Mike Guilfoyle, vice-chair of the Friends of Brockley and Ladywell Cemeteries, believes Alfred Charles Brown should be better known for his pioneering work on London’s public fire alarm systems and his collaboration with Alexander Graham Bell on the invention of the telephone.
One of the singular delights of undertaking cemetery research are those serendipitous moments of discovery when the headstone of a long forgotten luminary is located.
Such was the experience of finding the broken headstone of Alfred Charles Brown – ‘Inventor of the London fire alarm’ in Ladywell cemetery.
Born in Holborn in 1858, Alfred Charles Brown completed his education at the City of London College and worked for four years in the telegraph section of the London, Brighton & South Coast railway.
Leaving in 1878 to take up experimental work with Alexander Graham Bell, best known for his invention of the telephone.
He subsequently worked for Bell Telephone Company entering service of the inventor Sir James Anderson, who captained the SS Great Eastern on the laying of the Transatlantic submarine telegraph cable in 1865 and 1866.
His collaborations with Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison led to him spending time in America.
It was whilst there that he superintended the laying of the first telephone line between New York and Chicago.
In 1880 he married Georgina Alice Maude Cole and for many years lived at 129 Algernon Road, Ladywell with his wife and daughter.
But Alfred Charles Brown’s chief invention was the street fire alarm which originated when he became increasingly troubled at the tardy response of the London Metropolitan Fire Brigade when attending blazes in the capital.
The fire alarm system became known as that of ‘Saunders and Brown’,
The first public alarms had a direct line to the fire station, where a bell would ring showing which alarm had been set.
A ‘watch room attendant’ at the fire station could then get the Vestry Hall to ring its bell for the volunteers, and when they arrived he could tell them where the alarm had been set off.
This system was an invention of A.C. Brown and was widely adopted across London. By 1936, the London Fire Brigade area had 1,732 fire alarm posts.
Of the 9,000 calls made with these posts, around 6,000 were genuine and 3,000 false. Of the false alarm calls, nearly 1,000 were due to electrical faults!
Alfred laid aim to a number of other inventions in motor vehicle design and became an expert in horology ( clocks) inventing one of the earliest machines for ‘clocking -in’ at the workplace.
The first person in the country to take out a wireless licence, he also made improvements in gramophone technology, introducing a ‘pick up’ to enable radio loud speakers to be used to reproduce sound.
During World War One he joined the London Electrical Volunteers and his improvements to the transmission of the vibrating telegraph were greatly welcomed by the War Office.
Noted for his many philanthropic endeavours he appears to have been a modest and self-effacing inventor whose his final recorded words were: “I think I have been of some use to the world.”
Alfred was living in Granville Park, Blackheath, at the time of his death in February 1931. He was interred in Ladywell cemetery in March 1931 and is buried in the same grave as his wife Georgina (d.1931)
Alfred deserves to be better known for his pioneering work. Maybe a campaign to have a maroon plaque in Ladywell for this gentle genius could feature as part of Lewisham Borough of Culture 2022?
Significantly Alexander Graham Bell accorded the credit for the first demonstrations of the transmission of speech by light to a Mr A. C. Brown of London ‘in September or October 1878.
The essential ideas underpinning Alexander Graham Bell’s photo phone were not his own. In a paper read before the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston on August 27, 1880, he acknowledges hat following a confidential correspondence from London, a Mr A. C. Brown of Ladywell and others had anticipated his invention!