William Henry Preece
born  15th February 1834, Bryn Helen, Caernarfon, Gwynedd, Wales, UK
died  6th November 1913, Penrhos, Caeathro, Caernarfon, Gwynedd, Wales, UK
buried  Llanbeblig church, Caernarfon, Gwynedd, Wales, UK
era  Victorian and Modern
A biographical summary
Welsh electrical engineering pioneer Sir William Henry Preece advanced the development of telegraphy, telephony and radio. He devised block signalling for railways, brought the first telephone into Britain, and encouraged the uptake of electric lighting and power. A genial man and an enthralling speaker, Preece held many high professional offices, including the presidencies of the Society of Telegraph Engineers & Electricians, the Institution of Electrical Engineers and the Institution of Civil Engineers.
Preece worked briefly under Michael Faraday (1791-1867) before pursuing telegraphy at the Electric Telegraph Company, the Channel Islands Telegraph Company and the London & South Western Railway. He spent most of the rest of his career as a "member of the great Civil Service of this country". He was a mainstay of the Post Office, which was a government department at the time and in charge of communications. He was also a partner in the electrical engineering consultancy that became Ewbank Preece (now Mott MacDonald).
In July 1877, Preece brought telephones into Britain for a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Plymouth. They were demonstrated to Queen Victoria (1819-1901) in 1878. He then worked on conduction systems for wireless communication. In March 1882, he managed to transmit a signal across the Solent, between Southampton and the Isle of Wight.
Working with Arthur West Heaviside (1844-1923) in 1885, he discovered radio induction effects between parallel telegraph wires and an unwired telephone receiver. Four years later, he sent a signal across Coniston Water, Cumbria, followed by greater distances — over the Bristol Channel (from Lavernock Point in 1892) and over Kilbrannan Sound in 1894. The following year, Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) developed a more effective system of radio telegraphy using Hertzian waves, and he found an ally in Preece, who let him use Post Office facilities for his experiments.
In April 1898, Preece realised his "greatest ambition" and became President of the Institution of Civil Engineers. The following year he was created a freeman of his home city of Caernarfon. Professor William Edward Ayrton (1847-1908), outgoing President of the Institution of Electrical Engineers declared, "my successor ... is undoubtedly the most popular man in the whole engineering profession". He was popular with governments too. The French appointed him to the Légion d'honneur and he was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1899.
Preece sought simple uncomplicated solutions to practical problems, and he encouraged his assistants to take on responsibility. He published prolifically — including Telegraphy (1876, with James Sivewright), The Telephone (1889, with Julius Maier) and A Manual of Telephony (1893, with Arthur Stubbs) — and delivered lectures in his "superb voice". After his death, the American Institute of Electrical Engineers lamented that "the electrical engineering fraternity of all lands have lost a friend".
In his presidential address to the Institute of Electrical Engineers (now Institution of Engineering & Technology), he had noted that over the previous 40 years, the total length of telegraph cables laid worldwide had increased from 161km to 258,528km.
A copy of the address was kindly supplied by the IEEE
1834 Born 15th February at Bryn Helen, Caernarfon, Wales, to Richard Matthias Preece (1797-1854, stockbroker, politician and Mayor) and Jane Elizabeth Hughes (1799-1870), with siblings Jane Elizabeth (1820-1902), Eliza Anne (1824-1904), Harriet (b./d. 1827), Margaret Helen (1829-1908), Mary Catherine (1831-1915), Edward William (born and died 1832), William Henry (1834-1913), Gwenellian [Gwen Ellen] (1836-1905), George Edward (1838-95), Llewellyn (1840-42), Harriett (b./d. 1842) and John Richard (1843-1917)
1845 Family moves to London, renting 24 Park Square East, Regent's Park, and later 2 Southampton Street, Fitzroy Square
1845-50 Attends King's College School, Wimbledon, lodging with Dr J.R. Major
1850-52 Attends King's College, London, not especially academic, hears Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution on lines of magnetic force
1853-54 Engineer's assistant at Electric Telegraph Company, working with brothers Edwin Clark (1814-94) and (Josiah) Latimer Clark (1822-98, m. to Margaret Helen Preece), helps Faraday with telegraphic experiments
1856 Becomes superintendent, Electric Telegraph Company's south-western district at Southampton
1858-62 Concurrently supervises Channel Islands Telegraph Company cables
1860 on Concurrently supervises London & South Western Railway telegraphs, introducing the block system of working single lines and an electric signalling system between passengers and guards
1861 Awarded Institution of Civil Engineers' Telford Medal and premium for his paper (presented November 1860) On the Maintenance and Durability of Submarine Cables in Shallow Waters
