William Fothergill Cooke (1806-1879)

Sir William Fothergill Cooke was the co-inventor of the first commercial electrical telegraph, which he developed with Sir Charles Wheatstone. He was born in Ealing, London, educated at Durham and Edinburgh universities, and later studied in Paris and Heidelberg after serving in the Indian Army from 1826 to 1831. It was at Heidelberg in 1836 that he witnessed the demonstration of an electric telegraph during an anatomy lecture, which made such an impression that he decided to give up his medical studies in favour of pursuing telegraphy further.

Back in England, Cooke began experimenting with the application of telegraphy in railway signalling and alarm systems. Lacking the necessary electrical knowledge, however, he had almost abandoned the idea when he met Charles Wheatstone in 1837. The two men formed a partnership, combining Wheatstone’s scientific knowledge with Cooke’s administrative ability.

In May 1837 they patented a five-needle telegraph as an alarm system, and in 1838 installed the first working commercial electric telegraph for the Great Western Railway. This device was involved in what is thought to have been the first use of telecommunications in an arrest; in 1845 the murderer John Tawell, having escaped the crime scene on a train to London, was caught after a needle telegraph message was sent from Slough to Paddington, which inspired a great deal of public interest in the invention. The single-needle telegraph which followed, perhaps Cooke and Wheatstone’s most important development, is still in use today.

Following a series of disputes over credit for their inventions, Cooke founded the Electric Telegraph Company in 1846, the world’s first public telegraph company. He was knighted in 1869, and died in Surrey.