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M. W. Theiler & Sons

An Early Acquisition by Elliott Brothers London

by H. R. Bristow

In the issues of May 1992 and September 1995, Linley Wilson and Ric Havyatt described Theiler telephones evaluated in Australia in the 1880s. Ron Bristow in Britain has provided a history of the Theilers, some of which was presented to a Conference of the Institute of Electrical Engineers. The final article was published in the Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society, and is reproduced here by kind permission of the Editor and Mr Bristow.

By the time MW Theiler combined with Elliott Brothers London in 1895 neither company was still under the control of its eponymous family founder. Two sons of the founder Meinrad W. Theiler had returned to their native Switzerland having sold their North London company to G. K. E. Elphinstone, while the proprietorship of Elliott Brothers had passed to Willoughby Smith and his sons on th death of Mrs Susan Elliott, the widow of Frederick Henry Elliott. The two companies combined under the title Elliott Brothers and G K E Elphinstone became the proprietor.

M. W. Theiler and Sons was a small company making telegraph and telephone apparatus. Elliott was already a well established large manufacturer of telegraph equipment; the product range and customer base of Theiler did not enhance their position significantly and would not have been the main reason for the two firms to combine. The main benefit of the merger was that it provided the scope for the leading personalities to pursue their personal inclinations, Elphinstone finding in Elliott Brothers the scope for his very considerable ability and inventiveness.

Telegraph engineering in the 19th century was a new field and its most spectacular aspect was the making and laying of the cables, particularly submarine cables, leading as it did to new companies, new factories, and new or adapted cable-laying ships. However, the technical requirements also led to new business for instrument companies. Firstly, the actual process of telecommunication required specially developed sensitive sending and receiving apparatus. Further, the potential costs involved if a submarine cable became faulty after being laid required that it be tested continually during manufacture and laying, which involved sensitive electrical measuring equipment including versions for use in iron cable-laying ships. The commencement of a new submarine telegraph cable project would lead to extensive orders for such instruments and the requirement would continue throughout the working life of the cable for routine maintenance and repair purposes.

Conflicting requirements of sensitivity and robust construction led to the development of specialized galvanometers and other instruments of many types, some being the subjects of Lord Kelvin’s patents. Kelvin believed strongly that the solution to the problem of weak signals was to develop more sensitive detectors, rather than to use very high voltages which were causing the cable insulation to break down.

The development and production of these instruments was well within the capability of makers of traditional instruments and was a natural development from “philosophical” electrical apparatus. Such instruments and accessories were in the purveyance of both Theiler and the much larger firm of Elliott.

M W Theiler & Sons

The origins of this company lie with telegraphy in Switzerland. Father Athanus (Jakob Kaspar) Tschopp , a teacher of Physics in Klosters Gymnasium between the years of 1829 and 1851, is reported to have invented an electromagnetic printing telegraph, the prototype sender and receiver of which were made by a clockmaker, Meinrad Wendel Theiler of Einsiedein. The system was offered to the Swiss Bundesrat for the national telegraphy system, but it was not taken up, the Bundesrat taking the view that compatibility with the continental telegraph network was more important than the choice of a particular apparatus. A State Telegraph Workshop was set up and in 1852 applicants were sought for the position of Works Manager. Theiler was one of the applicants but the post was awarded to mechanician Matthaus Hipp of Wurtemburg, Theiler being appointed as a foreman of batteries. His duties appeared to allow or encourage him in developing telegraph apparatus because in 1854 he traveled to England with a new apparatus for which the Telegraph Company paid him 500 pounds to complete the patent. This apparatus was successfully tried between London and Manchester and Theiler was required to produce six more in the shortest possible time. In an exhibition in Berne in 1857 Theiler was awarded a bronze medal for a Typo-telegraph. (1)

During 1857 Theiler moved to London with his wife and four children for what was to be a two-year spell in a special appointment for the construction of new equipment in the service of the Electric Telegraph Company. He concerned himself with extending and improving his apparatus and in September took out a patent, number 2453, for a “Direct Printing Telegraph without Relays and Local Batteries”. A license agreement was set up in 1858 with Breguet et Cie in Paris, for which Theiler received 375 francs for the prototype and 25 francs per unit. The family returned to Switzerland in 1859, apparently on grounds of health and climate, where Theiler with two sons built telegraph equipment, mainly for export to England.

