon pencil telephone put into common use. It should also be remembered that all this was within three years of Bell's patent.

The British Post Office was also moving into the new technology at this time, and they bought Crossley telephones in large numbers. The telephones were noticed overseas as well. Ann Moyal in her book "Clear Across Australia" records that Crossleys were being used on private lines between Government departments in Melbourne as early as 1881. They have also turned up in South America and possibly South Africa, and appear to have been evaluated in Japan.

There are two basic models known. The earliest is the box wall phone with the sloping front. Its distinctive cutouts on the top panel were to let the sound through to the diaphragm mounted underneath. The decorative top panel was to protect the wooden diaphragm.

An unusual second model was introduced for desk use. It appears from a model held by the National Science Museum in Britain to be a reduced wall model of the first type, probably intended to be mounted on a low desk stand.

Crossley went on to develop an interest in meteorology, another area where he excelled. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Meteorological Society. He also found time to become a local Justice of the Peace and a Major in the Second Yorkshire Artillery, as well as serving as a Director on the board of the family carpet manufacturing company.

Crossley's health was always poor, and he died in 1891 after a cruise intended to improve his health.


Moyal Ann - “Clear Across Australia”, 1984.
Boettinger H.M. - “The Telephone Book”, 1977.
Poole J - “The Practical Telephone Handbook”, 1912.
Malcom Bull's Calderdale Companion Website,

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