William Fothergill Cooke

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William Fothergill Cooke : biography

4 May 1806 – 25 June 1879

Accompanying this discussion is an illustration of the cover of William Fothergill Cooke’s journal and the page revealing the final system "Orders" handwritten by Cooke to his "mechanician" Frederick A. Kerby, in the days before the opening of the London and Blackwall Railway telegraph installation. Below the written orders to Cooke’s machinist, a detailed drawing of a telegraph control lever is shown on the page as well. Specific dates entered on this page of the journal are for the first week of July, 1840. This page represents one of several ‘sketches’ by Cooke found in his journal that depict the London and Blackwall Railway installation. The telegraph builder’s drawings found in the Codex Lipack are for some of the actual artifacts that today comprise part of the collection of telegraph apparatus in the Science Museum (London), and other museums.

Although Cooke had demonstrated the positive utility of the Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph to railway directors of the London and Birmingham Railway, and to Stephenson, it was deemed too unnecessarily complicated. Enthusiasm for Cooke’s telegraph initiative between Euston Square and Camden Town waned, as much more monies were needed to be earmarked to lay track between Liverpool, Manchester and Holyhead, where there was none. Laying telegraph to these points was not an immediate priority for the railway’s board. Thus Cooke received a letter from the company dated 12 October 1837, expressing no further interest to pursue any use of the electric telegraph as viable.

Sir Benjamin Hawes was an early proponent of the electric telegraph and had attended these trials, and was pitching for Cooke all along. Hawes is claimed to have made the first arrangement for the partnership between Sir William Fothergill Cooke and Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1837, although other sources claim such introductions were made through Peter Mark Roget, examiner in physiology in the University of London. Benjamin Hawes was husband to Sophia Macnamara Brunel (1802–1878); daughter of the famous engineer Marc Isambard Brunel and sister to Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It was the latter who founded the Great Western Railway in 1835 and who would eventually lay the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable using the Great Eastern, the celebrated steamship Brunel would come to build later, in the 1850s. I. K. Brunel was the company engineer for the Great Western Railway, while Stephenson was the engineer for the London and Birmingham Railway.

When the London and Birmingham Railway declined the use of Cooke’s telegraph, there is one account that exists that claims Cooke had been introduced to Brunel by Robert Stephenson. However, the recent discovery of the letter extant, described herein by Francis Beaufort, dated 5 October 1837 and written to Sir Benjamin Hawes, clearly shows that Benjamin Hawes had attended the last trial demonstration between Euston Square and Camden Town of the Cooke telegraph along Stephenson’s London and Birmingham Railway line. This letter bears more weight towards confirming that Hawes was the one who introduced Cooke to Brunel, especially when one reads the letter Cooke himself wrote Hawes wife Sophia on May 30, 1838 about the propitious meetings he had with her brother Brunel and the agreement ultimately that would lead to the instance of the Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph system installation on the Great Western Railway, and then subsequently, what would become known as the London and Blackwall Railway.

The sudden about-face rejection by the London and Birmingham Railway and the ultimate signed agreement between Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Cooke to allow for Cooke to set up shop along Brunel’s Great Western Railway is revealed in this extant letter dated 30 May 1838, written by Cooke to Mrs. Sophia Macnamara Brunel Hawes. In this letter, Cooke excitedly writes:

"… and to announce that this very day my long pending engagement is satisfied with the Great Western Railway Co. and that I have the proud gratification of having myself employed under your brother "Brunel the Second"! Rather more than ordinary worry precluded the final arrangements during which time I walked with my hands in my pockets, up and down, or for more exercise from an angle to angle of a room eight feet nine inches and seven sixteenths square. All is happily and satisfactorily concluded now. The more I see of Mr. Brunel increases my satisfaction in bringing forward the E. M.[Electric Magnetic] Telegraph under his auspices. I am now so thoroughly engaged that I shall excuse myself delivering the letter say till next week. I know Mr. );return false}catch(e){}”/>