Go back to article: A tale of two telegraphs: Cooke and Wheatstone’s differing visions of electric telegraphy

A bittersweet victory

Just as this project was beginning to bear fruit, however, Cooke saw the press deny him recognition for his role in the invention of the electric telegraph. On 16 October 1840, for instance, the following article was published in The Times:

Professor Wheatstone, the inventor of the electrical telegraph which is now at work on the Great Western Railway, is at present in Brussels, where he has been trying the new improvements he has introduced in his apparatus. Mr Wheatstone has succeeded in so simplifying his apparatus that he has reduced the number of wires employed to two.

On first reading of the initial sentence, the reader might be forgiven for inferring that Wheatstone should be solely credited for inventing the electric telegraph. On closer inspection, however, it is clear that the second sentence referred to Wheatstone’s escapement or dial telegraph, not Cooke’s needle telegraph. Perhaps the difference between the two instruments had eluded the writer of this article. Perhaps also, the writer chose to emphasise the role of Wheatstone who, as professor of experimental philosophy at King’s College and a Fellow of the Royal Society, made the story more credible or more appealing to readers. Nonetheless, similar misrepresentations had occurred before. A few months earlier, for example, Wheatstone had been questioned on the subject of telegraphy during a session of the Select Committee on Railway Communication. The report shows that although Cooke’s contribution was acknowledged to a lesser degree, it was Wheatstone and ‘his inventions’ that took centre stage in the committee’s report. According to Cooke, but also reported in the Morning Chronicle dated 9 July 1840, he was waiting at the door of the committee room but was never called in for questioning (Cooke, 1857, p 37). Wheatstone’s public statements, Cooke believed, were delivered in a disingenuous manner by intentionally omitting his contribution to the electric telegraph. To the judgemental Cooke, this was unacceptable.

Wheatstone was correct in describing this escapement or dial ‘apparatus’ as his own, but Cooke took the position that his own mechanical instrument was at the origin of Wheatstone’s device – even though the two technologies were fundamentally different. Wheatstone rejected these accusations in a letter to Cooke – a letter in which, in a rare display of bitterness on his part, he reminded Cooke that, first, he never had the intention to ‘give up his right to call his own discoveries and inventions his own’, and, second, that Cooke’s instruments were tentative prototypes, while his instruments had demonstrated their practicality from the very beginning (Wheatstone, 1855, p 65). Indeed, Cooke was a businessman and an inventor, but he had little understanding of Ohm’s Law and of the significance of electrical resistance in metallic wires.[9] In contrast, Wheatstone was a man of science, well-versed in matters of electricity.[10] Cooke had also perhaps forgotten that his own mechanical arrangements were never practical, and might never have been operational without the scientific insight of Wheatstone, as evidenced by a letter he wrote to his mother in February 1837.[11] Cooke’s accusations do not appear to have been financially motivated. Both men had, after all, agreed to a joint patent. However unfounded they may have been, such allegations are likely to have had another motivation: inventors in Victorian days were as much concerned about reputation and social standing, as with intellectual property ownership. As Stathis Arapostathis and Graeme Gooday wrote, contestation of ownership of an invention in the nineteenth century was not limited to law courts, but was also covered in the public press to ensure a wider recognition (Arapostathis and Gooday, 2013, p 207).[12] Such inventors, said Ben Marsden and Crosbie Smith, were also ‘adept at fashioning an image of themselves’ (Marsden and Smith, 2007, p 242). This may also have been the case here, which would explain why Cooke was intent on pursuing this matter through arbitration.

To resolve the impasse, the two parties agreed to defer to an arbitration panel. The arbitrator chosen by Cooke was Marc Isambard Brunel, the French-born engineer builder of the Thames Tunnel and father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel FRS, perhaps best known as chief engineer for the Great Western Railway. Wheatstone, for his part, nominated Professor Daniell, a colleague from King’s College perhaps best known for his invention of an efficient battery after his name, the Daniell Cell. It took five months for the arbitrators to come up with a mutual agreement on the matter, and on 27 April 1841, Brunel and Daniell made their award.

Whilst Mr. Cooke is entitled to stand alone, as the gentleman to whom this country is indebted for having practically introduced and carried out the Electric Telegraph as a useful undertaking, promising to be a work of national importance; and Professor Wheatstone is acknowledged as the scientific man, whose profound and successful researches had already prepared the public to receive it as a project capable of practical application; it is to the united labours of two gentlemen so well qualified for mutual assistance, that we must attribute the rapid progress which this important invention has made during the five years since they have been associated (Cooke, 1857, p 16).

