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Keyboard Builders' Digest / Keyboard Spotting

Hughes printing telegraph, 1860

The Hughes printing telegraph, the second "keyboard", was a huge improvement compared to its predecessor. Spotted by TheSemiHistorian.

TheSemiHistorian posted this photo without any context so I had to look this up:

The model on the picture wasn't the first such printing telegraph, it was the House Printing Telegraph invented by Royal E. House in 1846.

However, the House Printing Telegraph was quite complex and difficult to manufacture and operate.

It ran off pneumatic power supplied by turning a crank on the machine. This required a second person (called the "Grinder") to turn the crank while the actual operator ran the telegraph –

Despite its difficult maintenance, by 1852, the House Printing Telegraph was being used on 4 of the main telegraph lines in the U.S.

In 1855, David Edward Hughes, a music teacher living in Kentucky, invented his own version of the printing telegraph (pictured above).

Both telegraphs used a keyboard to enter the letters and numbers directly, without the need to learn any codes, e.g. Morse. Letters typed at the transmitting end would be printed on paper tape at the receiving end.

Unlike the pneumatic House instrument, the Hughes Printing Telegraph was powered by a large weight on a rope so there was no need for a second person to turn a crank.

The Hughes Printing Telegraph was used for a short time in the U.S. by the American Telegraph Company but it was used extensively in Europe, well into the 20th Century.

Many pictures exist showing rooms with Hughes Printing Telegraph sets in training schools in Eastern Europe; yet strangely, very few Hughes Telegraph sets exist today.

u/TheSemiHistorian spotted one in the Science Museum in London. The plaque notes that:

“The Hughes telegraph was the first to combine an alphabetical keyboard for sending with a printer for receiving messages in plain text. These features later became standard on teleprinters and personal computers. It was developed by David Hughes during the 1850s and was so successful it made him a great deal of money.”

Donated by: HM Postmaster-General, Object No 1888-396


Published on Sun 15th Aug 2021. Featured in KBD #39 (source).


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