In 1860 G A Haslar was appointed Works Manager of the Swiss Telegraph Works, vacating the position of Assistant for which Theiler and E Stahlin applied. In his application Theiler made an interesting reference to his sojourn in London: “My appointment there was very pleasant. I could carry out freely my ideas for improvements of many instruments, the Company paid me the same salary as the established Works manager, their liberality allowed me in fact to patent my inventions and they actually bought from me for a very good sum a patent for receiving/repeating Morse” The post went to Stahlin who had, it appears, a convincing record of experience in Germany and America.

Disappointed, Theiler’s previous happy experience in London led and equipped him to return there withhis family where he set up a partnership in Islington with his two sons, M W Theiler & Sons, Telegraph Engineers, became one of the first members of the Society of Telegraph Engineers, and took out patents

No. 2147 of 28th August 1861
No. 2129 of 28th September 1861

He worked with the Post Office, Varley and others, supplying telegraph stations, galvanometers, and components.(2) . Elliotts were customers for some components made by Theilers: a note in the Elliott archive lists some prices for Theiler products:

Theiler’s portable patent single needle instrument 4 pounds 10 shillings
Theiler’s Morse inking telegraph 12 pounds
Or (ditto) embossing ten pounds
Key and Relay for (ditto) six pounds
Alarum 2 pounds
Upright Galvanometer two pounds

In the same reference are sketches of binding screws (connecting terminals) available from Theilers and in another reference (Elliotts 10) recorded orders from Theilers for galvanometer mirrors and suspensions.

Some examples of Theiler instruments are held in the Science Museum of London:

Step-by-step type printer transmitter, 1863-4
Early telephone set, patented 1882
Type-printing telegraphs, patented 1861

Other Theiler items once held by the Science Museum were :

Relay: Allen & Brown type 1875
Relays: Allen & Brown type c. 1880
Relay: Allen & Brown Class A no. 7
Polarized Relays 1875

In 1866 a new partnership arrangement was drawn up preventing any of the partners from selling his share and appointing M Theiler, Father, as Chief, Book-keeper and Cashier of the firm. After Theiler’s death on 18th August 1873 his sons carried on the business, Richard Theiler becoming an Associate of the Society of Telegraph Engineers. They were listed in the trade directory The Blue Book when it began in 1883; they were successful and their products did well in exhibitions. In 1880/1881 Theiler’s machine telegraph was set up in the new London to Australia cable link at the Melbourne International Exhibition where a collection of their instruments was also exhibited, to win high praise. They set up a branch of their company in Switzerland; a staff photograph of c. 1890 in reference 2 shows seven employees posed against a background of benches, lathes and telegraph equipment. The London-based Company may have been larger, but not large in comparison with other telegraph makers such as Elliott Brothers.

In 1877 the Society of Telegraph Engineers invited Alexander Graham Bell,, inventor of the telephone, to give a lecture at an extraordinary meeting. D E Hughes in 1878 gave demonstrations of microphones to an assembly of telegraph engineers. These two events may have stimulated Theilers’ interest in telephony; at any rate the Company now entered this field. Patents awarded to them relating to telephone receivers and transmitters were:

16 November 1881, No. 5028
8 February 1882, No. 607
4 March 1882, No. 1044
21 March 1882, No. 1356
23 August 1882, N0. 4044

There are references to the instruments made by Theilers. A Theiler Sounder connected as a buzzer was used by Captain Cardew of the Royal Engineers in 1881 in experiments using an audio tone on telegraph lines. Using the Bell earphone as a receiver, the arrangement gave greatly improved performance compared with direct current Morse over the same circuit (5, 6) . The experiments were repeated in Egypt and India.

The Theiler sons were never at ease in London, however, and in 1883 one son, Meinrad, sold out to his brother, returning to Switzerland where they had set up a branch of the Company. The second son, Richard, suffered from ill-health in London and in 1891 he too returned to Switzerland, selling his business to Mr Keith Elphinstone who ran it as proprietor for the next two years. In Switzerland the Theiler telegraph business continued and in 1896 the “Technische Institute Theiler & Co.” was formed. A table in reference 2 of telephone apparatus production in 1881 shows Theiler, London, supplying 148 telephone stations , 52 microphones, and 200 hand telephones. In the following year 100 telephone stations are shown; the table does not continue further for the London Company but shows telephone equipment being supplied by the Swiss Company up to the year 1901.

