Spark of Genius

May 16th marks the birthday of David Edward Hughes, one of the pioneers of radio technology, and co-inventor of the microphone. Everyone knows that Thomas Edison was a leader of radio and microphone technology. But Hughes’ contributions were somewhat more subtle, and he lacked Edison’s sense of aggressive self-promotion. But, in fact, it was Hughes who popularized the use of the term “microphone”, meaning a device that amplified “smaller” (micro) sounds.

Hughes also invented the spark-gap transmitter, which was a major leap forward in human understanding of radio waves and electricity. Essentially, he discovered that electrical sparks generated radio frequencies that could be detected by a telephone receiver. This
allowed a new way to transmit Morse Code, which was the dominant communication method of the early radio period in the 1800s.

Although he was never as famous as Edison or Marconi, Hughes contributed a lot to the science of sound, and was respected by his peer. Without him, microphones might be known as “carbon transmitters”, which isn’t nearly as cool.

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