William Hughes's Typograph, as illustrated in the official catalogue of the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. How could anyone confuse it with G.A. Hughes' unillustrated entry?
In the 1840s and 1850s there were two men called Hughes working at institutions for the blind in England, one sighted (William Hughes, born in Staffordshire in March 1808 and married to Mary Rice née Hayward) at Old Trafford in Manchester, the other blind (George Allonsor Hughes, born in Middlesex in May 1808 and married to Eliza) 209 miles away at Bloomsbury in London. They were not related, except in the sense that by sheer coincidence they both invented writing machines for the blind during this period. For all that, one would not have thought that telling the two Hugheses apart could have been much simpler – one in Manchester called William, one in London called George. And yet the tale of William Hughes’s Typograph is one of absurd falsehoods, distorted representation and utter confusion.
On Tuesday, September 14, 1858, the trustees of Henshaw’s Blind Asylum at Old Trafford in Manchester held a special general meeting to mark the enforced retirement – through a sudden illness – of its long-serving governor William Hughes, and Hughes’s wife Mary, the asylum’s matron. One of the trustees, a Dr Samuel Crompton, surgeon for the asylum, decided to use the occasion to pay tribute to William Hughes’s 1847 invention, the Typograph. Oddly enough, Henshaw’s itself did not have one of Hughes’s machines, and Crompton said he was afraid “some future historian might record that the invention was adopted everywhere but in the institution governed by the inventor”. Well, 162 years later, that historian is me. And thus it is so recorded, here! More importantly, however, I am also obliged to point out that - as was made abundantly clear by the trustees of Henshaw’s Blind Asylum that long-ago afternoon - the Typograph was indeed invented by William Hughes, and NOT George Allonsor Hughes.
William Hughes’s Typograph was a simple machine allowing the blind to write and selling for £5. George Hughes’s apparatus was even more rudimentary, selling at one guinea. Yet typewriter historians have been at complete sixes and sevens for almost 90 years now over the identity of its inventor. Quite how this utterly unnecessary confusion arose is beyond me – apart, of course, from the suspicion of very sloppy research and a scant regard for primary sources. But in part the origin of the misinformation can be dated to a 1964 revision of George Tilghman Richard’s The History and Development of Typewriters, first published in 1938. Richards (1883-1960), whose father was American, was a consulting automotive engineer and annular aircraft inventor who lived in Dunham Massey Hall, Greater Manchester. In the mid-1920s he spent some time attempting to improve the typewriter, before joining the Science Museum in London in 1929 and cataloguing the museum’s aero-engine collection and becoming its scientific lecturer. He also carried out a thorough cataloguing of the museum’s impressive typewriter collection, which includes the Typograph. Richards retired from the museum in 1954 and in 1964 another engineer, William Allan Church (1920-2011), updated Richards’ book “to include changes rendered necessary by the passage of time since …”
After the original 1938 publication of his typewriter history, Richards said, “Many people are too busy with their daily tasks to feel much urge to study the past or to mould the future.” How right he was, especially in relation to his own typewriter book. For some unfathomable reason, Church changed the name of the Typograph’s inventor from “W. Hughes” (though tellingly it remained that way in the index) to “G.A. Hughes, Governor of the Manchester Blind Asylum”. To this day, the Science Museum, on its website, continues to wrongly credit the Typograph to G.A. Hughes. The museum further compounds its mistake by saying, “This machine was designed by Mr G.A. Hughes, Governor of Henshaw’s Blind Asylum, Manchester … Hughes himself was blind and he and his wife were Governor and Matron respectively of the Institute from 1839.” As might be expected, Wikipedia also gets it utterly wrong, though the glaring error was pointed out in Heather Tilley’s book Blindness and Writing: From Wordsworth to Gissing published by the Cambridge University Press in 2017. Tilley did so in correcting the false claim made by Darren Wershler-Henry in his 2005 book The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting. Tilley was right to single out Wershler-Henry, who went into considerable detail, claiming for G.A. Hughes all the things he didn’t do.
Where did Church get the wrong information, since it wasn’t in Richards’ original? It turns out the error first appeared in a book called A Chronological Survey of Work for the Blind (up to 1930) written by Henry John Wagg and Mary G. Thomas and published by the National Institute for the Blind in London in 1932. Wagg and Thomas managed to mangle the truth to such a horrid degree that subsequent typewriter historians became as blind as G.A. Hughes himself, at least in terms of being unable to see the facts of the matter.
George Allonsor Hughes did indeed invent a writing apparatus for the blind, using a “punctiuncular” stenographic embossing system (that is, Braille-like). But it was not the Typograph. G.A. Hughes compared his system favourably with the non-roman Lucas type, introduced in 1838, which was also used for embossing in the form of stenographic shorthand. The G.A. Hughes system was first advertised in August 1843 and in 1848 this Hughes published An Explanation of the Embossed Systems for Educating the Blind. G.A. Hughes was never associated in any way with Henshaw’s Blind Asylum in Manchester. G.A. Hughes ran the Private Educational Establishment for the Blind at 9 Mount Row, London, and lived in Bloomsbury. This Hughes was blind and had been so since 1838. He also developed a “Pianoforte Tutor” embossed system for the blind in 1848.
