Henry Sutton


Henry Sutton
Henry Sutton
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia
Death date


Henry Sutton with his portable radio set - 1910.


Henry Sutton was born 3 September 1856 at Ballarat, Victoria, the son of Richard Henry Sutton and his wife, Mary Renée Johnson. His father had founded a music firm in a tent located on the Ballarat goldfields in 1854.

1867: Henry was home schooled by his mother until the age of 11. He was then left to his own devices and with his voracious appetite for knowledge, he studied unaided until becoming involved with higher educational institutions in and around Ballarat.

1870: Henry read every book on science in the Ballarat Mechanics Institute by age 14. Even at this age, he invented a type of electric motor that could also be used as a dynamo, which was a prototype of the first electric motors to be used in factories all over the world. It had the same features as the one exhibited at the French Academy of Sciences in 1871 that was invented by Zénobe-Théophile Gramme.

1870: Designed and built an ornithopter (helicopter) driven by a clock work which could fly in a diameter of twelve feet from left to right and upwards at any desired angle. The ornithopter was fixed on a lever having a universal joint so that it could move in any direction. Sutton is credited with being the first person in Australia to have experimented with flight.

1870: Conducted further experiments on heavier-than-air materials for flight.

1874: Won a silver medal for design and 30 other prizes for drawing as a student at the Ballarat School of Design.

1875: Designed and built a torpedo eight feet long that could travel 10 to 25 yards under water, Sutton took a patent out in New South Wales on a combustion engine. Lack of funds prevented him from developing his concept into a product.

1876: At age 20 Sutton read a brief account of Alexander Graham Bell's telephone in Scientific American. Bell's telephone patent was issued on 7 March 1876 and within six months Henry Sutton had designed and built at least 20 different types of telephones. Sutton wired up Sutton's Music Store and the Warehouse with telephone lines. This was at least two years before Australia's first official telephone system was installed in Melbourne around 1878. The first Australian telephone exchange was formed in 1880 and by 1884 7,757 calls had been made. Sutton did not patent his telephones because he believed that the fruits of science should be available to all. Later others patented sixteen of his designs.

1878: At the request of F. W. Brearey, the secretary of the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, Sutton wrote two papers on artificial flight which were published in the Annual Report of the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain. Sutton had conceived the theory for these papers at age ten simply by observing birds and insects.

1880: Working independently and without any knowledge of Edison's work on similar lines on carbon filament electric lamps (incandescent lighting), Sutton designed and built an electric light bulb. Edison beat him to it, on 21 December 1879 and Sutton on 6 January 1880 only 16 days apart. It was recorded by the Victorian government astronomer R. L. J. Ellery that Sutton had invented the light globe at the same time as Edison but, due to Henry's isolation from U.S. and European media, Edison received the credit.

Sutton invented a method for using gas and water pipes to transmit telegraph signals.

Sutton also invented a color printing process and an intaglio photo printing, a photographic process to make printing blocks. Sutton used a screen to break up the image of a photograph or picture along with William Henry Fox Talbot, Frederic Ives, Max Levy, and George Miesenbach, who are usually credited for it. Henry attempted to get his halftone process on the London market but Miesenbach had already persuaded printing firms there to use his process. Henry's method was utilized in the United States without any advantage to himself.

1881: Designed and built a superior storage battery. His paper on this invention was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London and in the Royal Society of Victoria Transactions and Proceedings in 1881. It was described in his paper as having a negative electrode of copper and a positive electrode of lead amalgamated with mercury, in a solution of copper sulfate.

1881: On 13 December 1881 Sutton's paper on the mercury air pump was read at the Royal Society of Victoria and was published in the Society's 1882 Transactions and Proceedings. The paper was also published by The English Mechanic and in the World of Science on 21 July 1882. The vacuum pump created a powerful vacuum and the newly formed Edison and Swan Electric Light Company in England thought so much of Sutton's design that they used his principles for creating a vacuum in their electric light bulbs.

1883: From 1883-1887 Sutton was employed as a lecturer in applied electricity at the Ballarat School of Mines SMB (now the University of Ballarat). While lecturing at the school he became frustrated at the delays in obtaining scientific instruments from England. This led him to organize a factory for scientific instruments in Australia and the emergence of Victoria's scientific instrument industry. During Sutton's time as a lecturer at the SMB he set up a telephone system around the SMB. It was probably the world's first academic institute to be wired with telephones. Sutton was a prominent member of the Camera Club and many other SMB clubs. While a lecturer at the Ballarat School of Mines, Sutton also invented a cheap and effective method of cleansing bottles or containers in a rapid and practical manner. He also invented a mercury vacuum pump worked by water jet for use in chemistry classes.

