Cooke, William Fothergill (DNB00)

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COOKE, Sir WILLIAM FOTHERGILL (1806–1879), electrician, was born at Ealing, Middlesex, in 1806. His father was a surgeon there, but was afterwards appointed professor of anatomy at Durham, to which place the family removed. Cooke was educated at Durham and at the university of Edinburgh, and at the age of twenty entered the Indian army. After five years' service in India he returned home, intending to qualify himself for his father's profession, and passed some time on the continent, studying first at Paris, and subsequently at Heidelberg under Professor Müncke. While with Professor Müncke in 1836 his attention was directed towards electric telegraphy, the probable practicability of which had been previously demonstrated in various quarters in an experimental way. Indeed, the idea of the magnetic needle had, from the early part of the seventeenth century, occupied the minds of scientific men. Dr. Müncke had closely followed the course of discovery, and, for the purpose of illustrating his lectures at the university, had constructed a telegraphic apparatus on the principle introduced by Baron Schilling in 1835. Cooke's genius instantly caught at the prospect that was thus unfolded. Up to that time the electric telegraph had not been experimented upon much beyond the walls of the laboratory and the class-room, and the young medical student conceived the idea of at once putting the invention into practical operation in connection with the various railway systems then rapidly developing. He abandoned medicine, and devoted his mind to the application of the existing knowledge and instruments for telegraphy. Early in 1837 he returned to England, with introductions to Faraday and Roget. By them he was introduced to Professor Wheatstone, who had made electric telegraphy a special study, and had so far back as 1834 laid before the Royal Society an account of important experiments on the velocity of electricity and the duration of electric light. Cooke had already constructed a system of telegraphing with three needles on Schilling's principle, and made designs for a mechanical alarm. He had also made some progress in negotiating with the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Company for the use of his telegraphs. After one or two interviews, in which Wheatstone seems to have frankly revealed to Cooke all he had done towards perfecting the electric telegraph, a partnership was agreed upon between them, and duly entered into in May 1837. Wheatstone had neither taste nor leisure for business details, while Cooke possessed a good practical knowledge, much energy, and business ability of a high order. Wheatstone and Cooke's first patent was taken out in the same month that the partnership was entered into, and was ‘for improvements in giving signals and sounding alarms in distant places by means of electric currents transmitted through electric circuits.’ Cooke now proceeded to test the utility of the invention, the London and Blackwall, the London and Birmingham, and the Great Western railway companies successively allowing the use of their lines for the experiment. It was found, however, that with five needles and five line wires the expense was too great, and in that form the electric telegraph was given up. In 1838 an improvement was effected whereby the number of needles was reduced to two, and a patent for this was taken out by Cooke and Wheatstone. Before a parliamentary committee on railways in 1840, Wheatstone stated that he had, conjointly with Cooke, obtained a new patent for a telegraphic arrangement. The new apparatus required only a single pair of wires instead of five, and was greatly simplified. The telegraph was still too costly for general purposes. In 1845, however, Cooke and Wheatstone succeeded in producing the single needle apparatus, which they patented, and from that time the electric telegraph became a practical instrument, and was speedily adopted on all the railway lines of the country. In the meantime a bitter controversy arose between Cooke and Wheatstone, each claiming the chief credit of the invention. Cooke contended that he alone had succeeded in reducing the electric telegraph to practical usefulness at the time he sought Wheatstone's assistance, and on the other hand Wheatstone maintained that Cooke's instrument had never been and could never be practically applied. More of the actual work of invention was no doubt done by Wheatstone than by his partner, though Wheatstone could not altogether withhold from Cooke a certain share of the honour of the invention. He admitted that he could not have succeeded so early without Cooke's ‘zeal and perseverance and practical skill,’ but held that Cooke could never have succeeded at all without him. An arrangement was come to in 1843 by which the several patents were assigned to Cooke, with the reservation of a mileage royalty to Wheatstone; and in 1846 the Electro-Telegraph Company was formed in conjunction with Cooke, the company paying 120,000l. for Cooke and Wheatstone's earlier patents.

For some years Cooke employed himself very actively in the practical work of telegraphy, but does not appear to have achieved much in the way of invention after his separation from Wheatstone. He 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, and that the electric telegraph had not been so poor an investment as they had been led to believe by the press, the shareholders having received a bonus of 15l. per share, besides the usual dividend of four per cent. on 300,000l. 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, Wheatstone having had the same honour conferred upon him the year before. A civil list pension was granted to Cooke in 1871. He died on 25 June 1879.

[Sabine's History and Progress of the Electric Telegraph; Dr. Turnbull's Lectures on the Electric Telegraph; the Practical Magazine, vol. v.; Jeans's Lives of the Electricians; the Wheatstone and Cooke Correspondence.]

J. B-y.