For over 250 years, the name of Kelvin Hughes has been synonymous with the best traditions of nautical achievement. The history can be traced back to the middle of the 18th century with Thomas Hughes, a Master of the Clock-makers' Company, who rapidly made a reputation for his precision quadrants and timepieces which were used in marine navigation. His name and work was so prominent and highly thought of that in 1780 none other than the famous Captain Bligh of the Bounty bought one of Thomas Hughes' chronometers. This purchase was the part of a tradition as suppliers to both the Royal and Merchant Navies, which still flourishes today.
In 1838, Henry Hughes, Thomas' grandson, started his own company, and opened premises in Fenchurch Street in London, which, in those days, was at the heart of London's shipping business. Henry Hughes & Son soon became an important name with explorers and navigators of the period.
The shop was the frequented by people such as Captain Slocum, renowned for completing the first single-handed circumnavigation of the world, Shackleton and Evans of Antarctic fame, Lord Fisher of the Dreadnought, and the explorer Sir Henry Stanley, to name but a few.
In 1915, the site at Hainault, to the East of London, was purchased and in 1917, the first part of the factory opened. This site remains the headquarters of the modern Kelvin Hughes Ltd.
In 1923, the company produced the first practical recording echo sounder starting a product line that was to last for fifty years.
In 1935, S Smith & Son Ltd acquired a controlling interest in the company. This resulted in the development of new marine and aircraft instruments and a major expansion of the Hainault factory.
The other half of the Kelvin Hughes history was founded by William Thompson, who is recognised as one of Scotland's greatest scientists. As an example, his original compass card design remains in use virtually unchanged today. Of his many other inventions, his depth sounder put Britain decades ahead of other countries in underwater sound technology.
In 1858, he became one of the Directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, and as such, he was the chief instigator in the laying of the first trans-Atlantic cable. In Glasgow in 1850, he founded his first company and worked with the optical engineer, James White, to make scientific and navigational instruments.
In 1892 he was raised to the Peerage as Baron Kelvin of Largs and as a tribute to his work on thermodynamics, absolute temperatures are stated in units of kelvin in his honour. His collaboration with James White was the forerunner of the company, Kelvin Bottomley & Baird, which was created in 1913.
For the next thirty years, Henry Hughes & Son and Kelvin Bottomley & Baird were keen rivals. Both companies thrived in the inter-war years, expanding their portfolios into aviation and industrial instrumentation and both established reputations that were worldwide.
An accident of war finally brought the two companies together when they were both bombed out on the same night during the London blitz in 1941. Following the destruction of the Fenchurch street offices, discussions resulted in the establishing of the joint venture company, Marine Instruments Ltd in 1942. Five years later Kelvin and Hughes Ltd was formed by the merger of Henry Hughes & Son Ltd and Kelvin Bottomley & Baird Ltd with Marine Instruments Ltd acting as regional agents in the UK.
In the post-war years, the company grew as a manufacturer and innovator in marine electronics, specialising in the fields of sonar and radar. This capability dated from 1926, when Henry Hughes & Son designed and manufactured the first Admiralty pattern echo sounder.
The history of innovative firsts continued and in 1948, Kelvin and Hughes gained the first Type Approval for marine radar from the UK Ministry of Transport.
In 1961, the name was abbreviated to Kelvin Hughes, and the organisation became the marine division of Smiths Industries Limited. The Company remained in Smiths’ ownership until in 2007 it was acquired by the private equity group ECI.
Today Kelvin Hughes continues as a world leader in the design and supply of marine navigation and surveillance systems for land, sea and coastal applications. It has a highly innovative product range, which is designed to provide its customers with the most advanced technology and services available. In addition to its equipment business, through ChartCo, it provides a unique means of data supply to ships at sea via satellite. Kelvin Hughes is also the world’s largest supplier of nautical charts and publications for commercial and leisure use. It was the first company to introduce chart tracings to ease the navigator’s task of chart correction and pioneered the management of vessels’ chart portfolios ashore through its Outfit Management Services.
Recent technical innovations include development of the world’s first commercial solid-state marine radar, SharpEye™. This product represents a step change in commercial radar development and brings military grade performance to the commercial marine and surveillance marketplace for the first time. Available as an X, S or dual band sensor, SharpEye™ is the perfect solution for remote deployment in this demanding environment. With its unique operational features, SharpEye™ has found application not just in navigation and surveillance but also in other demanding applications such as avian detection and security.
Kelvin Hughes products are in use in a wide range of commercial vessels, luxury yachts and cruise liners, including the new Queen Mary 2. They are also in service with over 30 navies around the world, including fittings on every United Kingdom Royal Navy warship.
Together with sites in the UK, the company has offices in Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Washington and New Orleans and a network of agents that supply and service the merchant marine, fishing, naval and surveillance markets throughout the world.
Having earned three Queen's Awards to Industry in 1967, 1968 and 1975 Kelvin Hughes has a reputation for innovation, quality and service that is serving an ever-increasing customer base.
Whether it is for a paper chart or an integrated surveillance solution, Kelvin Hughes makes a point of maintaining the standards set all those years ago by Thomas Hughes and Lord Kelvin.