1864 Marries (28th January) (Ann) Agnes Mary Pocock (1843-74), daughter of local solicitor George Pocock, in Southampton, seven children — Agnes Gwen (1865-1951), (William) Llewellyn (1866-1918), Arthur Henry (1867-1951, knighted 1932), Mary Florence (c.1869-1964), Percy John (1870-1921), Frank Hugh (c.1873-1947), Amy (1874-1961)
1870-1904 Works for the southern division of Britain's Post Office Telegraph service, at Southampton, and following compulsory retirement in 1899 he continues as a government consultant
1874 Wife dies (5th January) after childbirth, family moves to Gothic Lodge, Wimbledon Common, London
1877 Visits USA and Canada with Henry Charles Fischer (1833-1905), acquires operational sample telephones from Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), sees Thomas Alva Edison's (1847-1931) quadruplex telegraphy, which he later improves and uses on Post Office lines
1878 Promoted to electrician and assistant engineer-in-chief at the Post Office
1880-1 President of the Society of Telegraph Engineers & Electricians
1881 Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society
1884 Revisits USA and Canada, becomes honorary founder member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (now Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers), meets Edison, brings back six-channel multiplex technology for the Post Office
1885 Increases the system to eight channels using the synchronous-sampling system of Patrick Bernard Delany (1845-1924)
1892 Promoted to engineer-in-chief at the Post Office
1893-4 President of Institution of Electrical Engineers (now Institution of Engineering & Technology)
1898 Preece & Cardew (later Preece, Cardew & Snell, later Ewbank Preece, later Mott MacDonald) is founded, specialising in electricity and telecommunications — partners are Preece, sons Llewellyn and Arthur, and Major Philip Cardew (1851-1910)
1898-9 President of Institution of Civil Engineers, delivers James Forrest lecture (1900).
1899 Knighted by Queen Victoria
1899-1900 President of the Sanitary Institute (now Royal Society for Public Health), addresses its congress
1900 Delivers James Forrest lecture
1901 Chairman of Society of Arts (served on council for over 20 years)
1905 Visits South Africa with the British Association, revisits in 1911
1913 Dies (6th November) at his residence, Penrhos, Wales
No.2608 ... "Improvements in telegraphs. A new duplex system" ... 19th November 1855
No.1449 ... "A new method of terminating and insulating line wires", jointly with J. Latimer Clark ... 26th June 1858
No.77 ... "Railway signalling: assimilating outdoor and electrical signals" ... 10th January 1862
No.1405 ... "Improved domestic telegraph apparatus" ... 6th June 1864
No.3227 ... "Railway signalling. Communications between passengers and guard" ... 28th December 1864
No.2016 ... "Locking railway signals" ... 3rd August 1865
No.1268 ... "Improved locking signals by electricity" ... 3rd May 1870
No.153 ... "Railway signalling: preventing false signals due to lightning" ... 14th January 1873
No.3521 ... "Communication between passenger and guard" ... 13th October 1874
No.2203 ... "Telephones. Sound amplifier" ... 1st June 1878
No.129 ... "Lighting railway trains by electricity" ... 10th January 1882
No.13894 ... "Improvements in submarine telegraph cables" ... 30th July 1892
All items by William Henry Preece
Everything built ... 1834 - 1913
E.C. Baker, Sir William Preece F.R.S. Victorian Engineer Extraordinary, Hutchinson & Co (Publishers) Ltd, London, 1976
Bruce J. Hunt, Preece, Sir William Henry (1834-1913), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, online edn, Jan 2011
Professor D.G. Tucker, Sir William Preece (1834-1913), Transactions of the Newcomen Society, Vol.53, Issue 1, pp.119-138, London, 1982
Further reading
Lance Day and Ian McNeil (eds), Biographical Dictionary of the History of Technology, Routledge, London, 1996
Comte Thédore Du Moncel, Charles William Siemens, William Henry Preece and John White Howell Incandescent Electric Lights: With Particular Reference to the Edison Lamps at the Paris Exposition, D. Van Nostrand, New York, 1882
John Joseph Fahie, A History of Wireless Telegraphy: Including Some Bare-Wire Proposals for Subaqueous Telegraphs, 2nd edn revised, William Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh and London, 1901
Edwin Augustine Owen, Preece, Sir William Henry (1834-1913), Dictionary of Welsh Biography online, 2009
William Henry Preece, Inaugural address, Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Vol.22, Issue 103, pp.36-76, March 1893 (document used with permission of the IEEE)
W.H. Preece, Presidential Address of William Henry Preece. CB, FRS. Given 1 November 1898, Minutes of ICE Proceedings, Vol.135, pp.2-28, January 1899
Sir William Henry Preece, The Progress of Telegraphy: a lecture, Institution of Civil Engineers, London, 1883
William Henry Preece FRS and Julius Maier PhD, The Telephone, Whittaker & Co, London, 1889
W.H. Preece and J. Sivewright, Telegraphy, Longman's, Green, & Co., London, 1876
William Henry Preece and Arthur J. Stubbs, A Manual of Telephony, Whittaker & Co, London, 1893
