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William Fothergill Cooke

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William Fothergill Cooke (1806-1879) was an English inventor who worked with Charles Wheatstone in forming Cooke and Wheatstone to develop electric telegraphy. He was one of two sons and two daughters of William Cooke (1776/7–1857), surgeon, and his wife, Elizabeth Ann, née Fothergill.

1806 May 4th. Born in Ealing, Middlesex.

1822-23 He attended Durham School, and went on to Edinburgh University, before joining the Indian army.

After five years in India he resigned his commission on grounds of ill health, and took up his father's profession, studying anatomy at Paris and then at Heidelberg, under Professor Münke.

Electric telegraphy came to Cooke's notice while he was at Heidelberg, after its feasibility had been demonstrated by several people.

He abandoned his studies and devoted himself entirely to telegraphy.

1836 He returned to England and conducted experiments with his friend and solicitor, Burton Lane. Cooke found that, although his apparatus worked across a room, it would not work through 1 mile of wire. He turned to Michael Faraday and Peter Roget. Neither of them could help, but Roget, who knew of the work of Charles Wheatstone, referred Cooke to him. Soon afterwards he and Wheatstone formed a partnership.

1837 They were granted their first patent, but the cost of their model made it impractical.

1841 The two men quarrelled over credit for the invention. This was settled amicably, but erupted again some years later. Wheatstone is generally considered the more important of the two in the history of the telegraph, but it was Cooke who had the business acumen.

1845 Their most important invention was recognized by patent. This was an electric telegraph using only one magnetic needle instead of several. John Lewis Ricardo recognised the value of this invention, bought the patent and established the Electric Telegraph Co[1].

1869 Cooke was knighted.

1871 He was granted a civil-list pension.

1879 June 25th. Died in Surrey.


1879 Obituary [2][3]

Sir William Fothergill-Cooke was born in 1806, near Ealing, Middlesex.

He commenced his professional career in the Indian army. In 1835-36, being on furlough from his regiment, his leisure time was devoted to the study of medicine and anatomy, both at Paris and at Heidelberg. Whilst engaged at the latter place in modelling dissections for the museum of his father (then Professor of Medicine and Anatomy in the rising university of Durham), Mr. Muncke, Professor of Natural Philosophy, showed him a model which Baron Schelling had previously exhibited at Bonn. By this instrument, two movements of a magnetic needle at a distance were rendered visible by an electric current.

The idea of electrical communication immediately took possession of Mr. Fothergill-Cooke’s mind, and a deep conviction of the practicability and incalculable utility of an electric telegraph. Relinquishing other pursuits, he resigned his commission, and devoted himself at once to the realisation of this conception.

In April 1836 he came to England, to perfect his plans and instruments; and during the summer of that year he prepared a pamphlet (since widely circulated) entitled, 'Plans for establishing on the most extensive scale, and at trifling expense, a rapid telegraphic communication, for political, commercial, and private purposes, especially in connection with the extended lines of railway now in progress between the principal cities of the kingdom, by electro-magnetism.'

In reference to the above it was stated in the Scientific Review for 1868, page 198, that 'The timely origination of the electric telegraph,(coincident with the railway era) by Mr. Cooke, in March 1836, his clear conception and foresight of the vast results that would spring from it, his accurately defined system of working it, were all graphically delineated in his pamphlet, written in June 1836, which is now regarded as an accurate and ample prophecy of that great invention, since realised by himself.'

This pamphlet led to negotiations with the Liverpool and Manchester Railway company, and to results which are stated as follows, in the authoritative award of Sir Isambard Brunel and Professor Daniell: 'In February 1837, while engaged in completing a set of instruments for an intended experimental application of his telegraph to a tunnel on the Liverpool and Manchester railway, he (Mr. Cooke) became acquainted, through the introduction of Dr. Roget, with Professor Wheatstone, who had for several years given much attention to the subject of transmitting intelligence by electricity, and had made several discoveries of the highest importance connected with this subject. . . . . In May 1837, Messrs. Cooke and Wheatstone took out a joint English patent, on a footing of equality, for their existing inventions. The terms of their partnership, which were more exactly defined and confirmed, in November 1837, by a partnership deed, vested in Mr. Cooke, as the originator of the undertaking, the exclusive management of the invention, in Great Britain, Ireland, and the Colonies, with the exclusive engineering department.'

Immediately after the patent was sealed, Mr. Cooke induced the London and Birmingham Railway company, under the auspices of Mr. Glyn, their chairman, and of the late Robert Stephenson, to try extensive experiments with 20 miles of wire, between Euston Square and Camden Town. These experiments were entirely successful, and Mr. Cooke shortly afterwards laid down a telegraph between Paddington and Slough.

