Credit: GraphicaArtis/Hulton Archiva via Getty Images
Credit: GraphicaArtis/Hulton Archiva via Getty Images
Alexander Graham Bell may have his face plastered in every elementary school history book, but in 1876, at 27 years old, he hadn’t done much. At that time, he was a speech therapist who lived with his parents and was still trying to find direction in life. History books would remember him as curious about the world and one of the most innovative American thinkers of the 19th century. He was the kind of guy who at one point stole a full human ear off a cadaver so he could understand how vibration worked. But he wasn’t, as all those same books claim, the sole inventor of the telephone.
On Valentine’s Day 1876, Alexander Graham Bell’s lawyer hand-delivered a folder to the U.S. Patent Office. In it was an application for a patent of the first telephone, then called the “harmonic telegraph.” That very same day, Elisha Gray submitted a caveat. He didn’t want Bell to have the patent for a device Gray believed he had invented. The patent office granted Gray an extra three months to complete his patent so that the two could be compared fully, and when he did, the world of American invention erupted.
Two people, the scientific narrative claimed, couldn’t possibly have both invented the same thing. That would be absurd, and in this case, they seemed to have a point. Bell’s patent looked an awful lot like Gray’s and even used some of the technology Gray had invented to make it work.
Gray worked as a blacksmith before becoming an inventor. In the late 1860s, he created a musical telegraph, which was the first electronic musical instrument. By the 1870s, he and Bell were in a race to see who could build a working telephone first. Both were working in the same field and had attended many similar events. They definitely knew of each other, though there is no direct evidence that they ever interacted. Some true skeptics believe that Bell even visited Gray’s booth at a science conference and borrowed some of his demonstration to make his telephone prototype.
How two men developed and submitted the same invention on the same day really has only two potential answers. Either one of them stole the idea from the other, or neither of them were really creating something all that radical. In the case of the telephone, it’s a little bit of both.
Let’s start with the history. For centuries, we’ve been collecting and transmitting sound. Think about children creating a communication system using two tin cans and a string. By the time Bell and Gray began what would become an epic battle over the telephone, several inventors had already paved their way. In 1840, American Charles Grafton Page realized that sending an electric current through a coil of wire suspended between the poles of a horseshoe magnet created a ringing sound in the magnet. In 1854, a French telegrapher named Charles Bourseul was working on a kind of telephone made of disks; he had the idea but not the prototype.
The actual inventor of the telephone was neither Bell nor Gray, believe it or not. Italian inventor Antonio Meucci may have been the true first brain behind the telephone. In 1854, Meucci created a voice communication device that is now widely believed to have been the first telephone. He filed a patent for it in 1871 but failed to pay the $10 fee to continue his patent, allowing for a whole mess of ownership to occur. A 2002 resolution passed by the U.S. House of Representatives acknowledged Meucci’s pioneering work in the development of the telephone and claimed that had his patent been up to date, the whole debacle between Bell and Gray could have been avoided. In fact, there exists a whole separate conspiracy that Bell — who shared an office with Meucci — stole his telephone invention from both inventors and, in tying them together, gained the title of sole invention. Meucci sued Bell, and the fraud case was supposed to go to the Supreme Court, but Meucci died before the case could be tried. Meucci, like Gray, was also completely forgotten in the history books and rid from the public consciousness.
The telephone was, like many inventions, a product of the dozens of inventors’ ideas that came before it: special wiring and Bunsen batteries and electromagnetism. That history of development explains how both Bell and Gray ended up sending their lawyers to the U.S. Patent Office on the same day to file the same invention. Bell later claimed that his specification had been finished months before it was filed, and that a copy had been taken to England to retain a patent before he applied for one in America. (Worrying about the delay, Bell went ahead and filed in the United States.) But most simultaneous inventions do not happen quite so…simultaneously. The same conclusion might be reached in the same year, or season, or maybe even month. But the same day? “It was certainly a most striking coincidence that our applications should have been filed on the same day,” Bell wrote to Gray in 1877. Really, it seems like more than simply a coincidence of scientific advancement.
In his 2007 book, The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret, Seth Shulman argues that Bell actually stole the key idea behind the invention of the telephone. The key to his theory is that Bell’s patent for the telephone uses a liquid transmitter originally invented by Gray before either patent was submitted and that was included in Gray’s patent application. An untrustworthy witness at the Patent Office claimed in 1887, 10 years later, that Bell had given him $100 so he could get a look at Gray’s drawings. That statement was taken during the very public court scandal that ensued over just this problem.
A year after their simultaneous filings, Bell and Gray were in a public relations battle for whose name would end up credited for the invention of the telephone. On February 21, 1877, Gray planned to give a lecture in Chicago about telephonic developments. Still thinking that Bell had used a different technology than the one he submitted, Gray wrote to Bell, asking that he might present Bell’s technology as well to round out the lecture, saying, “I was unfortunate in being an hour or two behind you. There is no evidence that either knew that the other was working in this direction.” Bell tersely accused him of libel, but Gray reassured him, unaware that he maybe shouldn’t have.
After this, Bell calmed down, apologized, and (perhaps accidentally) led Gray into a trap. In his next letter, Gray would tell Bell, “I give you full credit for the talking feature of the telephone.” In his book The Telephone Patent Conspiracy of 1876, A. Edward Evanson writes that “at the time of this caveat, [Gray] had not yet made a model of his invention (nor was he required to) and,” therefore, would not have considered it a full, true invention. But at this time, Gray still had no idea that Bell had used the exact same technology as him to make the telephone work. Gray still believed, erroneously, that Bell had created his telephone using an electromagnetic device.
That letter, in which Gray would tell Bell, “I do not, however, claim even the credit of inventing it,” would later be presented to Gray in court. It had very little legal significance, but as a public relations tool, it was pure magic. Bell would eventually win the very public and scandalous patent case and be dubbed by the U.S. courts the initial inventor of the telephone. Experts on telephone technology have written that even if Bell had stolen the liquid transmitter technology, it wouldn’t have mattered. His knowledge of the telephone, and his filed patent, would have made his patent hold anyway.
Winning the public, for an inventor, is really all that matters. Both men ended up fine. Gray’s work continued long after his contribution to the telephone invention. He co-founded the Western Electric Manufacturing Company, a direct competitor of Bell’s American Telephone and Telegraph Company. In 1888, Gray invented the teleautography, which could send not only words, but also pictures, facsimiles, and handwriting. Over his lifetime, Gray obtained about 70 patents, making him an incredibly prolific American inventor. Bell, too, continued to work as a scientist, always considering the whole telephone debacle a distraction from his real work.
Within three years of each other, then, three men invented the same device and arrived at the same conclusion to an age-old problem. All three were brilliant technological minds who created over their lifetimes more than 100 innovations for modern society. But if the debate and conflict over which one of them invented the telephone tells us anything, it is that the person with the best public relations team wins in the end. Whether it was a coincidence or a theft or a race to the finish, Alexander Graham Bell’s name — not Elisha Gray’s or Antonio Meucci’s — had the best branding, and so he is the one who lives on.