1883: Sutton became a member of the Royal Society of Victoria and an associate member of the Victorian Institute of Electrical Engineers.

1883: Experimented with mineral flotation long before Carlton and United's head brewer Charles Potter pioneered a technique for separating Broken Hill's zinc lead ores in 1899.

1884: Commenced studies in astronomy and microscopy. Sutton had a large telescope to which he adapted a device which allowed it to be turned in any direction.

1885: Sutton's knowledge of optics leads to his greatest work, the Telephane, a forerunner to John Logie Baird's television of the 1920s. Around 1871 at the age of fifteen, Sutton invented a method so that any important event in Melbourne could be seen in Ballarat by medium of the telegraph. He was so sure of this that he wrote the particulars to R. L. J. Ellery, the government astronomer of Victoria, so the invention could be in the hands of someone capable of stating his claim of being the first in this direction. Some years later, in 1885, Ellery was witness to the transmission of the single images of the Telephane. In 1885 Sutton transmitted through the Telephane the Melbourne Cup race to Ballarat, and contemporary reports stated that it worked quite well. In 1890 Sutton demonstrated the Telephane to the scientific communities in England and France. His paper on the Telephane was published in England, France, and the U.S.; Scientific American republished it again in 1910. Sutton never patented the Telephane but Baird drew on its scanning principles to invent television some 43 years later.

Designed and helped build Australia's first hydraulic elevator, or lift, with the Austral Otis Lift Company. It was installed in Sutton's Music Store in Ballarat, becoming an instant drawing card and novelty with the public.

Made improvements to lantern lenses.

1886: On 26 October 1886 Sutton took out a patent on improvements in electric circuits for telephonic purposes.

1887: Invents and patents on 20 October an improved method of photolithography to enable photographs to be printed in newspapers.

1889: Sutton invents a telegraph facsimile, a relatively simple means to transmit photographic printing plates similar to Alexander Bain's and Giovanni Caselli's systems. Sutton's improvement was to produce another printing plate at the receiving end, rather than a piece of paper chemically treated with potassium iodide.

1890-1894: Sutton traveled the world for four years in pursuit of knowledge and to meet other inventors such as Bell and Edison. He traveled to England, Europe, and North America. On 3 February 1890, just before Henry left Ballarat to travel overseas the city and citizens of Ballarat presented Henry with a farewell charter signed by the mayor of Ballarat City, William Little, and the mayor of Ballarat Town, Edward Murphy. Henry left Australia for London in February 1890 on the ship fittingly named “Ballarat.”

In 1890, Henry's paper on the Telephane system was published in the French journal, La Lumière électrique around the time that he demonstrated his Telephane to the Royal Society of London. He then went onto to demonstrate it in France. See the attached primary sources below.

The "Sutton Room" is named after Henry Sutton at the Ballarat Mechanics Institute.

During 1897 Sutton began designing and building combustion engines and carburetors. He undertook many experiments on air-cooled engines to run on low-grade fuel, and applied for a patent titled “improvements in and relating to internal combustion engines” in 1898.

Sutton also took out a number of patents relating to bicycles. He designed and built a motorized, 2-cylinder tricycle for pacing racing motorcycles. The motorized tricycle traveled from Melbourne to Ballarat in September 1897 and generated widespread public interest when it arrived. Police had to control the crowd to prevent a riot. Henry along with his son Arthur went on to design and build a number of motorcycles.

1899: Designed and built in Melbourne one of Australia's first cars, the Sutton Autocar which could go 30 kilometers an hour. This car may have been the world's first front-wheel drive automobile. It was reported in the English press and featured in the English magazine Autocar, which the car was named after. Two prototypes were built and the Austral Otis Company was going to go into business with Henry to manufacture Henry's car but the cost of the car could not compete with cheaper imported cars.

1899: Henry was invited by Monsieur Clocheary (?), a member of the French government, to become a member of the Société Internationale des électriciens.


1900: Sutton built another car in Ballarat which has been restored. Privately owned, it is on display at the White House Museum in Westbury, Tasmania.

1901: Sutton participated in Dunlop's Melbourne to Warrnambool Reliability Race with one of his cars.

1903: Sutton co-founded what is now the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria (RACV). At a meeting at the Port Phillip Club on 9 December, 55 motorists agreed on Sutton's motion to form the Automobile Club of Victoria. As a member of the provisional committee Sutton helped draw up the constitution and rules were approved by about 70 members at two meetings in January 1904 .The Automobile Club of Victoria gained its royal charter in 1916. Henry served on its council from 1903-1908. In 2009 there were over 1.9 million members.

