A brief history of Cooke, the UK pioneer of motion picture lenses.


UK manufacturing has been dwindling for years now to the frustration of many with cheaper solutions in the Far East enabling more competitive products and so on.
For this reason it was so refreshing to met with the owner of Cooke Optics, Les Zellan, and take a tour of a real factory, making real products from raw material to end products – the Cooke Lenses.
On the outskirts of Leicester lies the new purpose built Cooke factory, housing all the production requirements to build their speciality motion picture lenses.
So let’s rewind 100 years or so, the background to Cooke is a fascinating tour of the development of lenses making technology in general and one that is often overlooked as a UK development.
The original company was set up in 1886 by the Taylor brothers and called T.S. & W. Taylor. They were then joined by Henry Hobson who at the time was the accountant to become Taylor, Taylor and Hobson.
At the same time, T. Cooke and Sons in York were making telescopes. Their renegade optics manager, Dennis Taylor (no relation to the Taylor brothers of Leicester) designed a then revolutionary photographic objective lens that allowed a sharp image to be obtained all the way to the corner of a photograph. His design, which became known as the famed Cooke Triplet patent design, had no application whatsoever for telescopes. He offered the right to manufacture to the Taylor brothers based on their reputation for quality optical manufacture.
The deal was that any lenses made from the Cooke Triplet design would be named Cooke.
Over the years Cooke became the premier brand made by Taylor, Taylor & Hobson from 1894. During the 20’s 30’s and 40’s many different lenses were made for all types of application.
In the days of silent film people would use the best lenses they cold find but in the 20s when sound came in there was a problem as none of the lenses were fast. The sets were lit with noisy arc lamps and overnight they had to solve the problem of providing enough light whilst removing the noise – they needed a fast lenses.
As it happened before sound in film was introduced Cooke had already designed the Cooke Series 0 f/2.0 lens.. Nobody wanted them for the stills market when an F4 would do the job, why pay the extra money? But for movies Hollywood came knocking and the Series 0 became evolved into Cooke Speed Panchros with almost every film from the advent of sound to well into the 50’s being shot with those lenses. In short Cooke made talking movies possible.
The Taylor Brothers owned Taylor, Taylor & Hobson until after the First World War and in 1931 they sold 75% interest to Bell and Howell in the USA. After World War II, Rank brought the entire company to become known as Rank Taylor Hobson.
These guys were very clever. William Taylor believed that if you couldn’t measure something then you couldn’t make it twice! So he went about designing meteorology equipment and over the years they became less of a lenses company and more of a meteorology company. William Taylor was told he was working too hard so he took up golf, and designed and patented the “dimpled” golf ball. He sold his patented golf ball mould and sold it to Dunlop. Before his untimely death in 1935, he also developed engraving machines, maritime clocks and the standardized screw thread for still photography. In the 1900’s Taylor Hobson held more optical patents than any other company in the world – all in Leicester UK.
There are documents in the company archives related to Shackleton’s Antartic expedition and Mallory and Irvine’s Everest climbs , these and other pioneering expeditions having used Cooke lenses, thanking Cooke for the technology.
It was pointed out to me that during a recent trip to the Science Museum in London an employee of Cooke noted that the film camera used by Captain John Noel to document the Mallory and Irvine Everest expedition was not fitted with the historically correct Cooke lens, but a lens by another manufacturer. An upsetting discovery for a UK manufacturer with such a pedigree. This spurred a bit of a research project that led Cooke to Captain John Noel’s daughter. What happened to the original Cooke zoom lens that was used on the expedition? She said, her father donated the camera to the museum but kept the lens for himself! Unfortunate for historical correctness by the museum but a testament to the company’s legacy of quality.
Rank owned Cooke until 1996 by which time it was a tiny piece in a very diverse empire due to diversification away from manufacturing, mergers and into industries such as Hard Rock Cafes. Cooke was barely ticking over and it’s said that Rank didn’t even know it existed.
Cooke was just starting development of the S4 lenses and the US distributer Les Zellan, brought the company in the summer of 1998. At that time the plant was a section in the old factory building, company known then as Taylor-Hobson, with all manual machines. Now you see a purpose built factory, still in Leicester, employing over 60 skilled craftsmen with state of the art machinery, working, it has to be said, side by side with machinery in the order of 100 years old. The reason? The exacting tolerances of the older equipment cannot be matched by today’s equipment standards.
Les Zellan
Les Zellan

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