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Posted Tuesday March 7, 2006 07:00 AM EST

Inventing the Telephone—And Triggering All-Out Patent War

An Italian postage stamp honors one of Alexander Graham Bell?s chief competitors (around the stamp is a drawing from Meucci?s patent caveat).
An Italian postage stamp honors one of Alexander Graham Bell’s chief competitors (around the stamp is a drawing from Meucci’s patent caveat).

On March 3, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell celebrated his twenty-ninth birthday and received the one present he’d been fervently hoping for. It came from the U.S. Patent Office, in the form of its official approval for his “Improvement in Telegraphy.” Four days later—130 years ago today—the government made its position irrefutable, issuing Patent Number 174,465 for the equipment that put voices on a wire.

That date, March 7, 1876, gave rise to the telephone industry, ever insistent on being the very hub of modern life. March 7, moreover, was especially dear in the hearts of lawyers, a whole generation of whom received a career’s worth of employment in court testing the strength of the Bell telephone patent.

Alexander Graham Bell was a lanky fellow, with a high forehead and a face full of whiskers worn in the topiary fashion of the 1870s. He was apparently likeable, with the charisma of a dedicated teacher, which is just what he was. Springing from a family of elocutionists, he was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, but moved to Canada at the age of 23, ending up in the Boston area a few years later.

He naturally gravitated toward the family enterprise, becoming a speech teacher. His success in teaching deaf people to read lips and speak was regarded as a phenomenon in Boston. Bell, ever ambitious, founded a School of Vocal Physiology to propagate his methods, even as he limited his own teaching to a few select pupils. One person he privately tutored (and later married) was the daughter of Gardiner G. Hubbard, a lawyer and former congressman. Hubbard didn’t have a great deal of money, but he did have connections and an understanding of government, two assets crucial to any inventor who has decided to revolutionize the world.

Bell’s inventing started when he tried to devise a so-called harmonic telegraph, which would multiply the number of messages that could be sent simultaneously over a single wire. The tones in the scale would separate the messages. Because Bell didn’t know much about electricity or mechanical design, he depended heavily on others, eventually hiring a local workman named Thomas Watson as his assistant.

In attempting to make a wire play, in effect, a musical note, Bell and others on the trail of the harmonic telegraph could not help but look one step further. If electricity could carry one specific sound down a wire, it could no doubt carry any sound or combination of sounds, including that of a voice. Bell worked a long time without success in either sphere until June 3, 1875, when a rudimentary design transmitted what an official Bell history called “speech sounds.” The appliance in question didn’t appear particularly useful, with so few people actually clamoring to hear speech sounds, but it was enough to set down into a patent.

Bell delayed his application. He said this was because he planned to apply simultaneously in Great Britain and the United States, but after eight months neither had happened. On February 14, 1876, Hubbard, the lawyer, went ahead and filed the patent application for him. The patent was issued on March 7; three days after that, Bell introduced a liquid element, containing an acid-water compound, at the transmitting end of the phone. That allowed for some resistance in the initial vibration and so a truer replication of voice tone. When he spilled some of the acid compound on himself, he cried out the immortal sentence “Mr. Watson—Come here—I want to see you.”

The intriguing aspect of the “Mr. Watson” incident is the conclusion to which it leads: Bell already had his patent in hand when he finally got his invention to work. That rankled some of his competitors in the race to develop a telephone, and so did the date of the original patent filing. All of a sudden, on February 14, Gardiner Hubbard was in a tremendous rush to have the patent application stamped as “received” at the patent office. He seemed preternaturally motivated.

In Chicago, on that same day, Elisha Gray was sliding his patent caveat, a notice of intent to develop an invention of a particular description, across a desk in the government office. An engineer with Western Union, Gray had also developed the basic technology of telephonic communication. His patent was received a few hours later than Bell’s, however, and so it was disallowed. It was suggested in court in later proceedings that Hubbard had learned of Gray’s imminent filing and, moreover, had arranged with someone in the patent office to give Bell’s application priority no matter what else happened. For his part, Bell offered to sell the patent outright to Western Union for $100,000. The president of the company balked, countering that the telephone was nothing but a toy. Two years later, he told colleagues that if he could get the patent for $25 million he’d consider it a bargain. By then it wasn’t for sale.

Once the telephone was established as a business proposition, the patent infringement lawsuits began in earnest; eventually, there were 600 of them. The most ambitious lasted 17 years and spawned a shelf of books 10 feet long—just to hold the testimony.

Elisha Gray was in the middle of several of the lawsuits. So was Thomas Edison, who had invented a working telephone before Bell, though he had not patented it as such; in the meantime he had refined the telephone in so many ways that he, too, claimed Bell’s patent to be flawed. Companies were often started only to promote claims against the Bell patent. No one, however, had a better battalion of lawyers than the Bell group. Among them was Edward J. Storrow; he started his career by helping Bell Telephone survive and toward the end of it put General Motors on its feet.

The opponent who scared Bell Telephone most, however, may well have been a sickly old man by the name of Antonio Meucci. Born in Florence, Italy, Meucci had been trained as an engineer. He invented a telephone in about 1850. Fleeing to North America for political reasons, he eventually settled on New York City’s Staten Island. He submitted his designs for the telephone to a man named Grant, the vice president of the New York District Telegraph Company.

Grant must have regarded Meucci as easy prey: an Italian immigrant who could not speak English and knew little of American business. For three years, Grant put Meucci off, delaying a decision with one excuse after another. Finally he told the inventor that the plans had been lost. In 1871 Meucci applied to the Patent Office for a caveat. He would have applied for an actual patent, but he couldn’t afford the fee. At the time a caveat was a defensible legal instrument, but after the three-year term was up, Meucci didn’t have any money with which to file a renewal.

With that, Meucci might just have fallen into line as yet another person who had invented the phone before Alexander Graham Bell. The rumor about the Meucci claim, though, was that Grant had somehow made Meucci’s designs available to Bell. There is no proof of that insinuation, but the fact that the plans were “lost” by the New York District Telegraph Company makes it at least a possibility.

At the U.S. Patent Office in the late nineteenth century, being first and having the best lawyers was crucial—far more important than being the best inventor or having specific designs. And on that basis the Bell Telephone Company and its successor, AT&T, built a twentieth-century empire on Alexander Graham Bell’s indomitable patent of March 7, 1876.

Julie M. Fenster is the author with Douglas Brinkley of Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism (Morrow, 2006).

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