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

A fragile partnership

The partnership between Cooke and Wheatstone was a key determinant in the early development of the electric telegraph in Britain. Yet this partnership lasted for a relatively short period of time, from 1837 to 1840. In 1840, the year of their latest joint patent, a bitter dispute erupted between the two men. The dispute was as much about intellectual property rights as reputation and social standing. Despite an attempt to resolve the issue through arbitration in 1841, the conflict persisted and soured their relationship, even though they remained in contact out of business necessity, if not friendship, until Wheatstone’s death in 1875. On the face of it, Cooke came out of the arbitration proceedings in a strong position, but it would be an over-simplification to assume Wheatstone was defeated, because he subsequently managed to secure a significant financial reward in return for relinquishing his rights to their joint patent of 1840.[3] This latest agreement, in 1845, allowed Cooke to create the Electric Telegraph Company with the support of two entrepreneurs, John Lewis Ricardo, MP for Stoke and nephew of the economist David Ricardo, and George Parker Bidder, a prominent railway engineer and an associate of Robert Stephenson, the son of George Stephenson who had built the Stockton & Darlington Railway.[4]

From the start of their relationship, Cooke and Wheatstone had demonstrated two very different yet complementary approaches to telegraphy. Initially, Cooke envisioned the telegraph to be a signalling device to improve the safety of train operation – a business opportunity in the fast-growing railway industry.[5] The needle instrument was well adapted for this purpose as it was cheaper to manufacture and easy to operate as a signalling device. As far as Cooke was concerned, there was no need for the sophistication of the dial instrument. Wheatstone, on the other hand, saw in electric telegraphy a means of interpersonal communication – a vision which assumed that the instruments were domesticated and could be operated by any literate person. After gaining full control of the joint patent in 1845, Cooke ignored the dial instrument which represented Wheatstone’s vision of telegraphy and for the next twelve years, as we shall see below, the needle instrument became the mainstream technology for British telegraphy. Before exploring in more detail this conflict and its aftermath, however, a short history of the technology described in the joint patent of 1840 is needed to understand the context in which these events were taking place, starting in the early days of 1837.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170804/002