The next line of importance was adapted, under the auspices of the late Mr. Bidder, to the complex arrangements of the Blackwall railway, which was then worked by a rope and fixed engines.

He also published, in 1842, a work entitled 'Telegraphic Railways, or the Single Way,' which was translated into German, French, and Italian. The system explained in this work was adopted by several of the leading engineers, on the Yarmouth and Norwich, the Northampton and Peterborough, and many other single lines of railways. These severe trials of the telegraph speedily brought it into general request, and it became known as the 'block system.'

On the 10th April, 1843, Sir Charles Wheatstone’s royalty on licenses was, by deed of agreement, converted into a mileage charge to be paid to him by his partner. Mr. Cooke, thus left at, liberty to deal with the invention in whatever way seemed most likely to extend its use, sold an exclusive right of employing the electric telegraph in Kent to the South Eastern Railway Company for £10,000. He had previously invited the board of the South Western Railway Company to join him in establishing a telegraph to Portsmouth for the Government, who offered an annual subsidy of £1,500.

In these contracts Mr. Cooke reserved the right of fixing wires for commercial purposes on the lines of the companies; and this system gradually established itself on all the important lines of Great Britain, and still remains in force. The demand for electric telegraphs over the railway system of Great Britain soon exceeded the power of an individual to supply. The great enterprise had been started with a few hundred pounds.

On the 30th September, 1845, Mr. Cooke had orders under execution, or soon to be commenced, for about 800 miles, which showed an estimated profit of £56,366. He entered into negotiations for the sale of the patents with the founders of the Electric Telegraph Company, offering to execute these lines himself, and to take his estimated profit as part payment for the patents. The company, however, preferred to take the contracts, and included them in the purchase of the patents, as well as a sum of £30,000 which was paid to Professor Wheatstone in cash, for the purchase of his royalties.

The late John Lewis Ricardo, M.P., his uncle Sampson Ricardo, Mr. G. P. Bidder, and two other gentlemen, formed with Mr. Cooke the nucleus of the first electric telegraph company.

An Act of Parliament, obtained in 1846, gave the company most important privileges, and (what was rare in those days) limited liability. Under Mr. Lewis Ricardo’s able leadership, during ten years, the electric telegraph became speedily a national institution. Its great success brought forth many rivals, free from the difficulties of a first undertaking to contend with. The mother company, not attempting to maintain a monopoly, but trusting to its established position, its extensive network of telegraphs, and its exclusive agreements with the railway systems, whose friendly co-operation had been secured by affording them every facility for their traffic, entered at once into liberal arrangements with their rivals for a general working scheme, and thus avoided a competition which might have been ruinous to all. When the Central Telegraph Company first began business, in 1847, the daily receipts amounted to a few pounds. At the close of 1869 they exceeded £1,000 a day, paid over the counter.

During the gradual establishment of the electric telegraph Mr. Cooke devoted much attention to other important subjects. For some years, as chairman of a company, he aided the late Mr. Wicksteed, M. Inst. C.E., in reducing to practice his system of purifying the sewage of towns, by establishing extensive works at Leicester. The whole sewage of Leicester and the neighbouring district was operated upon with perfect success; the impurities, deposited at the bottom of extensive tanks, were skilfully removed from under the water, and solidified into inodorous brick-shaped cakes for manure, the overflow passing off in a clear stream to the river. The health of the town was vastly improved, and the low-lying districts, previously the focus of fever and its concomitant evils, were rendered salubrious. Unfortunately the dried deposit had but little manual value, and the works, on which over £40,000 had been expended, were ultimately made over to the town.

In 1845 Mr. Cooke, then a member of the Council, and a Vice-President of the Society of Arts (having taken an active part in the resuscitation of the Society), prepared an elaborate sketch of a plan for a universal exhibition of the products of industry of all nations, to be carried out under the supervision of the society. The documents connected with this subject are in the possession of the Society, and from the 'Journal of the Society of Arts' for January 15, 1869, page 128, the following is extracted:

'EXHIBITION OF BRITISH INDUSTRY.etc. PROPOSED.
"During Mr. Whishaw's secretaryship, the rules excluding patents from rewards were abolished, and the first attempt at establishing an exhibition was suggested, and in 1844-45 a circular was issued, headed, 'Proposed Exhibition of the Products of British Industry,' in which it was set forth that 'The exhibitions of national industry, which attract so much attention on the Continent, have suggested to some members of the Society of Arts and to some distinguished manufacturers the propriety of establishing something of the kind in this country.’ Special subscriptions in aid of the proposition were received, and the originator of the plan, though then unknown, was Mr. Fothergill Cooke, the inventor of the electric telegraph. Exhibitions, as then proposed, were to be of two kinds - industrial and art. The former were to have been limited to British manufacturers, and in the latter case the artists contributing pictures to the proposed exhibition were, by ballot, to act as judges of their own works, and were to receive pecuniary rewards, towards which, however, each artist was to contribute £1 1s., to form, with other moneys, a common prize fund. It is scarcely necessary to add, that neither proposition, as originally put forward, was ever carried out.'

