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Hughes was born to Welsh parents in Bala in 1831 and emigrated to the United States at the age of seven. 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.
In 1855 Hughes designed a printing telegraph system, essentially a Morse code modem, 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 telegraphyon the Hughes system. In Europe, the Hughes Telegraph System became an international standard.
In 1879, Hughes discovered that sparks would generate a radio signal that could be detected by listening to a telephone receiver connected to his new microphone design.He developed his spark-gap transmitter and receiver into a working communication system using trial and errorexperiments, until eventually he could demonstrate the ability to send and receive Morse code signals out to a range limited to 500 yards (460 m). His substantial contributions to science achieved wide recognition during his lifetime, from his peers within the scientific community.
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 merelyinduction. 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.
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 semiconductorcarbon and steel point-contact rectifyingdiode, which he also called a "coherer". 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 radioreceiver.
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. 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 U.S. patent for the vacuum tube rectifier diode was invalidated due to the prior art of the other diode researchers who preceded him.
Elihu Thomson recognized the Hughes claim to be the first to transmit radio. 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... the world will be right in placing his name on the highest pinnacle, in relation to aerial electric telegraphy".