Crossed Lines: The Men that Almost Invented the Telephone
The importance of the rights to the invention of the telephone can never be underestimated. In one US Congress report it was described as 'the most valuable single patent ever granted'. There are now close to two billion lines in service across the globe. With out this remarkable innovation the speed with which we live our lives today, and the ability to encompass any part of the world, no matter how remote, into the transom of our experience would be unthinkable.
The commonly held belief is that the Edinburgh-born elocution teacher Alexander Graham Bell was responsible for bringing this most vital piece of kit to the world, but there are several other inventors who felt that they had been defrauded.
It was back in 1849, when Bell was still just a toddler, that the Italian Antonio Meucci made a major discovery. At the time he was making a living in the Cuban capital Havana by administering electrotherapy treatments. He found that after attaching electrodes to the subject and starting to give out his remedy, despite the thick wall that separated them, he could hear the patient in the next room. He later moved to New York, and set about improving his invention. He filed a patent application for his 'Sound Telegraph' on 28th December 1871. Unfortunately, he was not able to raise enough funds to purchase a full patent, so instead he was forced to take out a caveat. Essentially this prevented anyone else from gaining priority for an invention. If another person tried file a patent which contained material that was deemed to interfere with the incumbent caveat, then its holder would have three months to pay for a full patent to counter the application, and assure their precedence. This cost only twenty dollars to purchase, as opposed to the princely sum of two hundred and fifty required for the alternative, on the downside however, it was not permanent, having to be restored every year. Sadly, it was his decision to go for this option that would prove to be his undoing. If he could have somehow found the money to take out the full patent, the history of telecommunication would have been completely different, and I would have been saved the need to tell you this story.He visited the offices of the powerful telegraph company Western Union, in the spring of 1872, and tried to pitch his invention to its executives. Meucci gave over prototypes of his telephone equipment in an attempt to get the company to test them on its lines. As the months rolled on and still nothing seemed to be happening, he began to get impatient. He was given the run around for almost a year and a half, chasing them constantly. Eventually furious at the company's lack of interest, he demandeded his materials to be returned, but was mortified to hear that they had apparently been 'lost'.The Italian may have been a good electrical engineer, but he was no business man. In this as well as a number of other ventures he was unable to make a success of things, and with time he would get closer to destitution. This would mean that with time he could no longer find the money needed to keep up the annual renewal fee for the caveat. He was completely unable to garner further support for his creation.
Enter: Mr Bell
It is often not considered that Alexander Bell was not actually an electrical engineer, nor did he have any telegraphic experience to speak off. He was in fact a speech therapist, who had moved from his native Scotland to North America in the early 1870s, settling in Boston. Through his research he had created a system in which a number of reeds relays acted in away that would allow them to represent different notes. This became the 'Harmonic Telegraph', which offered telegraph companies the possibility of sending several different messages down the same line. This would increase their throughput and allow them to better utilise the existing network. Western Union gained interest in his invention, and during the spring of 1875 he tested this equipment and the company's laboratories in New York, which was incidentally where Meucci's prototypes had been stored and subsequently mislaid. It was follow his return from these trails, then and only then, that Bell started to look at the possibility of sending human voice across wires. With the aid of a number of New England businessmen he worked on the concept, and managed to file the all important patent in the early stages of the following year.A court battle ensued between Meucci and Bell, as to who owned the rights to the invention. Despite no less the fifty affidavits from witnesses stating the Italian had constructed a working telecommunication device years before his counterpart. Nevertheless, the court was not impressed. The Bell camp was armed with a far stronger legal team, and it was not hard to make the story of aged inventor, who had little mastery of the English tongue, look somewhat spurious. In the end the judge's decision was that Meucci's caveat was too vague to conclusively show that Bell's work conflicted with it. Though the case went to appeal, it was all to no avail. Bell managed to orchestrate a series of delays, and these eventually paid off, as Meucci died before it went to court.
Crimes & misdemeanours
It did not stop there, Meucci's was just one of the conflicts that Bell would be forced to face. The release of the first telephone brought a great deal of uproar with it. Over six hundred lawsuits followed, it was to be a golden age for lawyers. In a number of cases brought before the United States Supreme Court, other individuals would claim that Bell had stolen the idea from them. Among these were Johann Philipp Reis, Amos Dolbear, and Elisha Gray.Reis, a German schoolteacher and amateur electrical engineer, had developed a device for transmitting basic sounds across electric wires back in 1860. The system was not able to carry to true speech though. Its transmitter mechanism worked on the principle of a diaphragm, which moved in an out when hit by sound waves. This had a needle connected to it, which would make contact with an electrical circuit once the diaphragm became distended (i.e. when a strong enough sound was incident). However, this was effectively an 'all or nothing' arrangement, it just differentiated between the existence of a sound and its complete absence. At best this could make a rough approximation of some single letters, it was certainly not capable of dealing with a variation in the magnitude or pitch of the sound while it was being produced. What was needed was something that could produce an analogue representation of the different undulations that were present in human speech. Reis's 'Telephon', as he called it, was only really suitable for transmitting musical notes or perhaps separate vocal sounds in isolation, but certainly nothing more than that. Even Reis himself did not foresee any form of commercial potential for the device, he had only used it as a toy, and had made no attempt to patent his work. After making a few public demonstrations in the early 1860s, he had lost interest in the project, and said nothing more about it until he saw the opportunity to try to capitalise on Bell's success. Unfortunately for him Reis died lolong before the case made it to trial.Amos Dolbear, another inventor from Boston, was one of a legion of technical experts that Western Union would use to try to beat Bell. Dolbear was a professor at Tufts College, who had developed a magnetic transmitter. It does appear that Bell had, as he would on several occasions, managed to assimilate this work, and patented it as his own. However, once more the courts did not want to know about it. He was to get nothing.
