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Tuesday 18 August 2015

New Zealand's John Gell and his Perforating Typewriter

New Zealander Donald Murray is seen above demonstrating his transmitting typewriter system in 1901, employing a Bar-Lock typewriter and perforated paper tape.
John Gell, Murray's New Zealand contemporary compatriot, who in the same era invented the perforating typewriter. He also invented a variable-speed mechanism for his automatic transmitting system.
Much has been written on this blog about New Zealander Donald Murray and his Teletype transmitting typewriter system. Murray is also mentioned in a brief history of transmitting typewriters which I have written for the next edition of ETCetera. The other day, while checking on something about Murray's Teletype, I chanced upon reference to his contemporary compatriot John Gell in a book, The Making of New Zealanders (2012), one of many fine works written by my good friend (and a follower of this blog), noted Dunedin historian Ron Palenski.
Ron Palenski
Ron said: "New Zealanders also significantly contributed to the technical development of the telegraph, a projection of New Zealand expertise upon the world that has been rarely noticed in their own country." Ron described Gell as "another telegraphic innovator" who developed an automatic perforator which could transmit 50 to 72 words a minute compared with about 20 for a manual system. Ron quoted The New Zealand Observer as saying on August 11, 1906, "With John Gell and Donald Murray ... both in the field as telegraphic instrument inventors, New Zealand bulks somewhat large before the electric world just now". Ron went on: "While neither Murray nor Gell gained the widespread overseas publicity that other New Zealanders did on fields of battle or sports, or through publishing houses, their largely unsung achievements also contributed to a New Zealand sense of identity."
Ron is right about a lack of recognition. Neither Murray nor Gell are in the New Zealand Dictionary of Biography, Murray is not in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, and Murray was only added to Wikipedia as a direct result on my March 2012 blog post.
It is not known how close Murray and Gell were to one another, or indeed whether they ever coordinated their inventions - but as it turned out, the Murray Teletype was a significant improvement on the Gell system. (Murray was born in Invercargill in 1865, studied in Christchurch and Auckland, and worked in Auckland and Sydney; Gell was born in Wellington in 1855.) However, when Lord Northcliffe organised the first Imperial Press Conference in London in early June 1909, with existing cable systems and high cable rates (1/8 pence a word from New Zealand to Australia and 15 shillings a word to Britain) paramount on the agenda - particularly for Australian, New Zealand and Canadian newspaper proprietors - the only alternatives demonstrated were by Murray and Gell. The demonstrations took place on June 10 at the London General Post Office at St Martin's Le Grand, under the direction of Postmaster-General Sydney Buxton.
The Imperial Press Conference was convened at the behest of the British Press and was intended to consider a range of common issues affecting the newspapers of the British Empire, including the monopolies of private cable companies, the spread of the telegraph network to encompass the Empire’s far-flung territories, the wider role of the Press in creating Imperial unity and the impact that this would have on issues of Imperial defence. It heard warnings of a "rebarbarisation of Europe". The Empire Press Union was created to further the common goals of the Imperial Press – including the reduction in Press telegraph rates. 
Three months earlier, in March 1909, Gell's "ingenuous invention for typewriting in Morse code" was described by the London Daily News in an article about that newspaper's ability to publish an "exact facsimile" in Manchester the same evening at it was printed on Bouverie Street, off Fleet Street, in London. "The New Zealander's machine plays an important part in that reproduction". The Daily News said Gell's "new kind of typewriter" had a keyboard "like the usual Remington or Yost".  The work was done by automatically converting the character on each key struck into perforated Morse code. Notwithstanding later claims that its drawback was a requirement for two lines, Gell was at pains to stress it needed only one, with the recipient able to quickly transfer the Morse code message back into typewritten copy.  
The house John Gell was born in.
John Gell was born on Cuba Street in Wellington on June 25, 1855. His parents had arrived in New Zealand from England on the Bombay in 1842. Gell Jr was educated at a private school at Te Aro and at Wellington Boys' College on Clifton Terrace. He joined the New Zealand Telegraph Department, aged 16, in 1871. In 1884 he demonstrated his skills when put in charge of installing electrical instruments at the Mount Cook Observatory. Gell began inventing in 1889, when he patented a self-cleansing filter in Australia and New Zealand. He then travelled to Europe and the United States, returning in 1894 with ideas for an electric tramway in Wellington, running to such suburbs as Karori and Brooklyn. 