R.W. Simons, OBE, C.Eng., F.I.E.E., M.I.Mgt., Guglielmo Marconi and Early Systems of Wireless Communication, GEC Review, Vol.11, Issue 1, pp.37-55, 1996
Congress of the Sanitary Institute at Southampton, report on Sir W.H. Preece’s presidential address, The British Medical Journal, p.622, 2nd September 1899
Death of William Llewellyn Preece, The Engineer, p.417, 15th November 1918
Obituary Notices: John Richard Preece, C.M.G., Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Vol.55, Issue 268, p.546-547, July 1917
Obituary Notices: Sir William Henry Preece, K.C.B., Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Vol.52, Issue 236, p.793, 1914
Obituary: Sir Arthur Preece, The Engineer, p.194, 9th February 1951
Obituary: Sir William Henry Preece, The Engineer, pp.517-518, 14th November 1913
Obituary: Sir William Henry Preece, KCB, FRS, 1834-1913, Minutes of ICE Proceedings, Part 2, pp.364-365, London, January 1914
Obituary: Sir William Henry Preece, K.C.B., F.R.S., Hon. Mem. A.I.E.E., Proceedings of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, Vol.32, Issue 12, pp.413-415, 1913
Mr. Preece [65th birthday], The Engineer, p.167, 17th February 1899
The Sanitary Institute at Southampton, The Engineer, p.221, 1st September 1899
Portrait courtesy Institution of Engineering & Technology archives

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William Henry Preece
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Institution of Civil Engineers
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Membership papers, ICE
Preece was elected a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers on 17th May 1859. The records shows him as living at 7 Bernard Street, Primrose Hill in London. Th proposers include brothers Edwin and Latimer Clark, engineers at the Electric Telegraph Company, where Preece was their assistant.
Photo: courtesy Museum of Wimbledon
Gothic Lodge, Wimbledon
Grade II listed "Gothic Lodge", Woodhayes Road, Wimbledon, Preece's London home from 1874 onwards. It was constructed c.1760 (or possibly 1785 by John Lawson) and extended c.1880-90. Thanks to Preece, it was London's first private house with its own telephone and electricity supply. This 1913 photo was taken by Cicely Cardew, daughter of Major Philip Cardew (1851-1910), Preece's business partner in later years.
Photo: courtesy Museum of Wimbledon
William Henry Preece
Preece at work in his office at the Post Office (once a government department, now British Telecom, or BT) on 4th December 1892.
Photo: courtesy BT Heritage and Archives
Group of electrical engineers, 1900
A composite image of photographs taken at the 1900 Exposition Universelle de Paris (15th April to 12th November 1900). The electrical engineers shown include (left to right, front row) — Preece, Silvanus Phillips Thompson (1851-1916), William Edward Ayrton (1847-1908), Alexander Siemens (1847-1928) and Charles Proteus Steinmetz (1865-1923).
Photo: courtesy IET Archives
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Alexander Graham Bell and the first telephone
Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) using the first telephone. Bell was born in Scotland, emigrated to Canada in 1870 and moved to the USA in 1871 to teach in a school for the deaf. A US patent was granted to him on 7th March 1876 for the telephone. Preece acquired an operational example from him in 1877.
Image: public domain
Post Office engineers on Flat Holm Island
Post Office engineers inspecting Gugliemo Marconi's radio (wireless telegraphy) equipment during a demonstration, Flat Holm Island in the Bristol Channel, 13th May 1897. Marconi's transmission from Lavernock Point in Wales to Flat Holm was the world's first over open sea. Preece had allowed Marconi to use Post Office facilities in London for his experiments, and he too had used Lavernock for trials. He was an observer during Marconi's tests here.
Photo: by Cardiff Council Flat Holm Project and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Lavernock Point, Wales
Looking southeast from Lavernock Point, County of Cardiff, to Flat Holm Island (on the left), about 6km away in the Bristol Channel. Both Preece and Marconi used the point for telegraphic transmission experiments. There is a small masonry building on the point but it's unclear whether either actually used it to house their equipment.
Photo: Jane Joyce
Internationale elektrotechnische Ausstellung
In 1891, Preece attended the Internationale elektrotechnische Ausstellung (electro-technical exhibition, 16th May &endah; 19th October), Frankfurt am Main, Germany. It was supplied with electricity from the world's first three-phase power plant, 175km away in Lauffen am Neckar. The photograph was taken on 12th September 1891. From foreground left — Professor Dr Dietrich, Baudirektor Karl von Leibbrand (1839-98), Innenminister Johann von Pischek (1846-1916), Dr Otto Arendt (1854-1936), unknown, Emil Rathenau (1838-1915), Marcel Deprez (1843-1918 ), Colonel Emil Huber (1865-1939), Preece and Oberpostrat Ebert. Gisbert Kapp (1852–1922) is behind Rathenau, Charles Brown (1863-1924) is behind Preece, and Dr John Hopkinson (1849-98) is at rear left (in bowler hat).
Photo: public domain