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Sir Francis Ronalds

November 24, 2016

Professor Beverley Ronalds has sent us the following piece about a fascinating character – I have to confess I knew nothing about Sir Francis Ronalds before reading it, now I’m intrigued and want to know more:

Surveying the Carnac Stones in 1834

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Ronalds’ lithograph of standing stones near Sainte- Barbe in Brittany being measured by Blair and their local assistant Jean-Marie Kermorvin. The original was drawn on 21 October 1834.

It is 200 years since Sir Francis Ronalds built the first working electric telegraph and heralded today’s telecommunications era.  A biography has been published by Imperial College Press to commemorate the bicentenary, entitled Sir Francis Ronalds: Father of the Electric Telegraph.  

 Like many scientists of his time, Ronalds’ interests were broad and extended beyond engineering to art, archaeology and travel.  The book addresses these diverse topics, utilising his papers in the Ronalds Archive at the Institution of Engineering and Technology in London and other little known primary sources.

 In 1818-20, he conducted a “Grand Tour” through Italy, Malta, Egypt, the Holy Land, Cyprus, Turkey and Greece.  Along the way he befriended two Giovanni Battista’s – Belzoni and Lusieri – amongst numerous other antiquarians.  Ronalds’ travel journals and sketches have now been published on the Sir Francis Ronalds website

Ronalds and his friend Dr Alexander Blair began studying ancient ruins in England around 1830.  Blair had just been appointed professor of English and Rhetoric at UCL and had particular expertise in European languages.  His skills complemented Ronalds’ and they also had much in common including a love of learning and low self-esteem. 

Ronalds invented several surveying instruments that assisted their work.  He had patented a mechanical drawing machine in 1825 that enabled a scene or object to be traced from nature with considerable accuracy.  Ronalds manufactured and sold hundreds of them and examples survive in several British museums.  There is a detailed description of its workings in the biography.  He also created the classic portable tripod stand with three pairs of hinged legs to support his drawing machine in the field.  In the late 1820s, he developed a novel doubly-reflecting instrument that enabled the angular separation of two distant objects to be sighted and then drawn directly onto a survey plan as well as an enhanced surveyor’s wheel that recorded distances travelled in graphical form.

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Ronalds’ patented perspective tracing instrument.

Blair and Ronalds travelled to Brittany in September 1834 to survey the ancient standing stones around Carnac.  Their detailed observations each day, including conversations with people they met and local customs they witnessed, were recorded in a journal.  It – along with Ronalds’ notebook of compass bearings and dimensions and several of his original pencil sketches of the ruins – are all retained in the Ronalds Archive.

On their return home, they organised their fieldwork into five categories of megalith, which Blair wrote up while Ronalds lithographed the drawings (obtaining Hullmandel’s assistance with a couple of the plans).  They printed their interim results in book form as Sketches at Carnac (Brittany) in 1834.

Diarist Henry Crabb Robinson immortalised Blair’s talk on their findings at UCL in 1835 by describing it as the most disappointing lecture he had ever attended – he had hoped that the authors would focus on the origins of the monuments more than their current appearance.  Any confidence they had in their accomplishment would now have been dissipated. 

Blair and Ronalds were already researching a much more detailed book that compared monuments from different cultures to help understand their purposes.  Several sections of it are in the Ronalds Archive.  Blair struggled increasingly with depression in this period, however, and was unable to complete his part of the task.  Meanwhile, the first book was languishing at the printer’s warehouse.

Blair’s friend Revd James Yates and Ronalds’ friend Samuel Sharpe were two people who recognised the value of the preliminary work and encouraged its eventual dissemination.  Yates arranged for Blair to give a talk at the 1849 conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.  Although very nervous, Blair was able to outline his view on the value of bringing “an ethnological view” to archaeology.  With the interest it sparked, he and Ronalds began to distribute copies of their book to friends and colleagues.  Another 40 years later, Dr Gustave de Closmadeuc publicised the book in France through a long article.

These days, the quality of Ronalds’ lithographs is appreciated.  In an era when depictions of the Carnac ruins were often romanticised, Ronalds’ lithographs have “quasi la precision d’un cliché photographique” to quote the 2009 CNRS publication Carnac: Les Premières Architectures de Pierre.  His drawing instrument created accurate archaeological visual recording in the pre-photography era. 

Ronalds and Blair would be surprised by this 21st century recognition when both felt so little pride in their achievement and, to their deaths, their book was largely ignored by the antiquarian community.  

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