Is There One True Inventor of the Telephone?

413755JPNNLOn the 10th of March 1876, three days after his patent was issued, Scottish-born Canadian scientist Alexander Graham Bell (1847 – 1922) succeeded in communicating with sound, using a liquid transmitter similar to Elisha Gray’s design of an early telephone. Controversy reigned over who was the first actual inventor of the device, and recent books claim that Bell appropriated Gray’s ideas, even bribed an inspector to let him snoop on the patent Gray’s was filing. On the fateful day, the vibration of Bell’s telephone diaphragm caused a needle to vibrate in the water, varying the electrical resistance in the circuit. When Bell spoke the famous sentence “Mr. Watson, come here I want you” into the liquid transmitter, his assistant, listening at the receiving end in an adjoining room of his Boston laboratory, heard the words clearly and promptly acted on Bell’s request. The rest is history, or is it?

Perhaps a less known fact is, that a staggering 16 years prior to Bell’s famed Eureka moment, Antonio Santi Giuseppe Meucci (1808–1889) was able to demonstrate a similar sound communication device descriptive of an early telephone in a 1860 public demonstration in New York. He managed to set up a form of voice-communication link in his Staten Island home that connected its second-floor bedroom to his laboratory. As early as 1871, he submitted a patent caveat for his telephonic device to the U.S. Patent Office without though mentioning electromagnetic transmission of vocal sound in his caveat. While Bell was officially granted the patent in 1876, for the ‘electromagnetic transmission of vocal sound by undulatory electric current’, Meucci’s discoveries got sidelined.  

In The Guardian’s article of 17 June 2002, Rory Carroll wrote of an unexpected development in official recognition of the telephone invention. On the 11th of June 2002, “Italy hailed the redress of a historic injustice yesterday after the US Congress recognised an impoverished Florentine immigrant as the inventor of the telephone rather than Alexander Graham Bell. Historians and Italian-Americans won their battle to persuade Washington to recognise a little-known mechanical genius, Antonio Meucci, as a father of modern communications, 113 years after his death. The vote by the House of Representatives 71zdG6-KFNL._SL1200_prompted joyous claims in Meucci’s homeland that finally Bell had been outed as a perfidious Scot who found fortune and fame by stealing another man’s work. Calling the Italian’s career extraordinary and tragic, the resolution said his “teletrofono”, demonstrated in New York in 1860, made him the inventor of the telephone in the place of Bell, who had access to Meucci’s materials and who took out a patent 16 years later.” On the initiative of congressman Vito Fossella, in cooperation with an Italian-American deputation, the U.S. House of Representatives passed United States HRes. 269 on Antonio Meucci stating “that the life and achievements of Antonio Meucci should be recognized, and his work in the invention of the telephone should be acknowledged.” Within its preamble it stated that: “if Meucci had been able to pay the $10 fee to maintain the caveat after 1874, no patent could have been issued to Bell.”

Meucci, trained in design and mechanical engineering in his native Florence, had worked as a local theatre stage technician and started developing communication systems to help his colleagues early on. “In the 1830s he moved to Cuba and, while working on methods to treat illnesses with electric shocks, found that sounds could travel by electrical impulses through copper wire. Sensing potential, he moved to Staten Island, near New York City, in 1850 to develop the technology. When Meucci’s wife, Ester, became paralysed he rigged a system to link her bedroom with his neighbouring workshop and in 1860 held a public demonstration which was reported in New York’s Italian-language press. In between giving shelter to political exiles, Meucci struggled to find financial backing and failed to master English”. (Rory Carroll in The Guardian, 17 June 2002). It seemed that everything was going against Meucci in getting accreditation for the discovery, and the main obstacle was, obviously, financial.

In The Telephone Gambit (2009), Seth Shulman records how various nations have since claimed the prized invention of the most modern discovery of the 19th century: “French accounts tend to emphasize Charles Bourseul’s theoretical underpinnings of the phone (1854). […] Germans frequently cite the 1860 electric telephone by Phillipp Reis. Compared to all these pioneers, Gray and Bell came rather late. Bell is championed in his home country, Scotland; his adopted home, Canada; 51lkWjs2APLand the United States (he became a U.S. citizen 6 years after filing his patent). Unlike his predecessors, however, Bell was able to create a successful phone company, and he thus acquired financial and public relations resources that helped to widely promote his own view of who invented the phone. What can we learn from this? When the time is ripe for an invention, it tends to be pursued and developed in various places until someone manages to make a public breakthrough. At least in popular culture, much of the credit is bestowed upon the last contributor, even when the essential original insights came from others. As they say: Columbus did not become famous because he was the first to discover America, but because he was the last.” (Jürgen Schmidhuber, ‘The Last Inventor of the Telephone’, Science