He was born on 21 February 1788 in London, Middlessex, England to parents Francis Ronalds and Jane Field. Varying sources give him either ten or eleven siblings. He left school at fifteen and at nineteen his father died, leaving him and his mother to take over the family cheesemonger business. He was fascinated in practical science as a child and was encouraged by Jean Andre de Luc to explore electricity in 1814. He created a primitive electric telegraph in 1816 and sent messages through eight miles (13 km) of wire arranged in his garden at Kelmscott House, 26 Upper Mall, Hammersmith, London (west end of London). The wire was enclosed in glass tubing and buried in trenches which ran around in the garden. Ronalds went to the British Admiralty (Navy), but they said they were not interested, so Ronalds soon gave up. He never patented his work and it fell upon Charles Wheatstone and William Fothergill Cooke to later patent and popularise the model.
Ronalds then took to travelling around Europe and the Mediterranean studying science. During this time he began collecting the Ronalds Library, now containing 2,000 volumes and 4,000 pamphlets. It was presented to the Institution of Electrical Engineers (initially Society of Telegraph Engineers) under a trust deed in 1875. In 1843 he became director and superintendent of the Kew Meteorological Observatory. His work involved a system of registering meteorological data.
He retired in 1852 and was able to live comfortably off a pension for his services to science. He continued working on various projects including his library, and record keeping. He was knighted for his contributions to the invention of the telegraph and died in Battle, Sussex on 8 August 1873.
The Ronalds telegraph
It was at Kelmscott House that Sir Francis Ronalds set up a primitive telegraph in 1816. He ran eight miles (13 km) of cable (encased in glass tubing) through his back garden suspending it from two wooden lattices. and succeeded in getting an electrical signal along the full length using static high voltage electricity. At both ends there were clockwork operated dials with numbers and letters of the alphabet. Without patenting it, he offered his electrical telegraph to the British government where his invention was rejected. Many telecommunications technologies such as Ronald's electrical telegraph were not necessary for governments at the time and therefore many were never pursued. He contacted the secretary of the Admiralty, Mr. Barrow, on the 11th of July describing his invention as "a mode of conveying telegraphic intelligence with great rapidity, accuracy, and certainty, in all states of the atmosphere, either at night or in the day, and at small expense", but they were not interested at that time saying "telegraphs of any kind are now wholly unnecessary."
- Ronalds' Biography at the Institution of Engineering and Technology site
- A collection of internet biographies
- His portrait at the National Portrait Gallery National Portrait Gallery (London)