On This Day: Alexander Graham Bell Granted Patent for Telephone
On March 7, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell received a patent for the telephone; three days later, he and associate Thomas Watson successfully tested their invention. Elisha Gray, Antonio Meucci and Thomas Edison all claimed to have invented the telephone first, and the issue is still a source of controversy.
Did Bell Steal the Telephone Patent?
Sources in this Story
PBS: The Telephone: More About Bell
Library of Congress: The Telephone and the Multiple Telegraph
Library of Congress: "Mr. Watson–come here!”
American Heritage: Inventing the Telephone—And Triggering All-Out Patent War
The Washington Post: The Bell Telephone: Patent Nonsense?
Scientific American: Whose Phone Is It, Anyway: Did Bell Steal The Invention?
Library of Congress: Everyday Mysteries
Gallaudet University: The Influence of Alexander Graham Bell
There has long been a debate over whether Bell was truly the first man to invent the telephone. Bell was presented with more than 600 patent lawsuits, but the courts continually ruled that he was legally the inventor.
There are several controversies about the invention. First is that Bell received a patent before he had a working device, which was unusual. His critics, including Elisha Gray and Thomas Edison—who claimed to have had a working telephone but did not file for a patent—accused Bell’s father-in-law, former Congressman Gardiner G. Hubbard, of persuading the patent office to give Bell his patent over Gray.
Seth Shulman, author of “The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell's Secret,” presents a case that Bell actually stole Gray’s patent. According to Shulman, Bell was having difficulty getting his device to work before a February 1876 trip to Washington, D.C., where he bribed a patent officer to get a look at Gray’s caveat filing. When he returned to his lab on March 8, he made a breakthrough using a water-and-acid solution described in Gray’s caveat.
Edward Evenson, author of “The Telephone Patent Conspiracy of 1876,” also believes that Bell saw Gray’s caveat. But University of Virginia professor Bernard Carlson disputes this notion, telling The Washington Post, “Bell doesn't simply take what he saw or didn't see in Gray's caveat. They are two similar devices but two very different principles. They look alike but they don't work alike.”
Some people believe that the telephone predates the work of Bell, Gray and Edison. Antonio Meucci, an Italian immigrant, developed the design of a “talking telegraph” in 1849. He filed for a patent caveat in 1871, but due to financial difficulties he was unable to renew it three years later. He, too, later sued Bell, but died before the Supreme Court could hear his case.
In 2002, Italian-American Congressman Vito Fossella persuaded the House of Representatives to recognize Meucci as the true inventor of the telephone. “If Meucci had been able to pay the $10 fee to maintain the caveat after 1874, no patent could have been issued to Bell,” said the House resolution.
Shulman and Edwin Grosvenor, Bell’s great-grandson and biographer, say that Meucci’s device was too crude to be recognized as the first telephone. “Meucci's telephone was more like two tin cans and a thread,” said Shulman.
Report from "Finding Dulcinea" by Dulcinea Staff
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Tags: Alexander Graham Bell , Telephone , Patent , March 7 1876 , Bell
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