As any quiz enthusiast will tell you, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. He was awarded a patent for the telephone in 1876, and he and his fledgling telephone company successfully defended that patent against more than 600 legal challenges – five of which went all the way to the US Supreme Court. This, you might think, is pretty good evidence that Bell really did get there first.
The telephone patent subsequently turned out to be one of the most valuable in history, and that may help to explain some of the enthusiasm with which it was challenged in the courts. However, there have always been lingering suspicions that Bell’s success may have been partly attributable to dodgy dealings within the US Patent Office. Careful study of Bell’s laboratory notebook throws up some remarkable similarities to the patent caveat filed by his arch rival, Elisha Gray. It appears that Bell may have retrospectively modified the text of his patent application after being shown Elisha Gray’s caveat by an accomplice who worked in the patent office.
I was aware of this controversy when I wrote about the invention of the telephone in DOT-DASH TO DOT.COM, but my treatment of the subject focussed on the sequence of events that led Bell from his investigations into a “harmonic telegraph” to the development of the “gallows telephone”, and these facts are not in dispute. Bell’s gallows telephone was based on sound principles and ought to have worked – but didn’t because of an implementation error. At that point, Bell suddenly (and inexplicably) changed to a totally different “variable resistance” microphone that looked strangely similar to one used by Gray, and this produced a working telephone. As I said in the book:
“Careful examination of Gray’s caveat shows that he understood the principles of the telephone and—given a little more time—would almost certainly have been able to produce a working model. Furthermore, Gray’s caveat contained a description of a variable resistance transmitter that was remarkably similar to the one used by Bell when he spoke the first words to be received over a telephone. It was later claimed that the part of Bell’s patent that deals with the variable resistance transmitter was added after it had been filed. Gray believed that Bell had updated his patent application after illegally being shown a copy of Gray’s caveat by friends in the Patent Office.”
I’ve just finished reading “The Telephone Gambit” by Seth Shulman, and I have to say that I’m now pretty convinced that Bell won the race by cheating. I still believe that Bell arrived at all the key components of a viable telephone through his own efforts, but I’m less certain that he would have been awarded the famous patent without some help from within the US Patent Office. The Telephone Gambit reads like a detective story, and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in this fascinating corner of history.
So does this mean that future quizzes will recognise Elisha Gray as the inventor of the telephone? Well, possibly not. In 2002, the US House of Representatives passed a resolution that named a Florentine immigrant to the United States, Antonio Meucci, as the inventor of the telephone (strangely, Shulman’s book doesn’t mention him at all). Furthermore, there are some who would argue that a German schoolteacher called Philipp Reis actually got there first. This is a question that doesn’t have a simple answer, and my advice would be to omit it from future quizzes!