1906: Sutton helped organize the first Victorian car races at Aspendale. His son Arthur raced motorcycles there and in 1906 won the first VMCC 100-mile motorcycle race.

On 12 July 1906 the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company's representative, Captain Louis Walker, exchanged messages across Bass Strait between Point Lonsdale, Victoria, and Devonport, Tasmania. At Walker's invitation Prime Minister Alfred Deakin, Governor General Henry Stafford Northcote, Governor of Victoria Sir Reginald Talbot, most of the members of Parliament, and the Post Office and Telegraph Department attended, via a special train to Queenscliff. Sutton and other guests also attended this demonstration. As the Australian government had announced in May 1905 that it was considering a wireless telegraphy system, after the demonstration it decided to build a national wireless system. This lead eventually to Sutton working with Australia's naval director, William Rooke Creswell. Between 1906 and 1912 he worked on inventing a wireless system for the Australian government and the new Australian Navy.

1908: Sutton worked on inventing a wireless system for the Australian Navy with the co-operation of the W. R. Creswell, Naval Officer Commanding the Commonwealth Naval Forces. In September 1908 The American "White Fleet" arrived in Australia. Sutton had patented what became an effective long-distance receiver for wireless telegraph messages. The Commonwealth government used this receiver and the visiting U.S. Navy sought him out after they picked up his wireless messages while steaming across the Pacific Ocean.

On 4 September 1908, the day before the Fleet left, the Australian government organized with the RACV to take officers from the fleet on a car trip up to Blacks Spur and Healesville. As a council member of the RACV, Sutton drove some of the officers in his car. Creswell was in town and presumably he and Sutton visited the American ships and examined their wireless system. Sutton resigned as a council member of the RACV in 1908 after the American fleet visit. He devoted his whole attention to the wireless system. A letter from the post master general on 15 October indicated that the PMG only recently learned about what Sutton's work with the Navy and was not happy to be uninformed.

1909: The post master general of Victoria, Sir John Quick, granted Sutton an experimental radio license, the second in Australia. It was issued on 7 October and permitted a 250-mile range of transmission. Henry Sutton was working on a top secret communication devices for the Australian government. His work attracted the attention of the British, French, US, and Japanese governments but his first loyalty remained with Australia and to improving his nation's science and technology.

1910: Alexander Graham Bell and Frederick Walker (Casey) Baldwin, who traveled with Bell on his world tour, visited Sutton in Australia, traveling to Ballarat in July/August 1910 to view his telephone system and many inventions. Bell was astonished by Henry's achievements.

Henry built a portable radio receiver with a range of 500 yards (457m), which may be the one that he holds in the photograph accompanying this article.

1912: Henry died of heart failure and chronic nephritis on 28 July. He was buried in Brighton General Cemetery, Melbourne. The Melbourne Age newspaper on 30 July upon his death declared the telephane to be his greatest invention.

2004: On 20 January 2004 a street in the Canberra suburb of Dunlop, “Henry Sutton Circuit,” is named in Sutton's honor.

2011: The Ballarat Heritage Weekend celebrations on 7-8 May included a lecture at the Mining Exchange, Lydiard Street, on previous unpublished and unknown aspects of Henry's work.

References: Extracts of material from Lorayne Branch, Queensland, and the Sutton family archives. W. B. Withers, The History of Ballarat, 2nd ed. (Ballarat, 1887); G. Sutton, Richard Henry Sutton, Esq., 1830-1876 (Melbourne, 1954); J. Goode, Smoke, Smell and Clatter (Melbourne, 1969); R. J. Gibson, Australia and Australians in Civil Aviation, Volume 1 (Sydney, 1971); Ballarat School of Mines, Annual Report, 1883-84; Austin McCallum, "Sutton, Henry (1856 - 1912)," Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6 (Melbourne, 1976), p. 226-227. www.ballarat.edu.au/aasp/is/library/collections/art_history/honour-roll/honourroll_sutton.shtml.

David Syme, The Melbourne Age, 30 July 1912 & 25 January 1997.

"On a New Form of Secondary Cell for Electrical Storage." Royal Society of Victoria, Transactions and Proceedings 18 (1881), 110-114.

"Description of Vacuum Apparatus." Royal Society of Victoria, Transactions and Proceedings 18 (1881), 122.

"One Man Wonder", Mark Juddery, COSMOS Magazine, Issue 30, December 2009/January 2010, p. 55. ISSN1832-522X.

Further Reading

The Sutton Telephane

The Sutton Vacuum Invention