Telephone Invention Dispute? That Rings a Bell

Pipe in hand, Alexander Graham Bell listens to the sound of success through his headphones
Pipe in hand, Alexander Graham Bell listens to the sound of success through his headphones

by Ray Setterfield


March 7, 1876 — As everyone knows, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Or did he? He was certainly granted a patent on this day for the device. But over a 20-year period the Bell Telephone Company which he founded faced more than 600 court challenges over the issue.

None succeeded, but things certainly looked grim for Bell in 1887 when the US Government moved to withdraw his patent on the grounds of fraud and misrepresentation. An eventual Supreme Court ruling supported Bell.

It is certainly true that other scientists, including Antonio Meucci and Elisha Gray, were working on similar ideas at the time Bell received his patent. They both lost out partly because instead of applying for a full patent, they simply registered what was known as a patent caveat.

No longer issued, this was a preliminary patent, which meant that the inventor had 90 days to come up with a full detailed application. In that time anyone coming forward with the same or similar invention would have to give way. But the patent caveat had to be renewed annually.

Meucci, an immigrant from Cuba, worked in New York on an electronic communications device that linked various rooms and floors of his house. He couldn’t afford a full patent application so he filed a cheaper patent caveat. But by 1874 he was so broke that he could not afford to renew the caveat.

Elisha Gray, who grew up on a farm in Ohio, studied electricity at college. He received his first patent – for an improved telegraph relay – in 1867 and went on to secure many patents for his inventions.

A patent caveat for a telephone device that he had been working on was filed on February 14, 1876. It was called “Transmitting Vocal Sounds Telegraphically.” Unfortunately for Gray, Bell’s patent application had been filed a few hours earlier. Bell’s was the fifth entry of the day while Gray’s was 39th.

Accordingly, on March 7 Bell was awarded the first patent for a telephone. It came after years of hard work.

Born in Edinburgh in 1847, Bell’s father was a professor of elocution. The boy began inventing things at an early age and at 12 came up with a device of great interest to the farming community – it quickly removed husks from wheat grain.

The Bell family moved to Canada in 1870 and to the United States the following year. Based in Boston, Massachusetts, Bell went on to establish speech therapy practices that helped deaf children to speak. His work also benefited his mother who was deaf despite being an accomplished pianist.

In the 1870s Bell began working on a way to send voice signals over a telegraph line – a system known as the "harmonic telegraph”. Working with him was Thomas Watson, a young electrician whose services he had enlisted.

Mary Bellis, the film director who specialised in writing about inventors and inventions, described their success: “On June 2, 1875, while experimenting with his harmonic telegraph, Bell and Watson discovered that sound could be transmitted over a wire.

“It was a completely accidental discovery. Watson was trying to loosen a reed that had been wound around a transmitter when he plucked it by accident. The vibration produced by that gesture travelled along the wire into a second device in the other room where Bell was working.

“The ‘twang’ Bell heard was all the inspiration that he and Watson needed to accelerate their work. They continued to work into the next year.

“Bell recounted the critical moment in his journal: I then shouted into M [the mouthpiece] the following sentence: 'Mr. Watson, come here – I want to see you.' To my delight, he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said.”

Like Elisha Gray, Antonio Meucci claimed Bell had stolen his ideas. But author Tom Farley wrote: “[For that] to be true, Bell must have falsified every notebook and letter he wrote about coming to his conclusions. That is, it is not enough to steal, you must provide a false story about how you came along on the path to discovery.

“You must falsify each step toward invention. Nothing in Bell's writing, character, or his life suggest he did so. Indeed, in the more than 600 lawsuits which involved him, no one else was credited for inventing the telephone.”

Bell worked on hundreds of projects throughout his life and received many patents for his inventions. They included the metal detector, which he came up with to locate the bullet inside the body of assassinated President James A. Garfield.

Ironically, Alexander Graham Bell, who died aged 75 from diabetes complications, always refused to have a telephone in his study, fearing it would distract him from his work.

Published: February 12, 2020

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