 Gell and colleagues at Cable Bay
In late August 1897, Gell was promoted to succeed W.H. Renner as officer-in-charge of the Wakapuaka Government Telegraph Office at Cable Bay outside Nelson.
The operating room at Cable Bay
The main terminal building burned down in 1914. The Cable Bay station used a call sign "waka" (canoe in Māori). The operation was closed in May 1917 after new cable was laid to Titahi Bay, which connected Wellington directly to Sydney.
Cable Bay in 1904
Cable Bay was where the first telegraph cable from Australia to New Zealand came ashore, completing a 15,757 mile-long direct cable link with London. The 1150 mile-long cable connection from Frenchman's Bay at Le Perouse in Sydney was opened for public business on February 21, 1876. The following day direct cable news from Britain appeared for the first time in New Zealand newspapers. The New Zealand Press Association had a journalist based at Wakapuaka to "fill out" "cablese" before news stories were wired onwards. The cable from Sydney would remain New Zealand’s sole international telecommunications link until 1902.
London to Falmouth overland cable 269 miles
Falmouth to Lisbon cable 854 miles
Lisbon to Gibraltar cable 500 miles
Gibraltar to Malta cable 1120 miles
Malta to Alexandria cable 924 miles
Alexandria to Suez overland wire 224 miles
Suez to Aden cable 1462 miles
Aden to Bombay cable 1819 miles
Bombay to Madras overland wire 600 miles
Madras to Penang cable 1409 miles
Penang to Singapore cable 405 miles
Singapore to Batavia cable 565 miles
Batavia to Banjoewangoe overland wire 480 miles
Banjoewangoe to Darwin cable 1186 miles
Darwin to Port Augusta overland 2520 miles
Port Augusta to Sydney overland wire 650 miles
Sydney to Wakapuaka cable 1150 miles
Total length  - 15,757 miles
 The cable to New Zealand being laid from Frenchman's Bay at Le Perouse in Sydney in 1876. Two steamers, the Hibernia and the Edinburgh, were used to lay the cable, each capable of holding about 450 miles of cable. Cable was laid at a rate of 149 miles a day. Gutter percha surrounded the inner copper conductors.
John Pender's Eastern Extension Telegraph Company laid the last leg, having started laying cable east of Suez in the 1860s. In 1872, a landline connected Darwin and South Australia (Port Augusta), and from there the cable went on to Adelaide and Sydney. After reaching New Zealand, in February 1880 a cable was laid from Wakapuaka to Wanganui in the North Island, and a second cable went back to Sydney in late April 1890.
While still working at Cable Bay in 1901, Gell patented an "improved device for moistening adhesive or other surfaces" and an inking-pad for rubber and other stamps. He must also have been well advanced with plans for his perforating typewriter. Later that same year Gell travelled to London, where in 1906 he established the Gell Telegraphic Appliance Syndicate Ltd to manufacture the Gell Perforator and Transmitter for Automatic Telegraphy.
George Beetham
Gell appointed himself managing director while the chairman of his company was George Beetham (1840-1915), the English-born New Zealand politician and alpinist. Beetham moved to London in 1898.
Gell reported back to New Zealand that his typewriter invention had been favourably received on both sides of the Atlantic and he held strong hopes for "ultimate success". For all that, during a short return by Gell to New Zealand in late 1903, New Zealand Prime Minister Joseph Ward knocked back the chance for his country to be the first to try out the Gell system, through imposing ridiculous conditions for the trials. So instead, on his way back to England, Gell approached the Australian Government. In April 1904 the Melbourne Age reported the Australian Federal Postmaster-General Philip Fysh, "acting on the advice of his electric experts", agreed to extensive Australian trials of the Gell system. Consultants from the New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Queensland state governments agree to put eight Gell machines bought by the Federal Government on the main trunk telegraphic lines, taking them most of the way across the Australian continent. On February 6, 1906, Beetham presided as Gell conducted a successful demonstration at Winchester House, Old Broadstreet, London, before a large gallery of national and provincial newspaper journalists. Again, surprise was expressed at New Zealand's failure to test the system.
