Henry Sutton: A Forgotten Genius

I've had an interest in Henry Sutton since 2002 when I was a student at the University of Queensland. It struck me as odd that someone of his intellectual calibre had been forgotten by the history books. This short post is a humble attempt to generate a modicum of recognition for a forgotten genius


  1. Henry Sutton: Personal Timeline.

    1851: Gold is discovered at Ballarat, Australia.

    1853: H.R. Sutton and his wife, Mary, immigrate from Manchester (U.K.) to the Ballarat goldfields.

    1854: H.R. Sutton makes a concertina to keep himself entertained at night on the goldfields. He ends up entertaining the other miners and makes some more concertinas for friends. Mary, his wife, convinces him to buy a dray-load of instruments from Melbourne which they sell on the goldfields. This marks the beginning of the Sutton Music Emporium.

    1856: On the 3rd of September, Mary gives birth to Henry.

    1866: A ten year-old Henry writes a paper on the theory of the flight of birds after observing the flutter of insect wings against smoked glass. It is published 12 years later by the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain in their 1878 annual report.

    1870: After a three year period, Henry has read every scientific book in the Ballarat Mechanic Institute’s library. In the same year he designs and builds an ‘ornithopter’: a clockwork flying machine. These are the first flight experiments conducted in Australia using heavier-than-air materials.

    1870: Henry designs an electric continuous current dynamo with a practical ring armature. A similar device had been invented by the Italian, Antonio Pacinotti on the 10th January 1859.

    1871: Z.T. Gramme, a Belgian inventor, shows his improved version of Pacinotti’s invention to the French Academy of Sciences. It is known as the Gramme dynamo and uses the same design principles as Henry’s device. History records Gramme as being the father of the electrical power industry.

    1875: The Reverend John Kerr, a Scottish university lecturer, invents the Kerr cell and publishes a paper on what becomes known as the Kerr effect.

    1876: H.R. Sutton dies. Suttons Music Emporium is now run by Henry’s mother and brothers with 19 year-old Alfred as manager.

    1876: Alexander Graham Bell receives his patent for the telephone (7th March 1876). Henry reads a brief article on Bell’s invention and within twelve months he designs and builds twenty different versions. Some of them are installed in the music emporium. Sixteen out of twenty of Henry’s designs are patented by others.

    1877: At the request of F.W. Brearey Hon. Sec., Henry submits two papers to the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain. They are titled ‘On the Flight of Birds and Aerial Navigation’ and ‘Second Paper on the Flight of Birds’.

    1878: Both of henry’s papers on bird flight are published in the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain’s 1878 annual report.

    1879: Thomas Edison invents the carbon lamp.

    1880: Henry, working independently from Edison, develops a carbon lamp. The Victorian Government Astronomer, R.L.J. Ellery, verifies the success of Henry’s work.


    ·         Henry marries Elizabeth Ellen Wyatt.

    ·         By now Henry has invented a colour printing process, a torpedo, and a telegraph facsimile.

    ·         Royal Society of Victoria. Transactions and Proceedings, 18 (1881), publish Henry’s article on ‘A New Form of Secondary Cell for Electrical Storage’.

    ·         Royal Society of Victoria. Transactions and Proceedings, 18 (1881), publish Henry’s article on ‘Description of a Vacuum Apparatus’.

    ·         In December Henry’s paper on ‘A Type of Lead Storage Battery’ is read before the Royal Society of London.

    1882: The details of Henry’s Mercury Air Pump are published in English Mechanic and World of Science, 21st July 1882, and are recommended to be used in the manufacture of light bulbs.

    1883: henry begins to lecture at the Ballarat School of Mines in the field of Electricity and Applied Magnetism. He continues to lecture there until 1887.


    ·         Alfred opens a Sutton’s Music Store in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne.

    ·         The music firm becomes known as ‘The Sutton Brothers’.

    ·         The four brothers form a private company ‘Suttons Pty Ltd’.

    ·         Paul Nipkow, an Austrian engineering student, invents the Nipkow Disc. This carefully perforated disc allows for the electronic scanning of a moving image at the rate of ten images per second.

