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 June 1837 they patented a five-needle telegraph which they demonstrated to the directors of the London and Birmingham Railway. Over the next few years they developed the needle telegraph into a practical working system. Cooke was energetic in promoting its use as an adjunct to railway working and in 1840 installed an electric telegraph on the cable-hauled London and Blackwall Railway. This was the world’s first commercially-successful electric telegraph system.

Cooke installed another system in 1843 along the Great Western Railway between Paddington and Slough. This  was employed in what is thought to have been the first use of telecommunications in an arrest: in January 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.

Cooke’s final refinement was the single-needle telegraph which remained in use for over a century. A development of it, the railway signalling block telegraph, is still in use on a few of Britain’s railways.

Cooke and Wheatstone eventually fell out with each other over credit for the invention of the electric telegraph and ended their business partnership. Cooke went on to co-found the Electric Telegraph Company in 1846 with other investors. Having made a great deal of money out of the telegraph, Cooke later lost most of it on ill-conceived business ventures and remained quite poor thereafter. He was knighted in 1869, and died in Surrey.