Having first become known to fame in America, Professor Hughes is usually claimed by the Americans as a countryman, and through some error, the very date and place of his birth there are often given in American publications; but we have the best authority for the accuracy of the following facts, namely that of the inventor himself.
David Edwin Hughes was born in London in 1831. His parents came from Bala, at the foot of Snowdon, in North Wales, and in 1838, when David was seven years old, his father, taking with him his family, emigrated to the United States, and became a planter in Virginia. The elder Mr. Hughes and his children seem to have inherited the Welsh musical gift, for they were all accomplished musicians. While a mere child, David could improvise tunes in a remarkable manner, and when he grew up this talent attracted the notice of Herr Hast, an eminent German pianist in America, who procured for him the professorship of music in the College of Bardstown, Kentucky. Mr. Hughes entered upon his academical career at Bardstown in 1850, when he was nineteen years of age. Although very fond of music and endowered by Nature with exceptional powers for its cultivation, Professor Hughes had, in addition, an inborn liking and fitness for physical science and mechanical invention. This duality of taste and genius may seem at first sight strange; but experience shows that there are many men of science and inventors who are also votaries of music and art. The source of this apparent anomaly is to be found in the imagination, which is the fountain-head of all kinds of creation.
Professor Hughes now taught music by day for his livelihood, and studied science at night for his recreation, thus reversing the usual order of things. The college authorities, knowing his proficiency in the subject, also offered him the Chair of Natural Philosophy, which became vacant; and he united the two seemingly incongruous professorships of music and physics in himself. He had long cherished the idea of inventing a new telegraph, and especially one which should print the message in Roman characters as it is received. So it happened that one evening while he was under the excitement of a musical improvisation, a solution of the problem flashed into his ken. His music and his science had met at this nodal point.
All his spare time was thenceforth devoted to the development of his design and the construction of a practical type-printer. As the work grew on his hands, the pale young student, beardless but careworn, became more and more engrossed with it, until his nights were almost entirely given to experiment. He begrudged the time which had to be spent in teaching his classes and the fatigue was telling upon his health, so in 1853 he removed to Bowlingreen, in Warren Co., Kentucky, where he acquired more freedom by taking pupils.
The main principle of his type-printer was the printing of each letter by a single current; the Morse instrument, then the principal receiver in America, required, on the other hand, an average of three currents for each signal. In order to carry out this principle it was necessary that the sending and receiving apparatus should keep in strict time with each other, or be synchronous in action; and to effect this was the prime difficulty which Professor Hughes had to overcome in his work. In estimating the Hughes' type-printer as an invention we must not forget the state of science at that early period. He had to devise his own governors for the synchronous mechanism, and here his knowledge of acoustics helped him. Centrifugal governors and pendulums would not do, and he tried vibrators, such as piano-strings and tuning-forks. He at last found what he wanted in two darning needles, borrowed from an old lady in the house where he lived. These steel rods fixed at one end vibrated with equal periods, and could be utilised in such a way that the printing wheel could be corrected into absolute synchronism by each signal current.
In 1854, Professor Hughes went to Louisville to superintend the making of his first instrument; but it was unprotected by a patent in the United States until 1855. In that form straight vibrators were used as governors, and a separate train of wheel-work was employed in correcting: but in later forms the spiral governor was adopted, and the printing and correcting is now done by the same action. In 1855, the invention may be said to have become fit for employment, and no sooner was this the case, than Professor Hughes received a telegram from the editors of the New York Associated Press, summoning him to that city. The American Telegraph Company, then a leading one, was in possession of the Morse instrument, and levied rates for transmission of news which the editors found oppressive. They took up the Hughes' instrument in opposition to the Morse, and introduced it on the lines of several companies. After a time, however, the separate companies amalgamated into one large corporation, the Western Union Telegraph Company of to- day. With the Morse, Hughes, and other apparatus in its power, the editors were again left in the lurch.
In 1857, Professor Hughes leaving his instrument in the hands of the Western Union Telegraph Company, came to England to effect its introduction here. He endeavoured to get the old Electric Telegraph Company to adopt it, but after two years of indecision on their part, he went over to France in 1860, where he met with a more encouraging reception. The French Government Telegraph Administration became at once interested in the new receiver, and a commission of eminent electricians, consisting of Du Moncel, Blavier, Froment, Gaugain, and other practical and theoretical specialists, was appointed to decide on its merits. The first trial of the type-printer took place on the Paris to Lyons circuit, and there is a little anecdote connected with it which is worthy of being told. The instrument was started, and for a while worked as well as could be desired; but suddenly it came to a stop, and to the utter discomfiture of the inventor he could neither find out what was wrong nor get the printer to go again. In the midst of his confusion, it seemed like satire to him to hear the commissioners say, as they smiled all round, and bowed themselves gracefully off, 'TRES- BIEN, MONSIEUR HUGHES--TRES-BIEN, JE VOUS FELICITE.' But the matter was explained next morning, when Professor Hughes learned that the transmitting clerk at Lyons had been purposely instructed to earth the line at the time in question, to test whether there was no deception in the trial, a proceeding which would have seemed strange, had not the occurrence of a sham trial some months previous rendered it a prudent course. The result of this trial was that the French Government agreed to give the printer a year of practical work on the French lines, and if found satisfactory, it was to be finally adopted. Daily reports were furnished of its behaviour during that time, and at the expiration of the term it was adopted, and Professor Hughes was constituted by Napoleon III. a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.
The patronage of France paved the way of the type-printer into almost all other European countries; and the French agreement as to its use became the model of those made by the other nations. On settling with France in 1862, Professor Hughes went to Italy. Here a commission was likewise appointed, and a period of probation--only six months--was settled, before the instrument was taken over. From Italy, Professor Hughes received the Order of St. Maurice and St. Lazare. In 1863, the United Kingdom Telegraph Co., England, introduced the type-printer in their system. In 1865, Professor Hughes proceeded to Russia, and in that country his invention was adopted after six months' trial on the St. Petersburg to Moscow circuit. At St. Petersburg he had the honour of being a guest of the Emperor in the summer palace, Czarskoizelo, the Versailles of Russia, where he was requested to explain his invention, and also to give a lecture on electricity to the Czar and his court. He was there created a Commander of the Order of St. Anne.