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Thomas Parke Hughes papers

Creation: 1912-1984
Accession: 2259


Thomas Parke Hughes (1923-2014), was one of the leading historians of technology of his era. This collection consists of files relating to the research and production of Professor Hughes' two prize-winning books, Networks of Power, and Elmer Sperry: Inventor and Engineer. Also included are Elmer Sperry's original desk diaries.


  • Creation: 1912-1984



18 Linear Feet

Biographical Note

Thomas Parke Hughes (1923-2014), one of the leading historians of technology of his era. Hughes was born on September 13, 1923, at Richmond, Virginia. He received all of his university education at the University of Virginia, where he received his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1947 and an M.A. in history and Ph.D. in European history in 1953.

Hughes taught history successively at Sweet Brier College (1954-1956), Washington and Lee (1956-1963), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1963-1966) before becoming a full professor at Southern Methodist University in 1969-1973.

Hughes spent the bulk of his teaching career (1973-1994) at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a major figure in the Department of History and Sociology of Science. Despite having to work under this older academic label, it was in the new and separate discipline of the History of Technology that Hughes made his mark. Along with Melvin Kranzberg (1917-1995), John B. Rae (1911-1988), Carl W. Condit (1914-1997) and others, he was one of the founders of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), which sucessfully separated it from the History of Science as a distinct academic discipline. SHOT awarded Hughes its Leonardo da Vinci Medal, its highest honor for lifetime achievement, and he received numerous other awards, fellowships, visiting professorships, and memberships in learned societies in both the U.S. and in Europe.

Hughes first book was a 1971 biography of the engineer-inventor Elmer A. Sperry (186-1930), but his main contribution was in the study of the large-scale techological systems, starting with, but not limited to, electric power networks. His second, and perhaps most ground-breaking book, Networks of Power: Electrification of Western Society, 1880-1930, was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 1983. Both books won SHOT's Dexter Prize and set the course for Hughes's further career. The ideas developed in Networks of Power were further refined and elaborated in 1989's American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870-1970, through Rescuing Prometheus (1997), Systems, Experts and Computers (2000), down to his last major work, Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture (2004).

Although not an academic sociologist, Hughes specialized in the social context of technology, the social networks and linkages among technologists and engineers, and the larger ways of thinking and acting when engaged in technological pursuits. Hughes pioneered thinking about technology in terms of systems rather than isolated inventions and innovations, helped develop the concepts of technological enthusiasm and technological momentum, and played a major role in scholarly debates over technological determinism and the social construction of technology.

Hughes died on February 3, 2014, in Charlottesville, Virginia, after a long illness.

Scope and Content

The records consist of research and production files covering Professor Hughes two most important books, Networks of Power, and his biography of Elmer Sperry. The first contains large quantities of notes, pamplets, clippings and other documents covering the development of large-scale electric power in the U.S. and Europe. Hagley's American patrons will find the collections of rare European materials particularly useful. The files also include copies of proposed illustrations, many not used in the final published version, as well as typed drafts, correspondence with publishers, and reviews.

The Sperry materials are most important for Sperry's original desk diaries, which Hughes collected for his research.

Access Restrictions

No restrictions on access; this collection is open for research.

These records are located in remote storage. Please contact staff 48 hours in advance of research visit at

Use Restrictions

Some materials are subject to copyright restrictions for further publication.

Use Restrictions

The bulk of the collection, consisting primarily of lecture notes and accompanying slides and notes pertaining to other books, remains unprocessed. It is badly compromised by mold damage as a result of being stored in a damp basement.

Additional Description

Separated Material

Professor Hughes personal library are in the Published Collections Department, Hagley Museum and Library, and are individually cataloged in Hagley's online public catalog. View the item records in Hagley's Catalog.

Related Names


Finding Aid & Administrative Information

Thomas Parke Hughes papers
Christopher T. Baer
Description rules:
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description:
Script of description:

Repository Details

Repository Details

Part of the Manuscripts and Archives Repository

PO Box 3630
Wilmington Delaware 19807 USA