He was an 1848 graduate and class valedictorian of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio during the period history when an impressive roster of men emerged from that small college in Ohio to accomplish great feats for society. He was a member of the Alpha chapter of Beta Theta Pi, founded only 9 years before his graduation in 1839. In 1863, Laws, manager of New York City's Gold Exchange and an amateur electrician, invented the gold indicator to put an end to the crush of messenger boys scurrying into the Exchange and back out to their clients with the latest gold price in hand. As the price of gold changed, an electrical signal sent from the trading floor would cause a hand on the device--a clocklike dial rimmed with numerals--to move until it pointed to the latest trading price.
Laws initially placed a gold indicator in a window at the Exchange, but he soon began installing them, through his newly founded Reporting Telegraph Co., in brokerage firms throughout Manhattan and pushing the latest prices of gold over the telegraph wires. Thus, as early as 1866, brokerage houses willing to pay the monthly fee could base trades on up-to-the-minute market information rather than waiting for runners to bring the news. In June 1869, Laws hired a penniless would-be inventor named Thomas A. Edison as mechanical supervisor.
Laws was also a Presbyterian clergyman, and served as president of Westminster College, Missouri (1854-61) and the University of Missouri (1876-89). In addition to Miami, he had earned degrees in religion from the Princeton Theological Seminary, in law from Columbia University and medicine from the Bellevue Hospital Medical College.
Miami University named the building that houses most of the Richard T. Farmer School of Business after Laws, and at the University of Missouri, residential building Laws Hall and Laws Observatory were also named in honor of Laws.