Thomas Cooke (1807-1868)
by Dorothy Nott
“one of the greatest telescope makers of all time.”
The early life of Thomas Cooke (1807-68) is not well documented. What is known is that he was born in Allerthorpe, a small village to the east of York, the son of a shoemaker. Destined by his parents to follow in the family trade, Cooke had other ideas, supplementing his two years of formal education by studying optics. His ambition was to follow his hero, Captain James Cook, by joining the navy until his mother, concerned for his safety, suggested a different career path on land. By the age of 17, Cooke was busy teaching the sons of neighbouring farmers, before, within a year, he set up his own school firstly in Bielby and then in Skirpenbeck, both villages near Pocklington, East Yorkshire. It was here that he met his wife, Hannah Milner. Cooke then moved to York where he taught mathematics in a school run by the Reverend John Shackley while continuing his studies into optical instruments. It was not long before he made his first, achromatic, lens designed to limit the effects of chromatic and spherical aberration, using the thick bottom of a glass tumbler.
Thanks to a loan of £100 from his wife’s uncle, Cooke first opened up for business in 1837 at 50 (now 18) Stonegate where he manufactured reflecting and refracting telescopes and sold a wide range of instruments. As Jim Matthew observed in ‘Science and Technology in York 1831-1981’ Cooke possessed the great advantage of being not only an optician but also a mechanical engineer of no ordinary ability, a fortunate combination which he was able to exploit. Members of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society (YPS) were quick to recognise his talents and it is believed that John Phillips placed the first order for a Cooke telescope. Phillips continued to support Cooke, describing his achromatic objective of 6.25 inches aperture as “the work of our excellent artist, Cooke, which is driven equatorially by a very equable clock movement.” Other early customers included William Gray, York solicitor and secretary to the Society between 1827 and 1837, and who supported Cooke both financially and with advice. Both Phillips and Gray were to remain important to Cooke in the development of his business.
Cooke soon became involved in the development of the observatory in York Museum Gardens. Although Dr Pearson had donated his instruments to the observatory in 1831 on the occasion of the first meeting in York of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), it was acknowledged that “some considerable improvement is desirable in respect of the mounting of the telescope and a larger transit instrument”. Happily, YPS received a legacy of £10000 from the late Dr Stephen Beckwith, just in time to fund preparations for the meeting of the BAAS in 1844, and it was to Cooke “an ingenious artist of this city” that the society turned for an estimate for a new transit telescope “as stated in the specifications delivered in by Mr Cooke, the optician.” By 1847, the telescope was in full working order and in 1851, Cooke was elected a member of the society. Further commissions followed and thanks to Gray, more funds were made available which enabled Cooke to make the Pearson equatorial telescope “very perfect” by replacing the object glass, tube and eyepieces. In 1867, Cooke was asked to carry out further work on the Pearson telescope and duly sent in his estimate. Lack of immediate funds led to a delay of a year, and it was not until 1868 that it was reported that the “adjustment of this instrument was superintended by our own late honorary member and fellow-citizen, Mr Thomas Cooke”.
By 1855, Cooke’s business had grown substantially. His original premises in Stonegate had been superseded firstly by larger premises in Coney Street, but these were still unsatisfactory. Cooke decided to purchase a site at Duke’s Hall in Bishophill where, once again with Gray’s help, he built the Buckingham Works, the first telescope factory in England. Here he was joined by his two sons Frederick, and Thomas. In the same year, he exhibited at the Paris Universal Exhibition, winning the first of many awards, a first class medal for his clock-driven equatorial telescope with a 7.5inch aperture. The earliest English optician to use factory methods, Cooke was wide-ranging in his expertise, casting the brass for his instruments and making his own machine tools. His business continued to expand and his work came to the attention of Prince Albert for whom he manufactured and installed a telescope at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.
