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David Edward Hughes

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David Edward Hughes

David Edward Hughes
David Edward Hughes
Born 16 May 1831 (1831-05-16)
London[1] or Corwen, Denbighshire[2]
Died 22 January 1900(1900-01-22) (aged 68)
Nationality British
Known for Microphone, Semiconductor, Diode, Invention of radio, Crystal radio detector, Crystal radio, Radio transmitter, Radio receiver, Teleprinter, Hughes Medal

David Edward Hughes (16 May 1831 – 22 January 1900), was a Welsh-American scientist and musician. Hughes invented the first working radio communication system, the first semiconductor diode crystal radio receiver, the first printing telegraph, and the first microphone. He was also a harpist, and a professor of music.


  • Biography 1
  • Music 2
  • Printing telegraph 3
  • Invention of radio 4
  • Awards 5
  • Patents 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


He was born in 1831, the son of a musically talented family hailing originally from Y Bala (the place of birth was either London or Corwen, Denbighshire) and emigrated to the United States at the age of seven.[2] He was an experimental physicist, mostly in the areas of electricity and signals. He also invented an improved microphone, which was a modification of Thomas Edison's carbon telephone transmitter. He revived the term "microphone" to describe the transmitter's ability to transmit extremely weak sounds to a Bell telephone receiver. He invented the induction balance (later used in metal detectors). Despite Hughes' facility as an experimenter, he had little mathematical training. He was a friend of William Henry Preece.


Hughes came from a Welsh musical family. At only six years old, he is known to have played the harp to a very high standard. At an early age, Hughes developed such musical ability that he is reported to have attracted attention of Herr Hast, an eminent German pianist in America who procured for him a professorship of music at St. Joseph's College in Bardstown, Kentucky.

Printing telegraph

The Hughes telegraph, was the first telegraph printing text on a paper tape; this one was manufactured by Siemens and Halske, Germany (Warsaw Muzeum Techniki)

In 1855 Hughes designed a printing telegraph system, and in less than two years a number of small telegraph companies, including Western Union in early stages of development, united to form one large corporation – Western Union Telegraph Co. to carry on the business of telegraphy on the Hughes system. In Europe, the Hughes Telegraph System became an international standard.

Invention of radio

In 1879,[3][4][5] Hughes discovered that sparks would generate a radio signal that could be detected by listening to a telephone receiver using his new microphone design as a detector.[3][4][6][7][8] He developed his spark-gap transmitter and receiver into a working communication system using trial and error experiments, until eventually he could demonstrate the ability to send and receive Morse code signals out to a range limited to 500 yards (460 m). Prominent attendees of the demonstrations were[3][4][9][10] Sir William Crookes[11] Sir William Henry Preece, William Grylls Adams, and James Dewar.

Hughes demonstrated his technology to representatives of the Royal Society in February 1880, but they were not convinced that it was truly radio, and not merely induction.[3][9][12] While Hughes was continuing his wireless telegraphy research, Hertz's papers were published, and then he thought it was too late to bring forward these earlier experiments.[10] Hughes' work was not published until a brief mention of it in 1892,[11] and a full magazine article was written about it in 1899.[2][3][8][13] A book about it was published in 1899[4] and 1901.[9] However, his work was not done in obscurity. His substantial contributions to science achieved wide recognition during his lifetime, from his peers within the scientific community.

Despite the initial erroneous dismissal of his radio system, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in June 1880,[14] and won their Royal Medal in 1885. He became one of the most highly decorated inventors of his time. His many accolades made him known to radio pioneers who would refine his work in later years.

Indeed, the Hughes Medal was created by the Royal Society of London in his honour, to be awarded to other scientists "in recognition of an original discovery in the physical sciences, particularly electricity and magnetism or their applications". A listing follows of Hughes Medal recipients honoured for achievements directly applicable to the advancement of radio science and technology (click to show table).

