Sir William Fothergill Cooke was born in Ealing in 1806. He was educated at Durham and Edinburgh University and then joined the Indian Army for 5 years 1826-1831. He then resumed his studies at Paris and Heidelberg, where he saw Professor Moncke's demonstration of the electric telegraph. He returned to England and began experiments on its application to alarm systems and railway signalling.
His electrical knowledge was, however, lacking and he had almost given up his ideas on the telegraph when he met Charles Wheatstone, who had the necessary scientific knowledge and skill.
The two men entered into partnership and took out a joint patent in May 1837 for an alarm system. Cooke persuaded the London and Birmingham Railway Company and the Great Western Railway company to sanction experiments along with their lines and he and Wheatstone further developed their telegraph, Wheatstone providing the technical expertise and Cooke the business prowess and practical knowledge.
The partnership was, however, an uneasy one. The issue of priority of invention came to dominate their relationship and was taken to arbitration in 1841 before Sir Marc Isambard Brunel and Professor John Frederic Daniell, who decided that Cooke and Wheatstone were equally and jointly responsible for it.
However, the dispute resurfaced in 1845 and in 1846 Cooke formed the Electric Telegraph Company which bought their joint patents.
Cooke was knighted in 1868, a year later than Wheatstone and died on 25 June 1879 at Farnham, Surrey.