Cooke was also a very competent horologist, turning his attention to large turret clocks, including one for the Great Industrial Exhibition in London in 1862. Probably his most advanced invention was the steam powered car which he demonstrated at the York Exhibition of 1866. His enthusiasm for this form of transport, however, was dampened by the extremely slow speed limits and the requirement to be preceded by a man carrying a red flag. Instead, the engine was recycled for use on a boat. By this time Cooke was involved in frequent travelling, attending exhibitions at home and abroad and setting up his telescopes, leaving the works in the hands of his sons and it is thought that Frederick, whose interest was in mechanical engineering had more than a small part in the development of the steam car. Possibly as a result of the spread of his sales, Cooke rented shop premises in London from 1863 until 1869. In recognition of his pioneering work, Cooke was elected Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1859, serving on the committee between 1865 and 1866. It was also in 1866 that he was made an Honorary Member of YPS.
The glass discs which Cooke used in his factory were manufactured by Chance Brothers of the West Midlands and it was as a result of seeing and buying two of their huge optical glass discs at the 1862 International Exhibition that Cooke received a commission from Gateshead businessman, Robert Newall. This was Cooke’s most ambitious project and required him to build a 25inch refracting telescope, far greater in size than in the observatory in Greenwich. The project took seven years and sadly Cooke died shortly before its completion. He was only 61. When finished, the Newall telescope was for a short time the largest in the world. Sadly, too, Cooke, in his attempt to undercut his competitor, Thomas Grubb of Dublin, had vastly underestimated both the cost and the length of time this commission would take, initially citing one year and he soon found himself in difficulties. Newall became increasingly impatient with Cooke and even installed a supervisor in the works to ensure that progress was being made. Relations between Cooke and Newall continued to deteriorate, Cooke begging for instalment payments to meet his wages bill, as regular income from other work was put on hold. At the same time, Cooke was struggling to complete another commission arising from the 1862 Exhibition, namely work for the India Office, including an order for sixteen theodolites of varying sizes. On Newall’s death the telescope was firstly moved to the Cambridge University Observatory where Newall’s son became Professor of Astrophysics, before moving on to the Greek National Observatory in Athens.
By the time of Cooke’s death in October 1868, the firm was on the brink of liquidation, saved only by Sir James Meek, who sold it on to James Wigglesworth, a close friend of Thomas Cooke. Wigglesworth entered into partnership with Frederick and Thomas Cooke junior and the business survived. Cooke’s replaced Troughton and Simms − with whom T. Cooke and Sons would later amalgamate − as the suppliers for the primary survey of India and went on to supply the theodolite for construction of the Forth Bridge. Frederick also developed a special lightweight construction for observatory domes, used as far afield as Brussels, Rio de Janeiro, Madras, Odessa and Sofia.
In spite of the change in arrangements and continued diversification, the business continued to experience financial difficulties. In the 1890s the bank refused to increase overdraft facilities to allow for further expansion while the wages bill was becoming more and more onerous, reflecting a more general gloom within British industry. Nevertheless, the Buckingham works continued to grow, earning praise from the journal Engineering, which referred to Cooke’s as precision engineers “par excellence”. In 1895, London premises were again sought just as developments were being made in the fields of optical munitions, railway signalling and pneumatic dispatch systems. Frederick Cooke retired in 1894 in favour of Alfred Taylor and the business became a limited liability company. The following year Dennis Taylor (no relation) acquired a seat on the board. He had already served as the optical manager and had been involved with the company since 1883 during which time he developed photographic equipment, subsequently winning multiple plaudits for his inventions.
The twentieth century saw the opening of an office in Canada, surveying equipment for the United States coastal survey and South America as well as India while the celebrity status of Captain Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-13 reflected well on the firm’s expertise. The advent of war led to increased manufacturing capacity, but even this did not resolve financial issues and in 1915 Vickers acquired a 70% holding. In the same year Dennis Taylor and Thomas Cooke junior retired with Edward Wilfred Taylor (Dennis’ son), taking on a more prominent role on his return from the First World War. Edward Taylor was a well-respected member of YPS and Honorary vice-president from 1929-32. He, too, had a distinguished career and was elected to the Royal Society in 1952 as well as obtaining honorary doctorates from the universities of Leeds and York.