From Lloyd's Weekly, December 10, 1843
When writing his first typewriter history, The Writing Machine (1973), Michael Adler was damningly persuaded by the Science Museum that the inventor of the Typograph was not William Hughes but G.A. Hughes. Adler went ahead and blindly (no pun intended) wrote that earlier historians had been led “to the mistaken conclusion that [the two Hughes machines] are in fact two separate inventions by different men [which is precisely what they are]. This is not the case …” Sadly for Adler, and those who have since treated his books as gospel, it most certainly was the case. Adler went through the same silly process in his 1997 book Antique Typewriters, this time adding to his mistake by placing G.A. Hughes in Manchester. (Darryl Rehr made the identical error about G.A. Hughes inventing the Typograph in his 1997 book, Antique Typewriters.) Perhaps aware of the conflicting claims, Wilf Beeching took the easy way out in Century of the Typewriter in 1974 and merely said the Typograph was the work of a “Mr Hughes” (but admittedly of Manchester). To their credit, at least Peter Weil and Paul Robert identified the Typograph (see image below) as the work of “W. Hughes” in Typewriter (2016), the first correct attribution in 68 years of hardback typewriter histories.
That William Hughes invented the Typograph was pointed out by Typewriter Topics away back in 1923. The trade magazine even used a small illustration of the machine, which came from, of all places, the Science Museum in London! Ernst Martin also identified the inventor as William Hughes, adding that he was from Manchester, and that a model of his machine was in the Science Museum.
William Hughes (1819-59) was governor at Henshaw’s Blind Asylum, from 1839, on an annual salary of £225 ($A51,338 today), while his wife Mary as matron was paid £50, and they were additionally given a gratuity of £500 ($A114,084 today) upon their retirement from the asylum on September 18, 1858. The retirement was brought about by William Hughes’ sudden illness, and he was to die from it seven months later. At a special general meeting to farewell the Hugheses, the asylum surgeon Dr Samuel Crompton spoke of the Typograph. He said it was one of the most important of all inventions for the use of the blind, a machine of ingenuity and simplicity, and had acquired for William Hughes a worldwide reputation. It had been highly praised by a Reverend Johns of London in a work called “The Land of Silence and Darkness” in the Edinburgh Review.
During the Henshaw asylum trustees’ discussion on the Typograph, it was revealed that William Hughes had been in Antwerp earlier in 1858 and had seen one of his Typographs in use there. He had also visited l’abbé Charles Louis Carton in Bruges. Hughes had been hoping to improve and simplify the Typograph to lower its cost from £5, but in the previous two years there had been delays in meeting demand (Adler believed the Typograph was only the second writing machine to go into production.). An order from George V, the last King of Hanover, had been met.
The Typograph won its fame with a prize bronze medal as exhibit 401 in Class 10 (Philosophical, Musical, Horological and Surgical Instruments) at The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, from May 1-October 15, 1851. Hughes had announced his intention to exhibit the Typograph on June 20, 1850. G.A. Hughes’s exhibit was No 20 in another category altogether, Class 17 (Paper, Printing and Bookbinding), making it even more difficult for Adler to get confused between the two. It was described as a “machine for enabling the blind to write, calculate and copy music”. In contrast, William Hughes’s entry was specifically called the Typograph and was described as being “for the blind, a new mechanical contrivance enabling blind persons to express their thoughts upon paper”. There was also “a similar instrument for embossing or printing in relief”. Given it was actually called the Typograph in the Great Exhibition’s official catalogue, how anyone could mistake it for G.A. Hughes’s apparatus is mindblowing.
Organised by Henry Cole and Queen Victoria’s consort Prince Albert, the exhibition was attended by, among many hundreds of other notables, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Samuel Colt, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, Alfred Tennyson and William Makepeace Thackeray.
Three weeks after the exhibition closed, Queen Victoria visited Francis Egerton, the 1st Earl of Ellesmere, at Worsley Hall outside Manchester. Henshaw’s Blind Ayslum approached Ellesmere, its patron, to arrange for a box of gifts made by inmates to be presented to Victoria on October 11, 1851, with a covering noted written on a Typograph. Ellesmere insisted the Queen also meet William and Mary Hughes and four of their pupils. Victoria expressed particular interest in the Typograph, and watched a blind girl, Mary Pearson, write with the machine. Victoria remarked on having seen the Typograph at the Great Exhibition.
The Typograph was again exhibited, in the printing section at the Exposition Universelle des produits de l'Agriculture, de l'Industrie et des Beaux-Arts de Paris from May 15-November 15, 1855, and at the International Exhibition in South Kensington in 1862. (Michael Adler allowed himself to go wildly astray, partly because there was 11 years between these exhibits; he’d have been even more confused if he’d known William Hughes had died in 1859. In fairness, G.A. Hughes had an exhibit of books for the blind in the 1862 exhibition,) By 1861 the William Hughes Typograph was still “admitted by all the instructors of the blind to be the most perfect as yet produced … [it] still holds its place of usefulness above all other printing machines for the blind.” It was still being advertised by George Wild in Manchester in 1866.
William Hughes was born at Burslem, Stoke-upon-Trent, Staffordshire, in March 1808 and died at his home at 79 Erskine Street, Hulme in Manchester on April 29, 1859, aged 51. Every single printed article or advertisement which appeared for the Typograph from 1850 to 1866 mentioned its inventor was William Hughes, so the latter-day errors attributing it to G.A. Hughes are appalling and truly unforgiveable.