Francis Whishaw

Francis Whishaw (13 July 1804 – October 1856) was an English civil engineer. He was known for his role in the Society of Arts, and as a writer on railways. Later in life he was a promoter of telegraph companies.


Francis Whishaw was born 13 July 1804, the son of John Whishaw, a solicitor.[1] He was articled to James Walker, and found work as a surveyor. He made a survey for a proposed railway line in Cornwall, in 1831, with Richard Thomas.[2] He worked under George Stephenson on the Manchester and Leeds Railway for the second survey of 1835, with George Parker Bidder.[1][3][4]

Francis Whishaw (1828), St Anne's Limehouse

In the late 1830s Whishaw was promoting his version of the hydraulic telegraph.[5] In 1839 the Institute of Civil Engineers awarded him a silver Telford medal for his History report on Westminster Bridge; it was a manuscript, of which an abstract was published in the Proceedings of the Institute.[6][7]

Whishaw was recruited by Thomas Webster as the first professional secretary for the Society of Arts, from 1843 to 1845.[8][9] A small exhibition set up in the Society's rooms in 1844 has been regarded as the starting point for the 1851 Great Exhibition.[3] Possible inspirations were local British trade fairs, the French Industrial Exposition of 1844, and a Zollverein exhibition also in that year. Whishaw's exhibition, which was at his own expense, was planned to be an annual event, but was not, however, a great success. It did prompt W. F. Cooke to push for a national exhibition in 1845.[10][11] Over some indifference from Prince Albert, president of the Society, Whishaw pulled together a committee including Wentworth Dilke, Francis Fuller, and Robert Stephenson.[12] A second exhibition of 1845 with an enlarged committee was also largely disregarded by manufacturers and the public.[13] In 1847 a more substantial exhibition was held.[14]

Whishaw's March 1845 demonstration of gutta percha to the Society of Arts is credited with stimulating William Siemens to use it for the insulation of cables, based on suggestions of Michael Faraday.[15] His own inventions included the velocentimeter, a watch for timing railway trains,[16] and a gutta percha speaking trumpet, the "telakouphanon", proposed to the British Association.[17][18]

Whishaw gave an account of the electric telegraph in the London Artisan in 1849.[19] He was one of those exhibiting gutta percha products at the Great Exhibition in 1851, with a dozen other inventions.[20][21]

In the years before his death Whishaw had suffered from reduced health,[1] and had complained of pains in the head, and experience occasional brief memory loss.[22] In October 1856 Francis Whishaw was found late evening by a policeman in a partially conscious state, sometime after leaving his residence to attend church in Kentish town. He was taken to a doctor, and then to the a workhouse infirmary, where he died.[lower-alpha 1] The post mortem gave a verdict of natural apoplexy.[22]

As a civil and mechanical engineer Francis Whishaw was a man of sound attainments and great acquirements, of a highly original and suggestive train of mind, fostered by careful study and experiment, and tempered by sound judgment [..] In personal character [he] was esteemed for great parts and probity, but his integrity was so unflinching that it earned him many enemies. Independent in his bearing, confident in his integrity, he was a fierce foe to quackery in science and quacks in morals; and as this was marked by some asperity of character, the quacks at length got the better of him [...] it was easy to represent that Whishaw was uncertain in his temper, unstable in his disposition, and at length that he was an impracticable man; though he was undoubtedly a good servant to those who employed him, a good master to those under him, and a good colleague to those who acted with him.
The Civil Engineer and Architect's Journal (1856)


Notes and references


  1. The date of death is given in Minutes of Proceedings (1857), p. 150) as 6 October, whereas Laxton (1856, p. 365) gives 5 October.


  1. 1 2 3 Minutes of Proceedings 1857
  2. British Museum; British Museum. Dept. of Manuscripts (1837). Additions made to the collections in the British Museum in the year MDCCCXXXIV. British Museum. p. 394. Retrieved 9 March 2013.
  3. 1 2 Bailey, Michael Reeves (2003). Robert Stephenson: The Eminent Engineer. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 220. ISBN 978-0-7546-3679-3. Retrieved 9 March 2013.
  4. Laxton, William (1849). The Civil Engineer and Architect's Journal. 12. p. 207.
  5. The Railway Magazine. July 1839. p. 9. Retrieved 9 March 2013.
  6. Laxton, William (1839). The Civil Engineer and Architect's Journal. 2. Published for the proprietor. p. 74.
  7.  "Labelye, Charles". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.
  8. Hobhouse, Hermione (5 March 2002). The Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition: Science, Art and Productive Industry: The History of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-8264-7841-2.
  9. Wood, Henry Trueman (1913). A History of the Royal Society of Arts. John Murray, London. p. 348.
  10. Auerbach, Jeffrey A. (1999). The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display. Yale University Press. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-300-08007-0.
  11. van Wesemael, Pieter (2001). Architecture to Instruct and Delight: A Socio-historical Analysis of the World Exhibititon as a Didactic Phenomenon (1798-1851-1970). 010 Publishers. p.696; note 43. ISBN 978-90-6450-383-2.
  12. Flanders, Judith (2006). Consuming Passions: Leisure and Pleasure in Victorian Britain. HarperPress. p. 8. ISBN 978-0-00-717295-5.
  13. Berlyn, Peter (1851). A popular narrative of the origin, history, progress, and prospects of the great industrial exhibition, 1851. James Gilbert. p. 23.
  14. Weintraub, Stanley. "Albert, prince consort". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/274. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  15. Goodale 1950, p. 8.
  16. Dodd, George (1852). The Curiosities of Industry and the Applied Sciences. George Routledge & Co. Chap. IV; p.16.
  17. Whishaw (1848). Carson, Joseph; Proctor, William, eds. "Art. LXVII on the various applications of gutta percha". American journal of pharmacy. 14: 318–321.
  18. Dalton, William (1849). Gutta percha, its discovery, history, remarkable properties, vast utility. J.O. Clarke. p. 10.
  19. Turnbull, Laurence (1853). The electro magnetic telegraph: with an historical account of its rise, progress, and present condition ... A. Hart. p. 85.
  20. Beauchamp, K. G. (1997). Exhibiting Electricity. IET. p. 81. ISBN 978-0-85296-895-6.
  21. 1851 Great Exhibition: Official Catalogue: Class X.: Francis Whishaw.
  22. 1 2 Laxton 1856, p. 365.


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