Lately there has been some trouble in our village, children have been playing the traditional game of irritating people by ringing the doorbell and running away.
Now this has probably been going on since doorbells were invented (which was long before the word doorbell was invented – possibly by Jane Austen, certainly she was the first to write the word down).
However the Georgians, as well as inventing the word ‘doorbell’ also invented a way of dealing with the problem which probably couldn’t be used today (health and safety enthusiasts have a lot to answer for).
In June 1789, the Poultry, an area of London, was pestered by a man ringing the bells on various houses and shops at night. It caused considerable disruption and fear, but by the time doors were opened the perpetrator had fled into the ill-lit London streets. Finally one man had enough, Thomas Ribright, optician at the sign of the Golden Spectacles, he was much more than a simple optician, he was a maker of scientific instruments and decided to use his knowledge to set a trap. He described what he did in a letter to the Times, 8 July, 1789.
A tradesman, who lives not an hundred miles from me, having made a practice of ringing my bell violently in the night time, by which my family were greatly alarmed, I resolved, if possible, to punish the disturber of my rest. For this purpose I pasted some tin filings upon the pavement before my door, and having made a communication between the handle of the bell and the conductor of an electrical machine, by means of a wire, I charged a large jar to be ready for his reception. A few moments after my neighbour, as I suspected, made an attempt as usual; but instead of accomplishing what he intended, he received the whole contents of the jar, which made him stagger, and when I opened the door, I found him leaning against one of the supporters of the door, exclaiming, What! you shoot people, eh! d-n ye.- These are the real circumstances of the affair , and to the truth of them I am ready to make an affidavit if necessary.
Thomas Ribright had been experimenting with the transmission of electricity through various media. He had connected a fully charged Leyden jar, a means of storing a large electrical charge, then linked it to the back of the doorbell. Outside he had coated the doorstep with tin filings to provide a good earth, and waited.
The result was better than he could have imagined. The perpetrator, Peter Wheeler, a local grocer and tea-dealer, who had been nicknamed ‘Count Fig’ because of his airs and graces, and who seems to have quarrelled with most of his neighbours, was now ruthlessly mocked. One cartoon depicted him as the ugliest man in London.
Thomas Ribright prospered, after all he certainly made excellent scientific instruments, but never seems to have had the need to electrify his doorbell again, and modern rules and regulations would, I fear, prevent us from using his methods today.