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Sir William Fothergill Cooke (1802-1879)

Sir William Fothergill Cooke

William Cooke created the first working telegraph in Britain, and invented the five-needle telegraph system with his partner Charles Wheatstone.

Cooke was no engineer and after eight years of military service with the East India Company, he left to study anatomy.

While attending a lecture in Heidelberg, he witnessed a demonstration of Schilling's needle telegraph, which proved to be inspirational. He was impressed by the power of electricity and what it could do for the telegraph, resolving to build a new career out of it.

Cooke had the vision that would revolutionise communications using the telegraph, but had little technical ability, so he joined forces with Charles Wheatstone, who had the engineering knowledge to back up and realise his dreams. Together they patented their first system in 1837, and after initial demonstrations, installed a telegraph on the Great Western Railway, between Slough and Paddington stations.

He was knighted in 1869, for his services to telegraphy. Tragically he had by then developed financial problems and, although he had once earned a fortune, he died almost penniless.