William Fothergill Cooke


William Fothergill Cooke : biography

4 May 1806 – 25 June 1879

Cooke later tried to obtain an extension of the original patents, but the judicial committee of the Privy Council decided that Cooke and Wheatstone had been sufficiently remunerated. The Albert gold medal of the Society of Arts was awarded on equal terms to Cooke and Wheatstone in 1867; and two years later Cooke was knighted by Queen Victoria, Wheatstone having had the same honor conferred upon him the year before. William Fothergill Cooke was bestowed this honour for his service to telegraphy. The Cooke journal of recent discovery in the latter part of the 20th century represents the earliest full record of this service extant.

A civil list pension was granted to Cooke in 1871. He died on 25 June 1879.

Cooke’s Initial Telegraph Development with Wheatstone (1837-1839)

Not long after settling back in London, did Cooke have his first telegraph instrument constructed with the assistance of Frederick Kerby of St. Pancras district, London – and Moore of Clerkenwell. However, after painstakingly stringing over a mile of wire round and round the office of Burton Lane, Cooke’s friend and solicitor, Cooke came to quickly realize that getting a telegraph signal to extend beyond one mile remained a very real obstacle.

The dilemma of sending telegraph signals over longer distances prompted Cooke to seek out outside assistance, which came through introductions to Michael Faraday and Peter Mark Roget. Through Faraday and Roget, Cooke was introduced to Charles Wheatstone, who prior, in 1834, had already presented to the Royal Society an account of his experiments on the velocity of electricity. Cooke had already constructed a system of telegraphing with three needles based on Schilling’s principle, and made designs for a mechanical alarm, the latter which some examples are found drawn and recorded in Cooke’s journal (Codex Lipack). Cooke had also made some progress in negotiating with the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Company for the use of his telegraphs. Cooke and Wheatstone went into partnership in May 1837 ; Cooke would handle the business side.

In a holograph letter dated October 5, 1837, from Sir Francis Beaufort (1774–1857), the Irish born hydrographer to Great Britain’s Royal Navy and ultimately Rear Admiral and Knight Commander, wrote to Sir Benjamin Hawes (1797–1862), of the English Parliament. The letter thanked him for the invitation to the demonstration and "experiment" of the "electric telegraph" that he regrettably had to decline because of his ongoing pressing work at sea. This first experimental telegraph demonstration took place on the London and Birmingham Railway line, established by George Stephenson, who had introduced Cooke to his son, the legendary Robert Stephenson, its engineer.

Cooke had solicited the company on 27 June 1837, some two weeks after Cooke and Wheatstone had been granted their first telegraph patent and came to work-out installing a trial system on the Stephenson line . Cooke and Wheatstone’s very first telegraph was tested on July 4, 1837, nestled in a newly-erected carriage shed of the London and Birmingham Railway at Camden Town in north London. This trial William F. Cooke mounted at his own risk, and its primary objective was to demonstrate the utility of the electric telegraph in providing safe railway system signaling, electronically.

A second trial installation by Cooke was mounted commencing on 17 July 1837, with a temporary four-wire line strung between Euston Square and the Camden Town stationary engine house. The actual demonstration before the London and Birmingham Railway company directors followed on 25 July 1837 . Eventually, a more permanent line was run, with insulated wires buried underground; its completion occurring by 31 August 1837. The trial for this first near-permanent line took place on 6 September 1837, lasting one hour. Although said to be thought of as the first commercial electric telegraph line in the world, it would be the London and Blackwall Railway line in July 1840 that would come to garner that distinction. However, it is significant to note that Sir Francis Beaufort’s 5 October 1837 letter to Benjamin Hawes refers to this first near-permanent telegraph installation of the Euston Square to Camden Town system – as an "experiment" and "one of the most striking novelties of this inventive age." Sir Francis Beaufort’s words mark the swell of enthusiasm held by many at the time surrounding the great ushering in of the telegraph ‘phenomenon,’ which at the time was still regarded as a mere novelty. There were even parlor games based on the older mechanical signal telegraph still being used as entertainment at this time in many English and French homes of the day.