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The Cooke drawings of the First Transatlantic Telegraph 1858

E.W. Cooke RA FRS

Within the IET Archives’ Special Collections there are a series of drawings and sketches by the artist E.W. Cooke RA FRS. 

Whilst there is information to be found on the artist there is little information about his involvement with the expedition on the occasion of laying the first Atlantic Telegraph Cable in 1858.

Edward William Cooke (1811-1880) born in London, was the son of the famous engraver George Cooke. From an early age Cooke demonstrated his artistic ability with botanical drawings and by the age of nine illustrated an encyclopaedia of plants. Utilising his knowledge of the Thames he produced a portfolio in 1829 of shipping views which portrayed his skill in accurately depicting ships and rigging. As his fame grew he turned to oil painting and travelled across Europe and North Africa.

The Cooke collection 

Despite the subject of Cooke’s drawings being of interest to the IET, it is a link with his son that insured that the collection was donated here.

A letter preserved with the drawings dated June 1915 is addressed to Mr Rowell (IEE Secretary) from Conrad W. Cooke. Conrad Cooke became a Member of the Institution in 1878 and his interest in electrical engineering is connected with the invention of the Gramme dynamo in 1870.

C.W. Cooke recognised its importance and introduced and made the machine in England. His interests in electricity remained and he became a respected consultant and author.

In July 1915 Conrad Cooke presented the collection of sketches by his late father to the Institution. His letter states that E.W. Cooke made the drawings whilst onboard HMS Agamemnon where they took half the cable from Valentia, Ireland, and met the USA Ship Niagara mid-ocean where the two portions were spliced. 

He notes that his father made a series of 50 sketches in pencil which are beautiful and characteristic of his work. At the end of the letter, he adds that he hopes the Institution likes them as a record of a great historical electrical event of absolute accuracy.

The drawings

The sketches range from detailed observations of the masts, rigging and intricate parts of the deck to long-distance views on the horizon.

A Donkey Engine on board the Cyclops illustrates the apparatus used for deep-sea sounding. 

The drawings of the cable on board deck are interesting to see the huge scale of the undertaking while a cross-section of the Niagara at a scale of one-twelfth of an inch to one foot show the vast dimensions of the equipment involved. 

A Donkey Engine on board the Cyclops

A Donkey Engine on board the Cyclops

A letter to Sir William Siemens from Cook in 1878 reveals the memory of the event still fresh in his mind when he wrote, “Sir Wm. will not forget when we were on board the Agamemnon- encountering the enormous groundswell in the Atlantic…the fearful way we rolled having 400 tons of cable on our Upper Deck!!!”

Aside from the accurate nautical details, there are several human touches that remind the researcher that ordinary people were involved with the expedition as well as the great engineers of the day. There are drawings of people setting up camp with a small kettle in the background boiling water over an open fire for their tea! A scene inside a tent on shore in Valentia shows men working with telegraph equipment, while a woman watches from behind. Again the human element is captured with one of the men sitting on a make-shift seat made from two of the equipment chests.

Sketch of people setting up camp ashore

Sketch of people setting up camp ashore

A sketch entitled “Haycocks” (see below) from 5 July 1858 shows boys and girls at play. A key provides the names of the children which included a young Conrad Cooke and Prince Alfred along with the artist enjoying himself too. 

Cooke’s sketch of his cabin onboard HMS Agamemnon depicts a small wooden room with a simple bunk and blanket. A fold-down table with a candle shows his small workspace and coat and hat on a hook with a mirror to the side affords intimate details of life onboard a long sea journey.

The collection of drawings and sketches are a fine example of E.W. Cooke’s work and his attention to detail are indicative of his accuracy and skill as a marine artist. In addition to being works of art, they are also an important contemporary record of the laying of the first Atlantic Telegraph Cable expedition of 1858. In amongst the sketches of the ships and great machinery, there are rare glimpses of human activity and personal touches that are often left undocumented in the official, political and commercial records of the day.