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


In the early days of practical telegraphy, two visions of telegraphy co-existed. The first, championed by Cooke, was based on the relatively simple one- or two-needle instrument that required skilled operators for its operation. The second, advocated by Wheatstone, was based on the more complex but also more user-friendly dial instrument that could be operated by any literate person.

The Hatchment Dial, patented in 1837, offered direct read capability but it was a tentative device. In contrast, the dial telegraph produced by Wheatstone in 1840 was an operational instrument for use in the domestic or private sphere. However, some of its features were also incorporated in Cooke’s needle telegraph, which raised questions about ownership. Cooke’s desire to protect his standing in a society where the reputation of inventors was critical, and his reluctance to share the profits of a commercial venture which he believed should be entirely his own, resulted in years of frustrating negotiations between Cooke and Wheatstone. Eventually, in 1845 Cooke took full ownership of the joint patent of 1840, which included the dial telegraph that was based on Wheatstone’s innovative step-by-step technology. Cooke’s lack of interest in that technology, however, stopped its further development, and in effect stifled Wheatstone’s vision of a domestic telegraph. It would be another twelve years before Wheatstone resumed work on the technology and produced ultimately the ABC instrument – a dial telegraph that marked a milestone in the history of communication.


Editor’s note

This article was joint winner of the Science Museum Group Journal writing prize, 2016/17.


All photographs are reproduced with the kind permission of the Science Museum London.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170804/005