Born in Barnesville, Ohio, Elisha's parents, David and Christina, were both Quakers. His father was originally from Pennsylvania, and had moved to Ohio in 1832, where he had bought a smallholding, and tried to carve out a living as a dairy farmer. The untimely death of his father forced young Elisha to leave school early, so as to support his family. At first he found work as a blacksmith, but this proved to be too physically demanding, so he looked for employment elsewhere. He finally settled on the vocation of carpenter's apprentice, although he did not give up on his education. Sacrificing what little free time he had, Gray eventually managed to complete his preparatory schooling, and was coaxed by his friends and family into enrolling at Oberlin College. He studied there for five years, doing odd jobs on the side to help cover his expenses. In 1869, Gray became acquainted with Enos Barton, a former telegraph operator. With Barton he formed an electrical equipment firm in Chicago that became known as the Western Electric Manufacturing Company. Over the next few years he would work on a number of gadgets for use in telegraphy. Gray filed the caveat 'Instruments for Transmitting and Receiving Vocal Sounds Telegraphically', his version of the telephone, in February 1876. Fate was to play a cruel trick, as it would transpire that Gray's application was received just a couple of hours after Bell had submitted his. When it became apparent that these parties' documents conflicted with one another, both applications were suspended, and an investigation embarked upon. So how is it possible for two guys from separate cities to try to patent what was basically the same invention on exactly the same day. Coincidence does not seem to be a satisfactory explanation.It was finally ascertained that the Scot's document was received earlier than Gray's. Bell's application, which had been suspended, was thus reinstated on the 25th February. But thanks to a rather cororrupt patent clerk it appears he had managed to get access to Gray's application, and proceeded to glean information on how his rival had been proceeding with his device. Using the extracted data he was then able to modify his apparatus. Bell had forced Gray to show his hand, and was able to absorb his rival's ideas into his design. A total of four paragraphs were added to the application, based on what he had managed to take from Gray's work, most importantly replacing his transmitter system with the one favoured by his counterpart. In much the same way as he seemed to have managed with both Meucci and Dolbear, Bell had cherry picked the best parts of the research of others and then palmed them off as his own.
Back in late 1876, Bell offered the telegraph firm Western Union the rights to the telephone for a sum hundred thousand dollars, but it turned them down flat. The company had had not been willing to pay what it felt was an exorbitant fee, but when it finally woken up to the threat posed to its existing business, it had to find an alternative strategy to embrace. Armed with Gray's intellectual property, and the aid of a number of hard-working and eager to please telegraph engineers, it attempted to make a better telephone system. In November 1877, the American Speaking Telephone Company was established, and using the patents of Gray and Edison to wage war on Bell Telephone. Nevertheless, Western Union had backed the wrong horse. The firm started producing telephones early in 1878, but with the emergence of competing devices on the market, Bell sued for patent infringement that summer. After yet another long drawn-out case, the court once again sided with Bell. The dispute between Bell Telephone and Western Union finally came to a close in the autumn of 1879. To avoid appeals and further suits, the two companies struck a deal. Rather than having to fight to the death, an out of court settlement gave Western Union a fifth share in all revenues from telephone rentals for the remaining seventeen years of the patent. As part of the arrangement Bell brought up Gray's patents too.The fact that the judges had favoured Bell, left Gray disgruntled, so decided to turn his back on the business world, and went in to virtual retirement. He took a teaching post back at Oberlin College in 1880, where he had studied in his youth. For the rest of his life he was referred to as 'Professor Gray', but had never actually graduated. In 1888, Gray patented the 'Teleautograph', a device that could be used for reproducing handwriting and transporting it as an electrical signal across long distances (a sort of early facsimile). On the 12th January 1901, while staying with friends in the Massachusetts town of Newtonville, Gray collapsed in the street. He was rushed to the local infirmary, but died soon after, the victim of heart failure. While all of the others died bitter and twisted, as well as pretty much broke, Bell went on to be a globally renowned figure, an elder statesman of science and technology. He became a US citizen, and would be blessed with a life of comfort until pernicious anaemia finally carried him off in the summer of 1922. By the mid 1990s there were over half a billion telephone lines installed worldwide, and this total passed the one billion mark in 2004. That year there were also over half a billion mobile phones in service, and this is still rapidly increasing. Though what has happened in the hundred and twenty years since Bell's patent was granted is well documented, there is still no certainty as to how he arrived at that point, and whether it had been his ingenuity that was crucial its conception. Unfortunately the debate may continue for another six score years or more, but the matter is unlikely to ever be resolved.