David Edward Hughes was born in, well there is some confusion about that, London say some sources. Bala, North Wales, where his family were from say others, and one Welsh researcher claims there is evidence to suggest he was in fact born at Corwen in Denbighshire, also North Wales. The confusion arises because his parents and older siblings, a very musically talented family, spent much of their time touring the concert halls of Britain. All research sources agree on the date though, 16 May 1831.
His family was musically talented. David, his sister and two brothers were considered prodigies, and the family performed together around the world. In 1838, with David just seven years old, the Hughes family emigrated to America.
By the age of nineteen (1850) his prodigious musical ability had earned him a college professorship, Professor of Music at a College in Bardstown, Kentucky. In 1854 he moved to Louisville to supervise the manufacture of the type-printing telegraph instrument which he had been thinking out for some time, and which was destined to make both his name and his fortune. The patent for this machine was taken out in the United States in 1855. It had started out as a machine for taking down musical notes as they were played. The notes were registered on a mechanical keyboard that sent them to a printing device. This developed into a machine that could print out a telegraph message. Working in a similar way to a golfball type of typewriter, but created years before the typewriter was even invented! His designs have, in fact, influenced the Teleprinter, Telex system and Computer Keyboard. Because his printer made reading a telegraph message very easy it was immediately successful, in Europe the Hughes Telegraph System became an international standard, lasting in some countries until the 1930s.
Around 1856 he moved back to London and had become well known around the world for his telegraph machine, although it didn't get a good reception in England straight away.
Early telephone systems were being hampered by the poor quality of their voice reproduction. David put his mind to the problem and solved it after noticing that a loose connection in a battery-driven circuit connected to the mouthpiece would tend to reproduce the sounds made into it. In 1878 he had invented the Carbon Microphone. Already being more than comfortably off, he refused to patent or earn money from this idea, which became an essential part of the telephone and for a while was also used in broadcasting and radio communications.
He went further and experimented with wireless telegraphy, discovering that the agency he was employing consisted of true electric waves. Setting some source of the "sudden electric impulses" in his house, he walked along the street carrying a telephone in circuit with a small battery and a microphonic joint he had developed (the first mobile phone?) and found that the sounds remained audible in the telephone until he had traversed a distance of 500 yards. He showed This experiment to several English men of science, Sir G G Stokes among others, to whom he broached the theory that the results were due to electric waves. That physicist, however, was not disposed to accept Davids' explanation, considering that a sufficient one could be found in well-known electromagnetic induction effects, and David was so discouraged at that high authority taking this view of the matter that he resolved to publish no account of his inquiry until further experiments had enabled him to prove the correctness of his own theory. These experiments were still in progress when H R Hertz settled the question by his researches on electric waves in 1887 - 1889.
David also invented the induction balance, often used as a type of metal detector, experimented with aerial photography, and contributed to the theory of magnetism.
He married Anna Chadburn, an accomplished artist. Although born in New Hampshire, she had moved to Paris with her first husband who died there. David and Anna met in Paris and they moved to London where they were married. The couple did not produce any children. A portrait of Anna, painted by notable artist George Healy, is now on display in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts. She is credited today with ensuring her husband's notebooks and papers were preserved.
David died in London on the 22 January 1900. I have accuired a copy of his Obituary here, from The Electrician, January 26 1900, which is interesting reading.
As an experimenter and investigator he was remarkable for the simplicity of the apparatus which he used, domestic articles like jam pots and pins. His manner of life, too, was simple and frugal. He amassed a large fortune, which, with the exception of some bequests to the Royal Society, the Paris Academy of Sciences, the Institution of Electrical Engineers and the Paris Societe Internationale des Electriciens, for the establishment of scholarships and prizes in physical science, was left to four London hospitals.
David Edward Hughes was the recipient of many international honours and awards for his work, in fact he became one of the highest decorated technologists of the period and was honoured by the majority of European nations, including:
The Hughes Medal, named in honour of David Edward Hughes, is one of several medals awarded by the Royal Society. The medal is awarded for "An original discovery in the physical sciences, particularly electricity and magnetism or their applications."
Made of silver gilt, it has been awarded since 1902, beginning with the eminent atomic physicist J J Thomson, discoverer of the electron. Several other notable winners are Hans Geiger, Alexander Graham Bell, Stephen Hawking, and Enrico Fermi.