This proposition led, in 1851, to the first Great Exhibition. Mr. Cooke’s early services on this occasion occupy the second paragraph of an official document, drawn up and published by order of the late Prince Consort, President of the Society of Arts, under whose enlightened auspices the great scheme was perfected and realised.

Through his friendship with the late Mr. I. E. Brunel, Mr. Cooke became at an early period connected with the Great Eastern steamship, and was for some years, after its first return from America, a director of the company, and took an active part in the restoration of the vessel before it conveyed the troops to Canada during the American war.

Mr. Cooke’s energies and inventive faculties were, after this, for some years devoted to the perfecting (in conjunction with George Hunter, of Arbroath) of an entire system of machinery for working stone, slate, and other minerals, beginning at the quarry, and carrying out every operation systematically up to the most ornamental work for building purposes. Parts of this system are now in operation, though his declining health and other circumstances compelled him to withdraw, some years back, from active participation in the undertaking, and, finally, to retire from all business, and to give his brain and body the rest which they so much needed, and had well earned.

He was elected an Associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers in May 1867, when his qualifications were stated to be 'the prominent part he has taken, since the year 1837, in the scientific and practical applications of the electric telegraph to commercial purposes, and to the working of railways.'

On the 19th November, 1867, the fourth Royal Albert Gold Medal of the Society of Arts was presented to Mr. Cooke, in recognition of his services in establishing the first electric telegraph, a duplicate being voted at the same time to Sir Charles Wheatstone. The annual presentation of one of these medals, 'for distinguished services beneficial to all civilised nations, and open to all nationalities,' was decreed in memory of the late Prince-President of the Society. The first medal was awarded to Sir Rowland Hill, E.C.B., and the third to Dr. Michael Faraday, two of the greatest benefactors to modern civilisation.

On the 11th October, 1869, Her Majesty was pleased to confer on Mr. Cooke the honour of knighthood, 'for his great and special services in connection with the practical introduction of the electric telegraph.'

Sir William Fothergill-Cooke died at Farnham, Surrey, on the 25th June, 1879, aged 73.

Sir William Fothergill-Cooke had a commanding appearance, a tall, well-proportioned, active figure, with an intellectual head, and a bright eye. In earlier life he was capable of great bodily exertion - a good rider, a keen sportsman, and noted for feats of strength and agility.

His leading characteristic was perhaps the indomitable energy and perseverance with which he threw himself into, and thoroughly worked out, whatever he undertook, and which for the time would absorb his whole interest. This would apply to a puzzle, a trick at cards, or a game of chess, as well as to the more important studies and inventions which successively engrossed his attention. On such occasions he would disregard the flight of time, and through life he was late in retiring to rest. His motto was 'Ne tentes, aut perfice,' and he consistently acted up to it.

He introduced admirable order into the accounts of the various enterprises under his management or direction, and also into those of his own estate when he held a large property in Hampshire, where he devoted considerable attention to draining and scientific farming. At this time of his prosperity he was a liberal host and landlord, much more considerate for the interests and welfare of others than mindful of his own expenditure. He had a great taste for astronomy, and ever strove to interest his own family and near friends in the study as affording a field for infinite and illimitable research into the wonders of creation.

He found great enjoyment in botany, and made one of the first collections of orchids in this country. He was fond of poetry, apart from rhyme, and wrote several poems, one of which, entitled 'Memories of the Past,' recounting adventures in India, he dedicated to his eldest daughter and printed for private circulation. It contains a very correct abstract of the mythology and religions of the East.

Though disposed to take the lead in conversation, for which his general knowledge, retentive memory, and lively imagination well qualified him, he always weighed carefully whatever was said in rejoinder, and would take up an apparently commonplace remark, and clothe it with a force of meaning and originality beyond its compass. This especially applied to his intercourse with children and young persons, by whom he was much beloved. Though of a quick and sensitive nature, his generous disposition led him to give his affections strongly and abidingly where they were responded to and appreciated


1879 Obituary [4]



See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. The Times, 8 April 1868
  2. 1879 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries
  3. The Engineer 1879/07/25, p074.
  4. Engineering 1879 Jul-Dec: Index: General Index