William Fothergill Cooke

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William Fothergill Cooke : biography

4 May 1806 – 25 June 1879

Later designs for patent specifications submitted by Cooke himself in December 1837 and October 1838, for telegraph patents Cooke obtained himself solely in his name and separate of Wheatstone – would later be confirmed by Kerby. Instruments based on these principles had been made by Frederick Kerby for the Great Western Railway installations and testimony by Kerby supporting this invention and application of Cooke’s became part of the legal arbitration record with respect to Cooke’s proprietary interest in the Cooke and Wheatstone arbitration.

Absent of Cooke’s manuscript journal, some historians prefer to claim that respective shares in the undertaking of Cooke and Wheatstone might be compared to that of ‘an author and his publisher.’ However, the extensive amount of drawings and gleanings of telegraph designs by Cooke, whether they were put into practice or not, found in the newly discovered Cooke manuscript journal that contains 191 pages and approximately 96 pages on the telegraph alone, reveals a very different picture. The telegraphic content of Codex Lipack, produced over a span of several years by Cooke, clearly overshadows the scant reference found in the extant written accounts to the telegraph’s early invention that would have been created by Wheatstone himself and held in the rather substantial Charles Wheatstone archive holdings at King’s College, London.

If Wheatstone was so prolific an inventor in this regard, one must question why there is not a substantial amount of paperwork anywhere in any archives at King’s College, London’s collections executed in the hand of Wheatstone that support all of his early telegraph work. There are some manuscript papers in Wheatstone’s hand related to telegraph principles, but these papers begin in the year 1841; about the same time that Cooke’s manuscript journal essentially ends! As well, no specific telegraph installations prior to 1841 seem to be discussed at all in any of the Wheatstone papers at King’s College.

As it was, Professor Michael Faraday often gave lectures on Charles Wheatstone’s behalf. This was because Wheatstone was shy and maintained a peculiar adversity about presenting the lectures himself!

Represented by the sheer detailed output found in Cooke’s newly discovered journal, the good name of William Fothergill Cooke certainly can claim more than ‘a share in the actual work of the invention;’ contrary to what written histories to date have shown.

As noted herein prior, and found in the detailed published record that came henceforth at the end of the arbitration process, Cooke’s "mechanician" Frederick A. Kerby had been the key witness on Cooke’s behalf during the arbitration proceedings.

The conclusion of the arbitration panel found however that Cooke had contributed to the business and management skills necessary to bring the telegraph into the mainstream; which was true. Cooke had handled all of details that made certain that the systems got built by his craftsmen Kerby and Moore. Cooke had negotiated all of details and business arrangements for the installations with the railroad people and Cooke hired all of the system’s installation workers and oversaw all of the telegraph installations. It was claimed by the arbitration panel that Wheatstone had contributed his scientific skill to construct a stable and dependable device on which the business could be built. This also was true. The panel tried to be fair to both parties, giving the upper hand in the arbitration to neither.

However, most curiously, reading the later published proceedings of the arbitration, with the first editions released in 1854, it is curious to note that virtually no reference was ever made to Cooke’s actual manuscript journal; even though it conclusively showed many of the actual working telegraph designs that came to be installed as actual Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph equipment. The London and Blackwall Railway telegraph system installation drawings are found to be most abundant in the Cooke journal and are shown very clearly as being that of the London and Blackwall Railway telegraph installation. Yet in the large manuscript archives left to King’s College, London by Charles Wheatstone after his death, nothing appears to exist on the London and Blackwall Railway installation; the first perfected commercial electric telegraph communications system in the world!