Henry Sutton was born in Ballarat Victoria in 1855 and schooled by his mother until the age of ten. Even so, he was largely self-taught. When he was ten years old, he began to study the theory of flight and by age fourteen he had completed his own theory on flight. A few years later in 1878, his two papers on flight were published by the British Royal Aeronautical Society. By age fourteen, Henry had read every book on science in the Ballarat Mechanics Institute, invented a torpedo and the first continuous current dynamo – three years before Gramme. These early inventions were not patented due to lack of funds.
A student of the Ballarat School of Mines, he went on to make Australia’s first telephone and install Australia’s first telephone system between his family’s music stores in Ballarat. By 1878, he had invented the first telephone handset. It was during this time that he began corresponding with Alexander Graham Bell and they became life-long friends. In 1910, Dr Bell came to Australia and visited Henry.
After the telephone, Henry Sutton went on to invent the light globe – only to have Edison announce his own invention sixteen days before. Many inventions followed. During the 1880s, various vacuum pumps and batteries were given freely to the world for the benefit of everyone. The Sutton storage battery was the first battery in the world to store electricity and it was exhibited at the 1882 Crystal Palace Electrical Exhibition in London. This was the invention that brought Henry world acclaim. Thomas Edison stated that it was the best battery in the world and this was also the view of many scientists at the time.
In 1883 Henry Sutton became an Associate Member of the British Society of Telegraph Engineers and Electricians, the Royal Society of Victoria and the Victorian Institute of Electrical Engineers.
After the world-wide success of his battery, Henry was invited to become a lecturer at the Ballarat School of Mines. The student had now become the teacher and he taught Applied Electricity and Magnetism, the first class of its type in Australia. History has recorded that Henry was one of the best lecturers the school of mines had employed. His inventing continued while he was a lecturer with him making improvements to many inventions and donating them to the school.
Prior to arriving in England Henry had been working on sending pictures by wire. One method was for sending still images by facsimile and the other was to transmit moving pictures. It was during his time in England that his paper on the first feasible television system was published – by the Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review in 1890 and Scientific American in 1891 – and was re-published two decades later by Scientific American. Henry Sutton called his method of transmitting moving pictures the “Telephane”, the principles of this system were later used by John Logie Baird. Today Henry Sutton is still credited around the world as being the inventor of the first feasible television system.
While in England, Henry met Nikola Tesla and attended his lecture on Alternating Current at the British Institute. Tesla became interested in Henry’s method for transmitting pictures, by which he had successfully transmitted a still image in Australia before he had travelled to England.
With the aid of William Preece at the British Telegraphy Office in London, Henry and Tesla successfully transmitted the first still image in England using Henry’s system. It was during discussions with Tesla in 1892, that Henry became convinced that it would be possible to transmit pictures wirelessly and immediately began working on wireless telegraphy.
After returning to Australia Henry invented a new combustion engine and carburettor, and designed and built a number of Australia’s first motor cars. One of Henry’s cars, as well as his combustion engine and carburettor were exhibited at the first automobile exhibition in America, which was held in St Louis in 1904. Being involved in the birth of the Automobile industry in Australia, Henry was one of the founding members of the RACV and was responsible for writing the motion that officially formed the club in 1903. During his time at the club, he helped draft some of the first road rules in Victoria and during 1904 he was instrumental in organising the first official car races in Australia.
It was in the field of wireless telegraphy that Henry’s discoveries and inventions once again brought him world acclaim. In 1908, he invented the world’s first portable radio, a new wireless system and many other wireless telegraphy inventions. These wireless inventions caught the attention of the American Great White Fleet when it visited Australia in 1908 and the wireless officers of the fleet visited Henry upon their arrival. His wireless inventions were later used by the Australian, American, Japanese, and British navies.
Henry Sutton was one of the first Australians to hold an experimental wireless licence and had built a large wireless station at his home in Malvern. His wireless aerial was 102 feet high and at one stage he held the world’s record for the longest single wireless transmission. He took out five patents related to wireless telegraphy. His wireless discoveries, inventions and patents marked a turning point in world wireless history and this work had a profound effect on the future and history of modern day technology.
Henry Sutton’s work and inventions crossed many different avenues of science, technology and engineering; he was a true Polymath. His legacy to scientific history is vast and he rightfully stands among the greats of science as one of Australia’s, and the world’s, greatest inventors. History has only credited Henry with two patents, but it has been discovered that he took out many more, all of which have now been recorded in a book.
Henry Sutton died in 1912 and although he was never officially recognised at the time, he is still revered and known by many in the various fields of science and technology that he was associated with.
Henry Sutton remains unknown to most Australians but his innovative genius is recognised by science journalist Robyn Williams and Professor Mark Dodgson from Queensland University and many others.
Donations are needed to ensure that Henry Sutton’s life and work is available for all to read.
Article written by Lorayne Branch