Vickers Instruments

This page gives information about the Vickers Instruments archive at the Borthwick.

It gives a brief administrative history of the various companies whose records are represented in the archive and outlines the scope of the records.

Administrative history

Thomas Cooke, instrument maker

T. Cooke & Sons (1837-1922)

The scientific instrument manufacturing business of T. Cooke & Sons was founded by Thomas Cooke in York in 1837.

He was a self-taught optical engineer of great ability who from 1855 built his own factory on Bishophill, York, producing a great range of goods from spectacles, telescopes and surveying equipment to sundials, clocks and lathes.

On his death in 1868 his sons took over the firm which continued to expand and export goods worldwide, particularly astronomical and surveying equipment.

By the turn of the century defence products for the home market had also become an important field and in 1914 a new factory was built on Bishophill, York, to cope with war work. 

Cooke, Troughton & Simms (1922-1963) and Vickers Instruments (1963-1989)

William Simms, instrument maker

In 1915 the control of Cooke's was acquired by Vickers Ltd., the engineering firm of shipbuilding and aircraft fame, who had long had an interest in the military side of Cooke products such as rangefinders, gunsights and surveying equipment adapted to military needs.

Cooke’s continued to expand in York and in 1922 they amalgamated with the long established instrument-making firm of Troughton & Simms of London (1824-1922).

The new firm became Cooke, Troughton & Simms and in 1924 it became a wholly owned subsidiary of Vickers.

In 1939 another factory was built on a larger site in Haxby Road and during the Second World War, of the 3,300 people employed by the firm, 1,400 were women.

After the war microscopes, survey equipment and engineers' measuring instruments became the main products.

In 1963, following the acquisition of the C. Baker Ltd microscope factory, the new company of Vickers Instruments was formed.

This continued as a profitable business for many years, mainly selling microscopes, surveying instruments and micro measurement apparatus.

During the 1980s the firm’s traditional skills in optics and mechanics were enhanced by electronic and software expertise and Quaestor, a new instrument for handling microchips, was produced as well as other high precision measuring apparatus and on the defence side, laser range finders for Vickers' tanks.

Deposit of the company's archives, books and instruments

In 1989 the business was sold to Bio-Rad Micromeasurements, an American company based in California, apart from the defence products, which were acquired by British Aerospace.

Vickers decided to deposit the firm’s archives and collection of scientific instruments with the University of York.

The instruments are now on display in the Department of Physics and the archives are cared for by the Borthwick Institute for Archives. The Collection also includes a number of printed books which form a Special Collection in the University Library.

Scope of the Archives

The archives consist of the business records that have survived from T. Cooke & Sons; Troughton & Simms; Cooke, Troughton & Simms; Charles Baker; and Vickers Instruments, and are catalogued according the name of the firm who created them.

They include minute books, accounts and legal documents, as well as order books, technical notebooks, publicity material, catalogues and manuals.

There are items of historical interest from each firm. From T. Cooke & Sons not only does a copy of the Buckingham Works Factory Rule & Regulations of 1865 survive but also many deeds of properties on Bishophill, York.

There is an excellent collection of early catalogues from 1860 and photographs, mainly of instruments, from 1870 onwards. There are also early photograph albums from Troughton & Simms as well as apprenticeship indentures from 1763 onwards and Edward Troughton's patent of 1788 for a new design of sextant. Cooke, Troughton & Simms's records include files of William Connell's visits to South Africa, South America, Spain & Canada in the 1920s, wartime records of work for the government from 1940 and plans of the Haxby Road factory.

There is a large collection of photographs and glass negatives of people, instruments and views of the factory. There is an excellent collection of patent specifications classified according to type of instrument, dating back to 1850 and many papers on technical subjects, some written by employees of the firm.

Bound collections of Vickers News shed light on the more social aspects of the firm as do the fifteen scrapbooks of newspaper cuttings. Two company histories have been written and the research material for these has been kept.

