The members Keighley astronomical society who attended the June monthly meeting learnt about Thomas Cooke. The man from East Yorkshire who by the end of his life, in 1868, he had put Britain at the forefront of optical engineering in Europe.
The guest speaker was Mr Martin Lunn OBE, FRAS. Who researched the life and work of Cooke whilst he was the resident astronomer at the Yorkshire museum.
Thomas Cooke was born in Allerthorpe near Pocklington in East Yorkshire in 1807.
The son of a shoemaker, he originally dreamt of going to sea and of being a ship’s navigator but his mother persuaded him it would be too dangerous.
Instead Thomas Cooke became first a teacher of mathematics and later, when he was 30, he set up a workshop in York, making scientific instruments, using a £100 loan from his wife’s uncle.
Thomas Cooke is best known for his astronomical telescopes, which were some of the biggest made in Britain in the 19th century.
He established a manufacturing base in York, and continued to grow the company and its reputation throughout the 19th Century. It struggled after the second world war and was taken over by the Vickers company.
Thomas Cooke was one of the first persons to own and operate a mechanically propelled vehicle on the roads of East Yorkshire. Steam driven of course.
The largest telescope he made was the 25 inch “ Newall “ refractor. Its main lens was over 2 feet in diameter and it was made for Robert Sterling Newall, a rich industrialist based in Northumberland.
The telescope was later moved to Cambridge University and in 1959 to its current home, the Mt. Penteli observatory in Greece.
His reputation established as an instrument maker of genius, Cooke made many other telescopes, including one for the Royal Observatory at Greenwich and one for Prince Albert.
A Cooke telescope is still in use at the Carter Observatory, the national observatory of New Zealand.
In his lifetime, Thomas Cooke helped to bring Britain back to the forefront in optical manufacturing, an area in which German and French firms had begun to take over. His firm built telescopes of outstanding quality that were used in many professional and private observatories and which underpinned important astronomical work. His contribution to Victorian science is certainly worthy celebrating.