Some at least of Theilers’ employees transferred to Elliotts under Elphinstone. A Mr George Mills joined Theilers in 1891 having previously worked at Reed Brothers, instrument makers of the City Road, joined Elliotts and moved from St Martin’s Lane to Lewisham in 1899. He was still employed there in 1945. By then he was the only Theiler employee still working in the Company. In Switzerland the local Theiler company continued to be significant suppliers of telephone equipment into the 20th century.

Telegraph Instruments in Elliott Brothers

The greater scale of Elliotts’ business in telegraphy can be seen fromCompany and other records. Elliotts have not received much attention in the literature on the history of telegraphy but towards the end of the 19th century were described by Sir Charles Bright, a leading telegraph engineer, as a classic company holding the foremost position in telegraph instruments (8) and that the business was extensive is borne out by Company documents. An order book for 1861-2 (9) shows entries for the Electric and International Telegraph Company, Bonelli’s Telegraph Company, the Gutta Percha Company, amongst many others. Telegraph instruments in the 1873 catalogue of Electrical Test Instruments include:

Detector Galvanometer
Tangent Galvanometer for the Indian Telegraph Service
Horizontal Astatic galvanometer, high resistance, for telegraph stations abroad
Reflecting galvanometer for service abroad and boat service
Sir W. Thomson’s marine galvanometer
Latimer Clark’s galvanometer
Speaking galvanometer for submarine cables
Double reversing keys, signaling keys
Station switches, Jenkins commutators

Later catalogues show a greatly increased range of telegraph equipment. Note the many contractors supplied by Elliott Bros as shown bythe list on the title page of the 1895 catalogue of Electrical Testing Apparatus.

As an example, a short account of Elliott’s business in Portugal with the Brazilian Submarine Telegraph Company is given in the Society’s Bulletin, No. 64.9.

Telegraphy was thus an established Company activity by the time Frederick Henry Elliott died in office in 1873 at the age of 53. His widow, Susan Elliott, took Willoughby Smith as a business partner. Willoughby Smith was already very experienced in submarine telegraphy, having been engaged in the Dover to Calais cable in 1849-50, assisted Wheatstone with his experiments on the retardation of signals through the first Mediterranean cable and supervised its electrical performance, and been heavily involved in the laying of the first Transatlantic telegraph cable. Elliotts were known to him from 1860, perhaps earlier, when he had been appointed Chief Electrician at the Gutta Percha Company. In 1861 and subsequent years Elliott recorded orders several items from the Gutta Percha Company; orders continued after the firms of Glass Elliott & Co (no connection) and the Gutta Percha Company had merged to form the Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Company(10)

It is recorded that Willoughby Smith did not take an active part in running of Elliott’s business; with his vast experience he would have been able to reinforce and influence the Company’s telegraph business but he was not its instigator. In fact he retained an association with the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company from which he did not retire until 1888 (11). His son, W O (William Oliver) Smith, became managing partner and began his long association with the firm and Carl (Charles) Becker became manager.

Mrs Susan Elliott died in 1881 leaving Willoughby Smith as sole proprietor. In turn he retired in 1887 but remained as a partner with his son W O Smith who continued to manage the business. A second son, Willoughby Statham Smith, also held a management position in the firm. At this point the Company ceased to be an Elliott family business although the name was retained for almost a century thereafter.

Willoughby Smith wished that his sons, who received generous legacies, should purchase the firm after his death in 1891 (12) but this was not fulfilled. It is possible that William Oliver Smith did not wish to take over proprietorship; if so, reluctance on his part was an opportunity for K Elphinstone, by then the proprietor of M W Theiler and Sons, to combine with Elliotts in 1893. At any rate, the arrangement worked amicably for many years, with W O Smith becoming Managing Director under Elphinstone as Chairman when later Elliott became a public company. Nevertheless W O Smith took a creative part in the Company and many patents, covering many different fields, were registered in his name. One in 1896 with Elphinstone and Heap was for a polarimeter; many others referred to surveying instruments. A number were taken jointly with external inventors including Metcalf for ships speed indicators and Bell, a Carlisle surveyor, for a tangent reading tacheometer. Such joint arrangements formed part of Elliott’s business over many years.

