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COOKE, Sir William Fothergill (1806-1879)

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0108 SC MSS 007
Held at: Institution of Engineering and Technology
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Full title: COOKE, Sir William Fothergill (1806-1879)
Date(s): 1836-1880
Level of description: Collection (Fonds)
Extent: 7 volumes
Name of creator(s): Cooke | Sir | William Fothergill | 1806-1879 | Knight | Electrical engineer


Administrative/Biographical history:

Sir William Fothergill Cooke was born in Ealing in 1806. He was educated at Durham and Edinburgh Unviersity and then served in the Indian Army 1826-1831. Resumed his studies at Paris and Heidelberg, where he saw Professor Moncke's demonstration of the electric telegraph. He returned to England and began experiments on its application to alarm systems and railway signalling in 1836. His electrical knowledge was, however, lacking and he had almost given up his ideas on the telegraph when he met Charles Wheatstone, who had the necessary scientific knowledge and skill. The two men entered into partnership and took out a joint patent for an alarm system in May 1837. Cooke persuaded the London and Birmingham Railway Company and the Great Western Railway company to sanction experiments along their lines and he and Wheatstone further developed their telegraph, Wheatstone providing the technical expertise and Cooke the business prowess and practical knowledge. The partnership was however, an uneasy one. The issue of priority of invention came to dominate their relationship and was taken to arbitration in 1841 before Sir Marc Isambard Brunel and Professor John Frederic Daniell, who decided that Cooke and Wheatstone were equally and jointly responsible for it. However, the dispute resurfaced in 1845 and in 1846 Cooke formed the Electric Telegraph Company which bought their joint patents. Cooke was knighted in 1868, and died at Farnham, Surrey on 25 June 1879.


Scope and content/abstract:

Personal and business correpondence of William Fothergill Cooke, mostly relating to his dispute with Charles Wheatstone, together with legal documents (copies and originals) connected with the case, in 7 bound volumes. Comprising personal correspondence, mainly to Cooke's mother relating to his hopes and expectations of the telegraph. The correspondence is mainly 1836-1841 with fewer letters for 1843, 1844, 1860, 1868, 1869, 1875, 1879 and 1880. There is also correspondence with Latimer Clark both before and after Cooke's death concerning a history of British Telegraphy and a life of Sir William Fothergill Cooke. Copies of this some of this correspondence can be found in Volume VII, and these are easier to read than the extensively crossed originals; Correspondence relating to railway companies, arbitration, and creation of the Electric Telegraph Company. The correspondence also shows the causes of the breakdown of his partnership with Wheatstone, the arbitration process and subsequent agreement to purchase Wheatstone's royalties in the shares; Correspondence between Mr Robert Wilson, solicitor acting for William Fothergill Cooke, and William Richardson, solicitor acting for Professor Wheatstone, relating to the arbitration between Cooke and Wheatstone, frequently concerning sending of drafts of agreement, with amendments, and with arranging appointments for arbitrators, and witnesses for the arbitration; Papers concerned with the arbitration between Cooke and Wheatstone, including bound copies of agreements and articles referred to in the arbitration; Papers submitted to the Arbitrators, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel and John Frederic Daniell in 1841, mainly copies of evidence. They represent Cooke and Wheatstone's cases, and the Arbitrators' decision, with one later patent granted to Sir William Fothergill Cooke. There are also some poems about Autralia or the Central World and Neptune at the end of the volume; Papers concerning assignment by Wheatstone of all royalties and shares to Cooke, including extracts of letters and transfers and assignments of inventions, rights in patents and shares separating Wheatstone and Cooke's business affairs; Copies of letters, mainly from Volume I of the collection made by George Bristow of the successor firm to Wilson and Harrison with the idea of publishing them on the 50th anniversary of the first Patent for the Electric Telegraph. The Volume contains copies of three letters between Bristow and Latimer Clark, and copies of extracts of other letters. Several letters were cut out for publication in 1893. There are also some notes made by a clerk at Bristow's concerning the other original material and its whereabouts, and also references to 'The Electric Telegraph: Was It Invented by Professor Wheatstone?' in two volumes by Sir W F Cooke, 1856-1857. The copies are easier to read than the extensively crossed originals.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

Arranged into 7 volumes. Volume I is indexed and cross referenced, and the papers are annotated in blue and red, to indicate the interesting sections. Volume II is not indexed, and some letters are annotated by Latimer Clark. Volumes V, VI and VII are not originally numbered.

Conditions governing access:


Conditions governing reproduction:

Refer to IET Archivist

Finding aids:

Online item level catalogue

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Collection bound and presented to the IEE Archives by Josiah Latimer Clark in 1890 and 1891.

Allied Materials

Related material:

IET Archives collections SC MSS 010, 015, 123, 128, and 167B.

Associated material held at The National Archives, Kew.

Publication note:

Description Notes

Archivist's note:

Rules or conventions:
General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal Place and Corporate Names 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:

4 March 2009

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