Year Name Rationale Notes
1902 Thomson, Joseph JohnJoseph John Thomson "for his numerous contributions to electric science, especially in reference to the phenomena of electric discharge in gases" [15]
1903 Hittorf, Johann WilhelmJohann Wilhelm Hittorf "for his long continued experimental researches on the electric discharge in liquids and gases" [16]
1905 Righi, AugustoAugusto Righi "for his experimental researches in electrical science, including electric vibrations" [17]
1906 Ayrton, HerthaHertha Ayrton "for her experimental investigations on the electric arc, and also on sand ripples" [18]
1908 Goldstein, EugenEugen Goldstein "for his discoveries on the nature of electric discharge in rarefied gasses" [19]
1910 Fleming, John AmbroseJohn Ambrose Fleming "for his researches in electricity and electrical measurements" [20]
1913 Bell, Alexander GrahamAlexander Graham Bell "for his share in the invention of the telephone, and more especially the construction of the telephone receiver" [21]
1918 Langmuir, IrvingIrving Langmuir "for his researches in molecular physics" [22]
1920 Richardson, OwenOwen Richardson "for his work in experimental physics, and especially thermionics" [23]
1925 Smith, Frank EdwardFrank Edward Smith "for his determination of fundamental electrical units and for researches in technical electricity" [24]
1926 Jackson, HenryHenry Jackson "for his pioneer work in the scientific investigations of radiotelegraphy and its application to navigation" [25]
1933 Appleton, Edward VictorEdward Victor Appleton "for his researches into the effect of the Heaviside layer upon the transmission of wireless signals" [26]
1936 Schottky, Walter H.Walter H. Schottky "for his discovery of the Schrot effect in thermionic emission and his invention of the screen-grid tetrode and a superheterodyne method of receiving wireless signals" [27]
1943 Oliphant, MarcusMarcus Oliphant "for his distinguished work in nuclear physics and mastery of methods of generating and applying high potentials" [28]
1945 Schonland, BasilBasil Schonland "for his work on atmospheric electricity and of other physical researches" [29]
1946 Randall, JohnJohn Randall "for his distinguished researches into fluorescent materials and into the production of high frequency electro-magnetic radiation"
1948 Watson-Watt, RobertRobert Watson-Watt "for his distinguished contributions to atmospheric physics and to the development of radar"
1954 Ryle, MartinMartin Ryle "for his distinguished and original experimental researches in radio astronomy" [30]
1960 Pawsey, JosephJoseph Pawsey "for his distinguished contributions to radio astronomy both in the study of solar and of cosmic ray emission"
1971 Brown, Robert HanburyRobert Hanbury Brown "for his distinguished work in developing a new form of stellar interferometer, culminating in his observations of alpha virginis" [31]
1977 Hewish, AntonyAntony Hewish "for his outstanding contributions to radioastronomy, including the discovery and identification of pulsars" [32]
1990 Cowling, Thomas GeorgeThomas George Cowling "for his fundamental contributions to theoretical astrophysics including seminal theoretical studies of the role of electromagnetic induction in cosmic systems" [33]

Hughes "abundantly proved his claim to have been the first to transmit actual signals..."[8] "Hughes's experiments of 1879 were virtually a discovery of Hertzian waves before Hertz, of the coherer before Branly, and of wireless telegraphy before Marconi and others."[4][34]

Notably, the radio receiver technology of David E. Hughes surpassed the simplistic spark-gap device that would first be studied by later radio researchers. He discovered that his microphone design exhibited unusual properties in the presence of radio signals. He experimented with the discovery, and described his creation of both the device classically known as a "coherer", and an improved semiconductor carbon and steel point-contact rectifying diode, which he also called a "coherer".[3] The point-contact diode version of the device is now known as a crystal radio detector, and was the key component of his sensitive crystal radio receiver.

Point-contact diodes had been independently discovered by other scientists. They were later studied and described in detail by J.C. Bose, in his research on their use in radio receivers.[35] John Ambrose Fleming earned a Hughes Medal after he improved the Hughes diode receiver component with his invention of a vacuum tube diode, which could be operated more reliably than the semiconductor technology of the time. Fleming's US patent for the vacuum tube rectifier diode[36] was invalidated due to the prior art of the other diode researchers who preceded him.[37]

Elihu Thomson recognised the Hughes claim to be the first to transmit radio.[3] Hughes himself said "with characteristic modesty" that Hertz's experiments were "far more conclusive than mine", and that Marconi's "efforts at demonstration merit the success he has received...[and] the world will be right in placing his name on the highest pinnacle, in relation to aerial electric telegraphy".[3]


He became one of the most highly decorated scientists of his time. Despite the initial erroneous dismissal of his radio system, he was still elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in June 1880 and won their Royal Medal in 1885. He became one of the most highly decorated inventors of his time, with honours that included:

  1. A Grand Gold Medal awarded at the Paris Exhibition, in 1867.
  2. Royal Society gold Medal in 1885.
  3. Society of Arts Albert Gold Medal in 1897.
  4. Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, presented by Napoleon III for his inventions and discoveries in 1860,[38] granting him the title "Commander of the Imperial Order of the Legion of Honour".

