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


This paper explores the early development of practical electric telegraphy in Britain during the nineteenth century. It exposes the two fundamentally different approaches to the design of telegraphic instruments specified in a joint patent between William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone in 1840. Cooke’s design was a relatively simple needle instrument that required skilled operators to transcode and transcribe the telegraphic despatches. Wheatstone’s design, on the other hand, relied on an innovative step-by-step (escapement) technology which was at the heart of a user-friendly, albeit more complex dial instrument that could be operated by any literate person. The deteriorating relationship between the two men during this period had a detrimental impact on the development of telegraphy. To prevent Wheatstone benefiting from the commercial venture that came to be known as the Electric Telegraph Company, which Cooke believed should be entirely his own, in 1845 Cooke acquired the full rights to the joint patent and subsequently ignored Wheatstone’s design, stifling in the process the development of the promising step-by-step technology. It would be another twelve years before Wheatstone resumed work on this technology and produced ultimately the ABC instrument – a dial telegraph that marked a milestone in the history of communication.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170804/001