Two months later, in April 1906, Gell submitted his system to testing by the British General Post Office at St Martins Le Grand. Frustrated by subsequent indecisiveness, Gell returned to New Zealand at the end of 1910. But before doing so, on November 16 he made one last effort to force the issue, claiming for his system a world record in telegraphy by a single operator, transmitting from London to Manchester at a speed of 60 words a minute. The performance was made in the presence of postal and cable officials. 
It seems Britain didn't take the bait. In 1910 and again in July 1919 (the latter trip at the age of 64), Gell travelled to Washington DC on desperate bids to turn his dream into a reality, by convincing US government officials of the viability of his system. All in vain. In December 1921, when New Zealand finally imported two transmitting typewriter systems, they were the Donald Murray Multiplex machine-printing telegraph systems
The Murray system
John Gell moved on to other things. In 1932 he patented a drive for a gramophone, and he was working on a paper-making testing machine in the late 1930s. He died in Edmonton, London, on August 15, 1940, aged 85. He had been planning to return to New Zealand in December of that year, when the country celebrated its centenary. His obituary claimed his invention had been a success, that several European governments had employed his perforating typewriter and leading newspapers had installed his system - his "inventions served their term admirably". He was remembered in his home city as a man more than six feet tall who always wore a top coat. 
 1902 Gell design
 1904 Gell design
1912 Gell design
1915 Gell design
James Kennedy Logan
John Gell and Donald Murray both added considerably to a rich history of telegraphic innovation in New Zealand. One of the more notable pioneers in this field was Scottish-born James Kennedy Logan (1844-1912), who in August 1856, at the age of 12, joined the British and Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company as a telegraphist. Logan sailed from Glasgow to New Zealand in 1864 on the City of Dunedin, arriving at Port Chalmers. He helped extend the telegraph line from Dunedin to Christchurch and was put in charge of the erection of the Tokomairiro-Queenstown line in 1865, at the age of 21. In 1879 he applied an innovation unique to New Zealand, using the newly invented telephone to extend, not compete with, the telegraph; telephones offered a cheaper way of feeding messages into the telegraph system from remote areas where it was too expensive to locate a trained telegraphist. He set up New Zealand's first telephone office in 1879, at Portobello on the Otago Peninsula. Like Gell a member of the New Zealand branch of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, in 1894 Logan became superintendent of electric lines, based in Wellington. By 1900 he had introduced advanced telegraph systems.
In 1902 New Zealand helped to lay the first trans-Pacific cable; under Logan telephone use was made more efficient and cheaper for households; between 1894 and 1910 the number of connections grew from 4244 to 29,681 and exchanges increased from 24 to 153. Logan had the far-sightedness to see the advantages of wireless for telecommunications on land and sea.
Logan had close ties with New Zealand Prime Minister, Melbourne-born Joseph George Ward (1856-1930), who Logan had encouraged when Ward worked was a message boy for the Post Office in Donald Murray's home town of Invercargill in 1869. Ward had thus taught himself to use Morse code at that time, and as Postmaster General from 1891 had enjoyed confounding dignitaries escorting him on tours of inspection by smartly tapping out his own telegrams.
But Ward was slow to support Gell's work. In late 1903 Ward would only agree to an experiment with Gell machines in New Zealand provided Gell paid for the prolonged upkeep of the equipment himself, and the deal fell through, much to the displeasure of the New Zealand Press. In 1906, however, Gell wrote directly to Ward from London, saying Lord Armstrong had invited him to see Valdemar Poulsen demonstrate his wireless telegraphy. Gell said a "new era in radial telegraphy" had been ushered in, as he believed Poulsen's invention had made the Guglielmo MarconiLee de Forest and Adolf Slaby-Georg von Arco systems all obsolete.
New Zealand telegraphic offices

1902 in Dunedin
1903 in Wellington
 The Telefunken system, 1913 (Slaby-von Arco)
The delightful story below is from September 1908

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