Robert Stirling Newall lived from 1812 to 1889. He was an engineer who made great improvements to undersea telegraph cables and went on to become a noted amateur astronomer. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Robert Stirling Newall was born and brought up in Dundee. He became an engineer and by the late 1830s was running a successful engineering company in the city with a strong reputation for innovation. On 20 June 1838, the English engineer Lewis Gordon, who had seen wire ropes being used in German coal mines, wrote to Newall asking whether he could develop a machine that could produce wire rope more effectively. Newall did, and in 1840 the two formed a partnership with Charles Liddell to open a factory in Gateshead to produce wire rope using Newall's by-now patented new method.
Newall went on to make continuous improvements in the design and construction of wire ropes, using an elastic core that enabled all the components of the wire rope to be evenly stressed. The improving technology allowed the first successful telegraph cable to be laid across the English Channel in 1851. Newall also invented much of the ancillary technology needed to allow submarine cables to be laid in deep waters, opening up the way for the first successful Transatlantic Cable to be laid in 1866.
Meanwhile, Newall also developed a keen interest in astronomy, and he commissioned the best instrument maker of the day, Thomas Cooke, to build a telescope for his private observatory at Ferndene, his home in Gateshead. The 25 inch refracting telescope that resulted was the largest in the world for many years and had a tube nearly 30ft in length. After Newall's death in 1889 his son donated the telescope to the University Observatory in Cambridge. In 1958 it was donated by Cambridge University to the Observatory of Athens, where it remains the observatory's largest telescope.