Initially, Wheatstone accepted the wording of this statement, giving Cooke priority over the invention, at least on the face of it. Was Wheatstone satisfied for being given the role of the scientist behind the endeavour? Brian Bowers, who produced a biography of Wheatstone, wrote that Wheatstone’s consent can be explained by his wish to ‘continue his researches in peace’ (Bowers, 2001, p 147). However, what happened next makes it more likely that the wording did not reflect the spirit of the agreement and was subject to interpretation. When Cooke’s solicitor wrote a letter asserting that on the basis of this award, ‘Mr. Cooke was in the right, and Mr. Wheatstone in the wrong’, Wheatstone immediately asked Daniell for clarification (Wheatstone, 1855, p 31). Daniell’s response on 24 May 1843 is extraordinary as it implies that Wheatstone had not been deeply implicated in the arbitration proceedings and had relied on his colleague and friend to defend his interests. Daniell responded that, due to time and budgetary considerations, the arbitration did not result in an award but in a ‘statement of fact’.[13] He also confirmed that this was not a statement about the originality of the inventions on either side, but about the commercial positioning of the parties, for Wheatstone had agreed that Cooke was ‘entitled to stand alone, with the assent of the arbitrators, for conceiving, and energetically following up his conception, that the electric telegraph might be made a profitable commercial enterprise, and for his having carried out an undertaking of such great importance to the public’ (Wheatstone, 1855, p 30). Thus, as a result of the lack of clarity of the arbitration’s result, the ‘statement of fact’ could be interpreted in different ways.

Fortunately for Wheatstone, the two parties had also concluded a separate agreement. This much less publicised ancillary agreement was attached to the main award and was considered by Wheatstone as the substance of the award. It specified his ‘separate privileges’, which included:

The right of putting before the public, as his own, the inventions described on the 1st, 2nd and 4th drawings of the specification of the patent of 1840.[14]

Cooke attempted to rescind such privileges, proposing that in return for a compensation of £1,000 out of future proceeds both names appeared on all the patented instruments. Wheatstone rejected this proposal at first but eventually, in 1843, he entered into a new agreement with Cooke. In this agreement, Wheatstone’s share of the joint patents was assigned to Cooke in exchange for royalty payments calculated on a pro rata of the length of telegraph lines (£20 per mile for the first ten miles, reduced progressively to £15 per mile beyond fifty miles). Wheatstone remained entitled to use existing and future patents, and was allowed to build and operate, free of royalty and for his own separate benefit the patented devices, but only on private ground and on telegraph lines not exceeding half a mile in distance (Cooke, 1857, pp 7, 42, 94).[15] Although this new agreement would have allowed him to develop further his business interest with the railway companies, Cooke was not fully satisfied because a significant share of his profits was going to Wheatstone, and perhaps more importantly, this would be a de facto acknowledgement of Wheatstone’s contribution to the design of his own needle telegraph – the one he intended to sell to the railways. As a result, in 1845 he offered a new deal to Wheatstone: Wheatstone would sell his rights to the royalties agreed in 1843 in return for a one-off payment of £30,000. This offer was accepted by Wheatstone, and Cooke finally assumed full ownership of Wheatstone’s electro-magnetic improvements for his needle telegraph.

Kieve’s narrative aptly addresses the resentment felt by Cooke during his dispute with Wheatstone, and Cooke’s desire to pursue on his own the business opportunities presented by the joint patent filed in 1840 (Kieve, 1973, pp 40–43). Nonetheless, he overlooked the impact this dispute had on the development of the telegraph technology: as a result of the 1845 agreement, Cooke was free of interference from Wheatstone, and was able to pursue the business of telegraphy through an exclusive arrangement with the Electric Telegraph Company.[16] Cooke was now the owner of both Wheatstone’s improvements to the needle instrument, as well as his dial telegraph. However, he concentrated his efforts on the needle instrument and relegated the step-by-step technology to a dusty shelf. This technology would have remained on that shelf if not for the emergence of a need for a domestic instrument some twelve years later (1857), triggered by a telegraphy project undertaken by the firm Waterlow & Sons, the London-based printers, lithographers and stationers.[17] By then the terms of the joint patent of 1840 had expired, leaving Wheatstone free to develop further the step-by-step technology. In 1858, Wheatstone filed a patent which described the first model of the ABC instrument – a much improved dial telegraph that was based on the step-by-step technology that featured in the joint patent of 1840.[18] It combined the transmitter, receiver and alarm into one case that also contained a magneto-electric generator and therefore did not need a separate battery for its operation (Wheatstone, 1858). The design of the ABC instrument was further improved two years later (Wheatstone, 1860). The model shown below was manufactured from 1863, and was in use until the 1930s.[19]

Figure 4

Colour photograph of Charles Wheatstone’s ABC instrument from 1860 which combined the Communicator and Indicator into a single instrument. This instrument is stamped General Post Office

Charles Wheatstone’s ABC instrument, based on the 1860 specification (Patent No. 2462) and further improved c. 1865. It combined the Communicator and Indicator into a single instrument, together with a magneto-electric generator to avoid battery operation. This instrument is stamped ‘General Post Office’.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170804/004