S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Preece, Sir William Henry (electrical engineering)

Born: 15 February 1834, Bryn Helen, Wales, United Kingdom.
Died: 6 November 1913, Penrhos, Wales, United Kingdom.

W. H. Preece, British electrical engineer, was educated at King's College, London, during 1850-1852 but had to leave owing to financial difficulties. In 1853 he was employed in the engineering staff of the Electric and International Telegraph Company, and from 1858 to 1862 by the Channel Islands Telegraph Company. He joined the staff of the Post Office in 1870 as divisional engineer for the telegraphic system and from 1892 was engineer-in-chief until his retirement in 1899. Thereafter he served as consulting engineer to 1904. He conducted extensive research in telegraphy, telephony, radio-telegraphy, and railway signalling, and was responsible for many inventions and improvements. With J. Sivewright as co-author he wrote Telegraphy (New York, 1876); its 15th edition was published in 1899 and later versions appeared until 1919. He also wrote A manual of telephony (with A.J. Stubbs, London, 1893) and many reports and papers.

Preece was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1881. He was president of the Society of Telegraph Engineers in 1880, of its successor, the Institution of Electrical Engineers, in 1893, and of the Institution of Civil Engineers (London) in 1898-1899. In 1899 he was honoured as a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB). The University of Wales conferred an honorary Doctor of Science (DSc) degree on him in 1911. He became a member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1869, served as president of Section G (Engineering) in 1888, and was a member of council from 1888 to 1902. In 1905 he visited South Africa to attend the joint meeting of the British and South African Associations for the Advancement of Science, held in Cape Town and Johannesburg in August-September that year. At that time he chaired the British Association's committee on magnetic observations at Falmouth Observatory, and was a member of its committee on practical standards for electrical measurements. On 29 August he read a paper on "Wireless telegraphy" in Johannesburg, reviewing its development world-wide. The paper was included in the Addresses and papers... published after the meeting (Vol. 2, pp. 272-284).

Some years later Preece contributed a paper entitled "Some aspects of theory" to the Transactions of the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers (1910, Vol. 2, pp. 18-23) and another on "The Bessemer Memorial Laboratory" to the Journal of the Chemical, Metallurgical and Mining Society of South Africa (1910/11, Vol. 11, pp. 351-354). The latter paper commemorated the English engineer and inventor Sir Henry Bessemer (1813-1898).

List of sources:
Addresses and papers read at the joint meeting of the British and South African Associations for the Advancement of Science held in South Africa, 1905 (Vol. 2). Johannesburg: SAAAS.

British Association for the Advancement of Science. Report of the seventy-fifth meeting... South Africa, 1905. London: John Murray, 1906.

Chemical, Metallurgical and Mining Society of South Africa. Journal, 1910/11, Vol. 11, paper by Preece.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Oxford dictionary of national biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers [1800-1900]. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

South African Institute of Electrical Engineers. Digital index to its Transactions, 1909-1980.

Compiled by: C. Plug