The involvement of Thomas Cooke’s sons was not the only family association within the firm. Cooke’s daughter, Emma Louise, married Edward Cox-Walker. After working as a junior operator with the Electric Telegraph Company in York from the age of fourteen, Cox-Walker had been appointed telegraph superintendent with the West Hartlepool Harbour and Railway Company before moving to York as manager at Cooke’s in 1868, where he remained until 1880. Cox-Walker is probably better known for his association with the Reverend Henry Hunnings who patented his own telephone carbon granule transmitter device in firstly the UK and then the US. Cox-Walker took up the challenge to transform Hunnings’ patent to a commercial product at the factory he established in Darlington. During his time in York he presented a paper on Bell’s telephone, demonstrating its use to members of YPS in 1878. He subsequently became one of the first members of the Institute of Electrical Engineers.
In 1920 T. Cooke acquired shares in their competitors, Troughton and Simms, which were exchanged with Vickers in consideration of their £39000 loan before a buy-out of Troughton and Simms in 1922, when their business was transferred to York. Eventually, after voluntary liquidation, the business of Cooke, Troughton and Simms was bought out by Vickers in 1924. By 1939, the Buckingham works had become too small and a plot of land was purchased in Haxby Road, York (known as the Kingsway North premises to obscure their whereabouts during the Second World War). The Buckingham Works remained empty until 1948 when they were sold off. Work continued at the Haxby Road premises until competition from international competitors saw their sale in 1988.
Thomas Cooke was a man of extraordinary skill and vision and all the more so, given his very slight formal education. On his death, The Athenaeum commented that his science and skill had “restored to England the pre-eminent position she held half a century ago in the time of Dollond” and that “his mathematical attainments and large scientific mind insured the admiration and respect of all who knew him, and as an artist he has never been excelled.” The 1868 YPS Report marked his relatively early death with regret, expressing the view that these sentiments would be shared by “all lovers of Astronomy”. The museum blog of the Greenwich Royal Observatory confirms his position as the scientist who “helped to bring Britain back to the forefront in optical manufacturing”, and although relatively unknown today, comments “his is an inspiring story”.
Cooke and his firm received many unsolicited expressions of appreciation from all round the world. In Palestine, his instrument “though at times smothered in fine dust and sand” always “worked smoothly and was perfectly clean inside”, while in Columbia, referring to the Tavistock Theodolite, “the man carrying the instrument got caught in the floods and the case containing the transit was about a third filled with water during one entire day. No apparent damage resulted from this immersion and work was continued without dismantling the machine, almost before the superficial drying was completed. Every morning for months on end the insides of the instrument case, like every other article in camp, was found to be festooned with mildew fungus-yet up to the last field day, March 20th 1937, no change, dimming or obstruction appeared in the microscopes or telescopes.” The correspondent to the Railway Engineer “had nothing but praise” for his theodolite which he considered to be “the finest instrument [he had] ever met.
Cooke is still remembered with affection in his birthplace of Allerthorpe, where a blue plaque in his honour was unveiled on the village hall by Professor Jocelyn Bell-Burnell in 2009. A second blue plaque is planned for the Observatory in York Museums gardens by YPS in conjunction with York Civic Trust and York Museums Trust.
Cooke Troughton and Simms, The History Achievements and Products of Cooke Troughton and Simms Ltd., York and London (Sessions Book Trust Collection, York (?)2002).
Breck, A. and Matthew, J. ‘Thomas Cooke and the Yorkshire Philosophical Society: from Artisan to Honorary Member’ in Yorkshire Philosophical Society, Annual Report, 1996, 45-55
King, Henry C. The History of the Telescope (New York, 1955).
Lambert, B. and O’Gram, C. Allerthorpe and Waplington 400BC-2000AD (Market Weighton, 2000).
McConnell, A. Instrument Makers to the World: a History of Cooke Troughton and Simms (Sessions, York, 1992).
Matthew, J. ‘Science and Technology in York 1831-1981’ in York 1831-1931: 150 Years of Scientific Endeavour and Social Change (ed.). Feinstein, C. (Sessions, York, 1981).
Taylor, E. Wilfred and Wilson, J.Simms At the Sign of the Orrery: the Origins of the Firm of Cooke Troughton and Simms Ltd. (York, 1958).
Newspapers, Blogs and websites
Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History accessed 26 May 2019.
Greenwich Royal Observatory Museum Blog
pocklington history.com accessed 22 May 2019.
I am indebted to Hattie Duguid for information on her great, great, great grandfather, Thomas Cooke.