Willoughby Smith’s other son, Willoughby Statham Smith, also held a management appointment at Elliotts (12) but he appears also to have retained a post as manager at TMC , having started there in 1874 and succeeding his father as manager in 1888 (11)

G. K. E. Elphinstone

When Theilers and Elliotts combined their activities in 1893 as Elliott Brothers, with Elphinstone as managing partner and W. O. Smith as partner, the importance of the merger lay with Elphinstone himself. Born in 1865, Elphinstone came from an aristocratic Scottish family. He was educated at Charterhouse, then his extensive training in electrical engineering began with a year’s pupilage with electrical lighting engineers Woodhouse & Rawson and two years at the Elphinstone-Vincent Electro-Dynamo Machine Company, his uncle Lord Elphinstone’s company. There was another pupilage with the London Electrical Company and a second with Professor Kennedy at University College, London, followed by an apprenticeship with the Brush Electrical Engineering Company at Leicester.(13) In the Elliott’s house magazine The

Century Works News Sheet, c. 1920, he is also said to have worked on the staff of Mr S J de Ferranti in the early days of high tension supply from central stations. It is presumed this was written with Elphinstone’s knowledge and is reasonably correct. He was a member of the Society of Telegraph Engineers (later the Institution of Electrical Engineers). He was well connected and moved easily in Government circles. He patented inventions and under him the traditional instrument business continued while the telegraph and electrical instrument businesses expanded further. Although Theilers had moved into telephony, telephone equipment does not feature in Elliots’ catalogues or surviving documents for this period and no telephony artifacts are known from it. It appears that Elphinstone did not bring this activity with him despite its growing importance and he may not have wished to compete with larger telephone companies. The Company developed in other directions, however, and under Elphinstone new engineering instruments including tachometers, car speedometers, steam engine indicators, marine and aircraft instruments were introduced. The larger firm of Elliotts gave Elphinstone the scope for his considerable ability and inventiveness which he applied for the next three decades to Elliotts’ great benefit. His best known work, on naval gunnery control systems, dominated Elliot’s business during both World Wars and earned him a knighthood in 1920. Elphinstone was a very strong influence, possibly the strongest, in Elliotts’ transition from a maker of traditional scientific instruments in the 19th century to a 20th century electrical and instrumentation specialist systems company.


Some of this material was first presented at the Institution of Electrical Engineers History of Engineering Conference in July 2001.

I am grateful for assistance provided by the Science Museum in London, the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Porthcurno Museum of Submarine Telegraphy and particularly to Fons Van den Berghen for extensive material relating to Theiler’s early history.

Notes and References

1. Un Siecle de Telecommunications en Suisse 1852-1952. Tome 1, “Telegraphe, Direction Generale des PTT” (Berne, 1952)
2. Paper: “Meinrad Wendel Theiler von Einsedein und siene Soehne Richard und Meinrad”, provided by Fons Van Den Berghen
3. Elliott Archive Ref 1001/02/2
4. Information and catalogue sheets provided by the Science Museum
5. Porthcurno Museum of Submarine Telegraphy Occasional Paper No. 18
6. Ken Beauchamp, “History of Telegraphy” (London: The Institution of Electrical Engineers , 2001), ISBN 0 85296 792 6),pp 120 et seq.
7. Elliott Company Magazine : “The Centurion” date unrecorded.
8. Charles Bright, Submarine Telegraphs (London, 1898) in the Institution of Electrical Engineers Library.
9. Elliott Archive Ref 1001/02/2
10. Elliott Archive Ref 1001/73/1
11. The Telcon Story 1850 – 1950, published by The Telegraph Construction & Maintenance Co. Ltd. in 1950
12. NDNB Willoughby Smith
13. NDNB Elphinstone
14. IEE Membership records

The Elliott Archives are held by the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford. They are currently not accessible.

In a final curiosity, Elliotts surfaced in Australia as Elliott Automation, selling their Easiphone in the 1960s and 1970s. But that’s another story

Submitted by Bob Estreich

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