William Fothergill Cooke - Cooke's Initial Telegraph Development With Wheatstone (1837-1839)

Cooke's Initial Telegraph Development With Wheatstone (1837-1839)

Not long after settling back in London, did Cooke have his first telegraph instrument constructed with the assistance of Frederick Kerby of St. Pancras district, London - and Moore of Clerkenwell. However, after painstakingly stringing over a mile of wire round and round the office of Burton Lane, Cooke's friend and solicitor, Cooke came to quickly realize that getting a telegraph signal to extend beyond one mile remained a very real obstacle.

The dilemma of sending telegraph signals over longer distances prompted Cooke to seek out outside assistance, which came through introductions to Michael Faraday and Peter Mark Roget. Through Faraday and Roget, Cooke was introduced to Charles Wheatstone, who prior, in 1834, had already presented to the Royal Society an account of his experiments on the velocity of electricity. Cooke had already constructed a system of telegraphing with three needles based on Schilling's principle, and made designs for a mechanical alarm, the latter which some examples are found drawn and recorded in Cooke's journal (Codex Lipack). Cooke had also made some progress in negotiating with the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Company for the use of his telegraphs. Cooke and Wheatstone went into partnership in May 1837 ; Cooke would handle the business side.

In a holograph letter dated October 5, 1837, from Sir Francis Beaufort (1774–1857), the Irish born hydrographer to Great Britain's Royal Navy and ultimately Rear Admiral and Knight Commander, wrote to Sir Benjamin Hawes (1797–1862), of the English Parliament. The letter thanked him for the invitation to the demonstration and "experiment" of the "electric telegraph" that he regrettably had to decline because of his ongoing pressing work at sea. This first experimental telegraph demonstration took place on the London and Birmingham Railway line, established by George Stephenson, who had introduced Cooke to his son, the legendary Robert Stephenson, its engineer.

Cooke had solicited the company on 27 June 1837, some two weeks after Cooke and Wheatstone had been granted their first telegraph patent and came to work-out installing a trial system on the Stephenson line . Cooke and Wheatstone's very first telegraph was tested on July 4, 1837, nestled in a newly-erected carriage shed of the London and Birmingham Railway at Camden Town in north London. This trial William F. Cooke mounted at his own risk, and its primary objective was to demonstrate the utility of the electric telegraph in providing safe railway system signaling, electronically.

A second trial installation by Cooke was mounted commencing on 17 July 1837, with a temporary four-wire line strung between Euston Square and the Camden Town stationary engine house. The actual demonstration before the London and Birmingham Railway company directors followed on 25 July 1837 . Eventually, a more permanent line was run, with insulated wires buried underground; its completion occurring by 31 August 1837. The trial for this first near-permanent line took place on 6 September 1837, lasting one hour. Although said to be thought of as the first commercial electric telegraph line in the world, it would be the London and Blackwall Railway line in July 1840 that would come to garner that distinction. However, it is significant to note that Sir Francis Beaufort's 5 October 1837 letter to Benjamin Hawes refers to this first near-permanent telegraph installation of the Euston Square to Camden Town system - as an "experiment" and "one of the most striking novelties of this inventive age." Sir Francis Beaufort's words mark the swell of enthusiasm held by many at the time surrounding the great ushering in of the telegraph 'phenomenon,' which at the time was still regarded as a mere novelty. There were even parlor games based on the older mechanical signal telegraph still being used as entertainment at this time in many English and French homes of the day.

Accompanying this discussion is an illustration of the cover of William Fothergill Cooke's journal and the page revealing the final system "Orders" handwritten by Cooke to his "mechanician" Frederick A. Kerby, in the days before the opening of the London and Blackwall Railway telegraph installation. Below the written orders to Cooke's machinist, a detailed drawing of a telegraph control lever is shown on the page as well. Specific dates entered on this page of the journal are for the first week of July, 1840. This page represents one of several 'sketches' by Cooke found in his journal that depict the London and Blackwall Railway installation. The telegraph builder's drawings found in the Codex Lipack are for some of the actual artifacts that today comprise part of the collection of telegraph apparatus in the Science Museum (London), and other museums.

Although Cooke had demonstrated the positive utility of the Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph to railway directors of the London and Birmingham Railway, and to Stephenson, it was deemed too unnecessarily complicated. Enthusiasm for Cooke's telegraph initiative between Euston Square and Camden Town waned, as much more monies were needed to be earmarked to lay track between Liverpool, Manchester and Holyhead, where there was none. Laying telegraph to these points was not an immediate priority for the railway's board. Thus Cooke received a letter from the company dated 12 October 1837, expressing no further interest to pursue any use of the electric telegraph as viable.

