William Fothergill Cooke

William Fothergill Cooke bigraphy, stories - English inventor

William Fothergill Cooke : biography

4 May 1806 – 25 June 1879

Sir William Fothergill Cooke (4 May 1806 – 25 June 1879) was an English inventor. With Charles Wheatstone, professor at King’s College, London, he was the co-inventor of the Cooke-Wheatstone electrical telegraph, for which a patent was filed in May 1837, and granted on 12 June 1837. Together with John Lewis Ricardo, Cooke founded the Electric Telegraph Company, the world’s first public telegraph company. This effort commenced on 3 September 1845, with a final consolidation of and assignment to the Company of majority shares of stock in the Cooke-Wheatstone patents that were held between three Company principals including Ricardo and Cooke. Cooke had provided a portion of his shares to the syndicate members in exchange for monies from them: To establish the Company. This formation entered into by contractual indenture on 5 August 1846, provided in part for purchasing the full remaining patent interest and stock held by the telegraph’s other co-inventor Charles Wheatstone. British Telecom, the giant multi-national communications corporation based in over 170 countries worldwide today—with head offices situated in Durham and London, England—is a direct descendant of Cooke’s Electric Telegraph Company.

, British Telecom website. Cooke was knighted in 1869.


Wm. F. Cooke was born at Ealing, Middlesex; his father, William Cooke, was a surgeon there, and later was appointed professor of anatomy at the University of Durham. He was educated at Durham and at the University of Edinburgh, and at the age of 20 entered the Indian Army.

After five years’ service in India Cooke returned home; then studied medicine in Paris, and at Heidelberg under Georg Wilhelm Munke. In early 1836 he saw electric telegraphy, then only experimental: Moncke had illustrated his lectures with a telegraphic apparatus on the principle introduced by Pavel Schilling in 1835. Cooke decided to put the invention into practical operation with the railway systems; and gave up the study of anatomical model making and medicine.

William Fothergill Cooke left Heidelberg, returning to England on 22 April 1836. He soon set about writing his proposals for an electric telegraph, with intentions of issuing it as a monograph, but never came to publish.

Cooke however continued with his writings. In his travels he came to acquire a used, mostly unfinished gilt stamped leather bound manuscript journal. The journal had once belonged to an 18th-century scientific society that had been based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. The "Amsterdamsche Societiet," as it was called, had been formed on 25 September 1775. As the remaining pages of the old journal were absent of any entries, Cooke would use these empty pages to enter his own writings and drawings as needed and as thoughts came to him, as its hand inked title page clearly shows.

Apparently, though, the Dutch scientific society disbanded after the year 1781, as the journal bears no entries beyond this time. The word "NAAMLYST" or ‘list of names’ had been boldly stamped on to the journal’s leather cover. It is not certain when this journal was acquired by Cooke or where, but one fact is quite evident; The earliest and first dated entry in Cooke’s hand found in the journal bears the date of "November 30, 1836." This is approximately three months before Cooke would meet Wheatstone, with whom he would develop the world’s first perfected commercial electric telegraph.

There are two versions for this date in the journal. The one page version bears only a minor title entry, i.e.: "Astronomy," and the date "November 30, 1836." The second or other two page entry with exactly the same date and title entered by Cooke as on the first page, was started up by Cooke again. This second time however, now comprised now two full pages that had been expanded to incorporate detailed drawings, including a planetary orrery and other astronomical forms, along with lectures numbered one to eight. There is also mention of a "Dr. Ritchie Theodolite" on the second page further chronicling the astronomy lectures documented by Cooke on this date.