There is also a catalogue for the main Vickers Archive held at Cambridge University Library, which includes quarterly reports from Cooke, Troughton & Simms.

Special Collection of Vickers books

These came from the Vickers Instruments library and many were acquired by E.W. Taylor when writing " At the Sign of the Orrery".

They include seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth-century works on surveying, astronomy and microscopy (with retailers’ advertisements and catalogues) and histories of the firm (including Vickers).

Scientific instruments

Theodolite

The collection reflects the wide range of instruments produced by Troughton & Simms; T Cooke & Sons; Cooke, Troughton & Simms and Vickers Instruments over the years.

It was built up mainly by the enthusiasm and interest of E.W. Taylor, FRS. He joined the firm in 1908 straight from school, later became managing director and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of York in 1977. He took a keen interest in setting up of the Thomas Cooke Opticians shop in the York Castle Museum and arranged for the Museum to acquire a collection of instruments for the shop window from a colleague, Dr R.S. Clay.

The oldest instruments are by Troughton & Simms and include sextants, theodolites, levels and a zenith telescope as well as copies of the British standards of length, ie two standard feet and two standard yards. After fire had destroyed the Houses of Parliament in 1834, where the British primary standards were stored, Troughton & Simms made the new standards of length and copies of these can still be seen on display in Trafalgar Square, amongst other places.

Army using theodolites

There are comparatively few T. Cooke instruments in the collection, partly because many instruments were made for the trade and inscribed with the appropriate retailer's name. However, there are his medals awarded as prizes at exhibitions 1855-1874, two astronomical clocks and an aneroid barometer. Many of his turret clocks are still in working order in churches and buildings around York. The sundial on Heslington Hall is also made by Thomas Cooke, erected in 1855. Later instruments by T. Cooke & Sons include six theodolites made for Scott’s 1912 Antarctic Expedition, one of which (supposedly the one found inside Scott’s tent) was returned to the firm and is now in the collection.

Cooke, Troughton & Simms instruments include theodolites, levels and survey equipment of all types, similar to those used for many years by the Ordnance Survey. Rail gauges and special lamps for railway use were also made by the firm. Microscopes in the collection, made by Cooke, Troughton & Simms, Vickers Instruments and Charles Baker, range from the highly sophisticated Projection Microscope to the simpler student models and the tiny McArthur microscope that can be held in one hand.

Access to the collection

Archives

The archives are cared for the by the Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York. For detailed information about the archive, please contact us. For information about visiting the Borthwick please see our Visiting us page.

Special Collections books

The Vickers collection of books is catalogued on the University of York Library catalogue.

Please note these volumes are classed as a special collection and as such need to be ordered in advance and then consulted in the Borthwick searchrooms. See the Special collections pages for more details.

Instruments

The Vickers collection of scientific instruments is in the Physics Department, University of York, and can be viewed by appointment. For more information please contact us.

Antarctic

Further reading

Instrument Makers to the World: a History of Cooke, Troughton & Simms, Anita McConnell, William Sessions Ltd, 1992.

At the Sign of the Orrery, E.W. Taylor, J. Simms Wilson & P.D. Scott Maxwell, York, 1960.

Vickers, a History, J.D. Scott, Weidenfeld & Nicholson Ltd, 1962

A History of Vickers Instruments Microscopes, A. John Munro, Microscopy vol. 34, parts 2&3, 1980

The Kent Turret Clocks of Thomas Cooke of York, Pam & Peter Wotton, William Sessions Ltd, 2004

Thomas Cooke and the Yorkshire Philosophical Society, Alison Brech & Jim Matthews, Yorkshire Philosophical Society Annual Report 1996

Reid's Heirs, a Biography of James Simms Wilson, Optical Instrument Maker, Eleanor Mennim, Merlin Books Ltd, 1990

The British Association, York, 1831-1981, C. Feinstein (ed.) York, 1982.