Hawes was an early proponent of the electric telegraph and had attended these trials, and was pitching for Cooke all along. Hawes is claimed to have made the first arrangement for the partnership between Sir William Fothergill Cooke and Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1837, although other sources claim such introductions were made through Peter Mark Roget, examiner in physiology in the University of London. Benjamin Hawes was husband to Sophia Macnamara Brunel (1802–1878); daughter of the famous engineer Marc Isambard Brunel and sister to Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It was the latter who founded the Great Western Railway in 1835 and who would eventually lay the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable using the Great Eastern, the celebrated steamship Brunel would come to build later, in the 1850s. I. K. Brunel was the company engineer for the Great Western Railway, while Stephenson was the engineer for the London and Birmingham Railway.

When the London and Birmingham Railway declined the use of Cooke's telegraph, there is one account that exists that claims Cooke had been introduced to Brunel by Robert Stephenson. However, the recent discovery of the letter extant, described herein by Francis Beaufort, dated 5 October 1837 and written to Sir Benjamin Hawes, clearly shows that Benjamin Hawes had attended the last trial demonstration between Euston Square and Camden Town of the Cooke telegraph along Stephenson's London and Birmingham Railway line. This letter bears more weight towards confirming that Hawes was the one who introduced Cooke to Brunel, especially when one reads the letter Cooke himself wrote Hawes wife Sophia on May 30, 1838 about the propitious meetings he had with her brother Brunel and the agreement ultimately that would lead to the instance of the Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph system installation on the Great Western Railway, and then subsequently, what would become known as the London and Blackwall Railway.

The sudden about face rejection by the London and Birmingham Railway and the ultimate signed agreement between Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Cooke to allow for Cooke to set-up shop along Brunel's Great Western Railway is revealed in this extant letter dated 30 May 1838, written by Cooke to Mrs. Sophia Macnamara Brunel Hawes. In this letter, Cooke excitedly writes:

"... and to announce that this very day my long pending engagement is satisfied with the Great Western Railway Co. and that I have the proud gratification of having myself employed under your brother "Brunel the Second"! Rather more than ordinary worry precluded the final arrangements during which time I walked with my hands in my pockets, up and down, or for more exercise from an angle to angle of a room eight feet nine inches and seven sixteenths square. All is happily and satisfactorily concluded now. The more I see of Mr. Brunel increases my satisfaction in bringing forward the E. M. Telegraph under his auspices. I am now so thoroughly engaged that I shall excuse myself delivering the letter say till next week. I know Mr. {Benjamin] Hawes will congratulate me on the termination of six month's sustenance!"

The cramped living quarters that Cooke was holed-up in is clearly spelled out in his candid letter to Mrs. Hawes. How much stress Cooke endured over the anxieties that surmounted him towards fulfilling his goal of the electric telegraph, and the expression of relief he gained once he knew he had successfully completed the negotiations to install his telegraph - are all expressed both succinctly and exuberantly in his historic 30 May 1838 letter to Mrs. Hawes! The fact that Cooke knew his room's size down to "seven sixteenths" of an inch, is also truly remarkable. This alone accounts for the epitome of great precision Cooke dedicated to all of his tasks.

Cooke now tested the invention on the Great Western Railway after engaging in an agreement with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, which he wrote about to Brunel's sister Mrs. Hawes on 30 May 1838.

This business engagement between Cooke and Brunel successively allowed the use of the Great Western Railway lines for further needed experimental trials with telegraph equipments that Cooke was developing now mainly with Frederick Kerby, his "mechanician." Cooke would later refer to Kerby in this manner during the arbitration proceedings between himself and Wheatstone in the early 1840s. A five needle model of telegraph first constructed during the initial telegraph trials between the London and Birmingham Railway was given up as too expensive. Thus, in 1838, an improvement reduced the number of needles to two, and a patent for this was taken out by Cooke and Wheatstone.

Nearly fourteen months following the May 1838 agreement signed between Cooke and Brunel, and after extensive tests and installations, the telegraph system for the Great Western Railway commenced operations on 9 July 1839. At a cost of £2,817, the line traversed a thirteen mile stretch connecting the Paddington with the West Drayton station. This was part of the London-Paddington to Bristol line of the Great Western Railway and intended for use solely for the internal functions of the railway, and was still experimental. The technology was not to be used for transmittal of messages by the public.

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