    1885: According to W.B. Withers of Ballarat, Henry designs the Telephane. This is a method of transmitting moving pictures over great distances. It uses Nicol prisms, Nipkow discs and a Kerr cell in its design and relies on the telegraph wire as its mode of transmission.

    1886: Henry is granted a patent for ‘Improvements in Electrical Circuits for Telephonic Purposes’ (Victoria).


    ·         Henry is granted a patent for ‘An Improved Process of Converting a Photographic Image on a Gelatine Surface into a Relief or Intaglio Printing Surface (New South Wales and Victoria).

    ·         In New South Wales, Henry also applied for a patent for ‘Explosion Engines’.

    1890: Henry submits a paper that details the workings of his ‘Telephane’. It is published in both The Telegraphic Journal and Electrical Review, 7th November 1890 and La Lumiere Electrique. Paris, 13 December 1890.

    1900-02: Henry builds several motor cars with carburettors of his own design. At one point, he teams up with the Austral Otis Company to go into manufacture.

    1902: Henry marries Annie May Patti.

    1903: At a meeting of fifty-five motorist at the Port Phillip Club, 9th December 1903, Henry moves the resolution that founds the Automobile Club of Victoria.

    1912: Henry Sutton dies from heart failure and chronic nephritis (28th July 1912). He is buried at Brighton Cemetery and is survived by his second wife, their two sons and two sons from his first marriage. He leaves property worth nine thousand, nine hundred and eighty four pounds.

    1924: John Logie Baird demonstrates working television. It is, like Henry’s system, an electromechanical device.

  2. Henry Sutton's design for his 'Telephane'. The telephane was a mechanical television.
  3. The Telephane: How Did It Work?

    Henry Sutton’s design for transmitting moving pictures over great distances relied on a transmitter and a receiver.

    The Transmitter:

    The Nipkow disc, as it was known, worked by using a rotating disc with a pattern of spiral apertures that was placed in front of a selenium background. To capture a moving image the disc was rotated before a moving object and, had the effect of dividing the image of the object into a series of light and dark lines. The light sensitive selenium behind the perforated disc would respond to these changes by altering its resistance to electric current.

    Sutton improved on the Nipkow disc by placing a series of lenses both in front and behind the spinning disc to better define the variation of light that registered on the selenium background. Images are scanned at the rate of ten frames per second. The selenium plate was connected to a circuit with a battery and a transformer.

    Radio had not yet been developed so Sutton decided on the commonly used telegraph line as his method of transmission. A simple multiplexing unit was incorporated into Sutton’s design so that two signals travelled through the telegraph line and arrived at the receiver simultaneously. One signal was the variations in current produced by the moving image; the other was the rotational speed of the perforated disc.


    The Receiver:

    Henry Sutton’s receiver is, in essence, a long tube with a light source (lantern) at one end and a viewing aperture at the other. The signal that has travelled via the telegraph line enters a de-multiplexing unit so that the two signals are separated.

    Light from the lantern enters the tube and is focused by the first lens. The light passes through a Nicol prism to produce polarised light. The light strikes the Kerr cell. Electrodes from the Kerr cell are fed the signal derived from the changes in resistance from the selenium plate. Low resistance is equivalent to a dark band on the transmitter’s selenium plate. When this happens amount of electricity fed to the Kerr cell increases and it becomes dark, thus blocking the passage of polarised light. The converse holds true for lighter bands.

    Fluctuating levels of polarised light leave the Kerr cell and hit the second Nicol prism which only allows the polarised light from the Kerr cell to pass. This polarised light is focused by lenses into a tight beam.The beam strikes a perforated disc (identical to the one in the transmitter) that has been synchronised, via the telegraph line, to spin at the same speed as the transmitter’s disc. Like the disc in the transmitter, the receiver’s disc works with the fluctuating beam of polarised light to project a series of light and dark lines to form an image every one tenth of a second. The image is viewed by peering down the eyepiece.

  4. Henry Sutton exhibition at Ballarat Heritage Weekend
  5. Televisor 3 - Mechanical Television
  6. This Youtube clip shows the image a mechanical telvision produces.