He was also awarded:

  1. The Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus (Italy)
  2. The Order of the Iron Crown (Austria) which carried with it the title of Baron (Freiherr)
  3. The Order of Saint Anne (Russia)
  4. The Noble Order of Saint Michael (Bavaria)
  5. Commander of the Imperial Order of the Grand Cross of the Medjidie (Turkey)
  6. Commander of the Royal and Distinguished Order of Carlos III (Spain)
  7. The Grand Officer's Star
  8. Collar of the Royal Order of Takovo (Serbia)
  9. Officer of the Order of Leopold (Belgium)


  • David E Hughes, U.S. Patent 14,917 Telegraph (with alphabetic keyboard and printer) issued 20 May 1856
  • David E Hughes, U.S. Patent 22,531 Duplex Telegraph issued 4 January 1859
  • David E Hughes, U.S. Patent 22,770 Printing Telegraph (with type-wheel) issued 25 January 1859


  1. ^ a b "David Hughes". Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
  2. ^ a b c Anon. "88. David Edward Hughes". 100 Welsh Heroes. Culturenet Cymru. Retrieved 30 June 2009. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h Prof. D. E. Hughes' Research in Wireless Telegraphy, The Electrician, Volume 43, 1899, pages 35, 40–41, 93, 143–144, 167, 217, 401, 403, 767
  4. ^ a b c d e A History of Wireless Telegraphy (2nd edition, revised), J.J. Fahie, 1899, pages 289–316:
  5. ^ Hughes's original notes preserved in a British museum
  6. ^ Short bio by Janice B. Edwards
  7. ^ Before We Went Wireless. Biography by Ivor Hughes and David Ellis Evans, published 2011.
  8. ^ a b c Anon (26 January 1900). "Obituary: David Edward Hughes". The ELECTRICIAN (London): 457–458. Retrieved 29 June 2009. , The Electrician, Volume 45
  9. ^ a b c A History of Wireless Telegraphy by J.J.Fahie, 1901.
  10. ^ a b Wireless telegraphy: a popular exposition By
  11. ^ a b SOME POSSIBILITIES OF ELECTRICITY, The Fortnightly Review, Volume 57, William Crookes, 1 February 1892, pages 174–176
  12. ^ The Story of Wireless Telegraphy by A. T. Story
  13. ^ One Show BBC television. Segment— David Edward Hughes—broadcast 24 June 2009
  14. ^ Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Volume 30, 1899, pages 373, 468–469.
  15. ^ "2 in U.S. hono by Royal Society". The New York Times. 3 November 1939. Retrieved 5 February 2009. 
  16. ^ Nature.  
  17. ^ Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  
  18. ^ "Selling Snow in Syria.". Chicago Tribune. 2 December 1906. Retrieved 5 February 2009. 
  19. ^ Mehra, Jagdish (1989). The Historical Development of Quantum Theory.  
  20. ^ Nature.  
  21. ^ Bell Telephone Magazine. American Telephone and Telegraph Company Public Relations Dept. 1936. p. 59. 
  22. ^ Wasson, Tyler (1987). Nobel Prize Winners. Visual Education Corporation. p. 598.  
  23. ^ Who Was Who in Literature. Thomson Gale. 1979. p. 955. 
  24. ^ Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Royal Society Publishing. 1926. p. 15. 
  25. ^ Science. HighWire Press. 1926. p. 552. 
  26. ^ Wasson, Tyler (1987). Nobel Prize Winners: An H.W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary. Wiley. p. 30.  
  27. ^ Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science. 1936. p. 480. 
  28. ^ "Oxford DNB article:Oliphant, Sir Marcus Laurence Elwin (subscription needed)". Oxford University Press. 2004. Retrieved 6 February 2009. 
  29. ^ "Janus: The Papers of Sir Basil Schonland". Janus. Retrieved 6 February 2009. 
  30. ^ "Martin Ryle – Autobiography". Retrieved 6 February 2009. 
  31. ^ "Brown, Robert Hanbury – Bright Sparcs Biography Entry". University of Melbourne. Retrieved 6 February 2009. 
  32. ^ Parker, Sybil P. (1980). McGraw-Hill Modern Scientists and Engineers: A-G. McGraw-Hill Book Company. p. 56. 
  33. ^ Matthew, H. C. G. (2004). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  
  34. ^ Globe, May 12, 1899.
  35. ^
  36. ^ Instrument for converting alternate electric currents into continuous currents: Rectifying vacuum tube diode. GB24,805 and US803684, granted to Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company, 7 November 1905 [1]
  37. ^
  38. ^

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