IT’S still difficult to believe an anonymous 18th century Scot from Renfrewshire, identified only as “CM”, was already working on his own functional electrostatic messaging system (a true forerunner of electronic mail) in 1753 – less than a decade after the last Jacobite rebellion (1745), almost 50 years before the invention of the Voltaic Pile (1799), and almost a century before the first Electric Telegraph Company was formed (1845).

Professor Colin Vincent of St. Andrews University said he has “no doubt that the mobile phone and the internet are direct descendants of CM’s paper”, though it should be noted that this early “method to convey intelligence” lay undisturbed until its popular rediscovery by Sir David Brewster, who republished it in 1854 along with these words: “Here we have an electric telegraph upwards of a hundred years old, which at the present day would convey intelligence expeditiously, and we are constrained to admit that CM was the inventor of the electric telegraph. Everything done since is only improvement.”

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In the mid-19th century, there were serious efforts to quickly attribute CM’s paper to two possibly mythical Renfrewshire locals called Charles Marshall and Charles Morrison, but the project triggered an immediate rebuttal from other CM enthusiasts. George Blair was scathing in Notes and Queries (S.II, Vol. X – 1860), saying he had “little or no doubt” that confident CM-identity narratives were part of “a deliberate hoax”, albeit attached to an authentic Scottish invention, and that we still “have no more reason to believe it was Charles Marshall” or “any other name beginning with the letters CM”.

An 1860 article called “Charles Marshall Not the Inventor of the Telegraph” briefly mentions “a very clever man living in Paisley” (but who “formerly lived in Renfrew”) who could “light a room with coal reek (smoke), and make lightning speak and write upon the wall”.

A simple current passing through a cable and temporarily influencing the position of letters on a keyset, perhaps hung upon a wall, could be described as “lightning” made to “speak and write”. There is, however, no evidence the “clever man” or his inventions existed beyond this single half-memory of a centuries-old anecdote.

Experts writing to periodicals in the 18th and early 19th centuries expressed themselves with fine cursive handwriting, which allowed for frequent clerical and copyist errors. With this in mind, it may be worth asking if the initials “CM” were misread by a copyist when the letter was first transferred to print in 1753.

An electrical engineer sent a letter from Paisley to the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal in 1825. It is signed by John Murray, and briefly outlines the “Unequal Distribution of Caloric in Voltaic Action”. A year later, someone called J Murray wrote a letter to the Edinburgh Journal of Science about a “luminous phenomena” (or “luminous globe or bolide”) he observed while journeying from Paisley.

It would be a stretch to suggest that John Murray of 1825 and “CM” of 1753 could be the same person, but it’s not impossible. There doesn’t appear to be any information about the biographies or technological contributions of John Murray of Paisley, or Charles Morrison, or Charles Marshall, or CM of Renfrew.

Seventy years after CM published their research on the electrical transmission of words using an electrical charge, some wire, and 26 “letters of the alphabet marked on bits of paper”, another anonymous C from Paisley appeared in an 1824 issue of the Glasgow Mechanics’ Magazine. C described the movements of paper and other materials when exposed to an electrical charge. C told readers that when “paper is electrified, it not only attracts light substances” but is “itself attracted by any other substance that is in a different state of electricity”.

If CM was 20 to 30 years of age in 1753, he’d be 90 or a hundred years old in 1824.

It’s just possible that C of Paisley was CM of Renfrew. But only just. Even if CM and C were one inventor, we’re still no closer to discovering their full name or names. The only thing we know for sure is that CM’s 1753 electric text messaging system worked, or would’ve worked if it was ever built. We may never know either way.