The history books pick and choose "who invented it" based on who won a specific patent battle.
When asked who invented the telephone the name Alexander Graham Bell is often offered as the correct answer. Alexander Graham Bell patented his telephone first, the U.S. Patent Office awarded Alexander Bell, United States Patent No. 174,465 in 1876.
Who invented the Telephone?
An argument could be made for the answer to who invented the telephone could be Alexander Graham Bell, Elisha Gray, or Antonio Meucci. In the 1870s all three of these individuals worked on the technology to transmit speech electrically that would become our telephone system.
In the "who invented it" mythology everyone is looking for that one "eureka" moment when something appears out of thin air, a totally new idea. In the real world of technology, inventions are part of an evolution of ideas.
Early development of the telegraph and telephone
The telephone was an extension of the work done by Samuel Morse in developing the telegraph in the 1830s. Samuel Morse independently developed and patented a recording electric telegraph in 1837. The first telegram in the United States was sent by Morse January 1838, across two miles of wire at near Morristown, New Jersey.
History books tell us Samuel Morse invented the telegraph based on a 1837 patent, but another inventor, Dr. David Alter, invented his own version of the telegraph in 1836.
According to his biography from the book American Medical Biographies by Howard Kelly and Walter Burrage, 1920, Dr. David Alter "perfected an electric telegraph in 1836 which consisted of seven wires, the electricity deflecting a needle on a disc at the extremity of each wire."
Some sources state that Alter also invented a "speaking telegraph, " a forerunner of the modern telephone system. The little known inventor from Western Pennsylvania was also a pioneer in "the discovery of the principles underlying spectrum analysis."
Early development of the Reis telephone
In 1861, German scientist and inventor Johann Philipp Reis succeeded in creating a device that captured sound, converted it to electrical impulses which were transmitted via electrical wires to another device that transformed these pulses into recognizable sounds similar to the original acoustical source. Reis coined the term telephone to describe his device
Would you believe Antonio Meucci invented the telephone?
Many people would argue that Antonio Meucci invented the telephone. Antonio Meucci worked in developing electromagnetic voice transmission, and is recognized as a early pioneer of telephone on the the Library of Congress website.
Quoting from the Library of Congress website:
" Of course, Alexander Graham Bell is the father of the telephone. After all it was his design that was first patented, however, he was not the first inventor to come up with the idea of a telephone.
Antonio Meucci, an Italian immigrant, began developing the design of a talking telegraph or telephone in 1849."
In 2002 the United States Congress passed resolution HRes 269 EH acknowledging the contributions of Antonio Meucci for his work in the telephone's development, stating: "That it is the sense of the House of Representatives that the life and achievements of Antonio Meucci should be recognized, and his work in the invention of the telephone should be acknowledged".
The Antonio Meucci conspiracy theory
Although the Library of Congress website states that Meucci began developing the design of a telephone in 1849, it was many years later, December 1871, that Meucci filed a patent caveat, not a patent, for a telephone device with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Patent caveats according to law were "a description of an invention, intended to be patented, lodged in the patent office before the patent was applied for, and operated as a bar to the issue of any patent to any other person regarding the same invention." Caveats lasted one year and were renewable.
Patent caveats were much less costly than a full patent application and required a less detailed description of the invention. If within the year another inventor filed a patent application for a similar invention, the Patent Office notified the holder of the caveat, who then had three months to submit a formal application. Antonio Meucci did not renew his caveat after 1874 and Alexander Graham Bell was granted a patent in March of 1876.
According to some theories, Antonio Meucci did not know English well enough to navigate the complex American business community, and was unable to raise sufficient funds to pay his way through the patent application process. Other stories claim that Meucci was told that the Western Union affiliate laboratory reportedly lost his working models. Interesting, Alexander Graham Bell, conducted experiments in the same laboratory where Meucci's materials had been stored.
It should be pointed out that a caveat does not guarantee that a patent will be granted, or what the scope of that patent will be. Antonio Meucci understood how the patent system worked, he was granted fourteen patents for other inventions. There are unanswered questions as to why Meucci did not file a patent application for his telephone, when patents were granted to him in 1872, 1873, 1875, and 1876.
Patent wars Elisha Gray versus Alexander Graham Bell
In the 1870s, two inventors, Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell, both independently designed devices that could transmit speech electrically. Alexander Graham Bell's lawyer filed his patent application for the telephone in the U.S. patent office in Washington, D.C. on February 14, 1876. Elisha Gray's lawyer filed Gray's patent caveat the same day.
The phenomenon known as "multiple discovery" is when notable inventions have occurred simultaneously and independently among different inventors. It happens often as similar work is being done at the same time independently of each other because the evolution of technology that leads to the invention is going on all over. Was the patent office filings of both inventors on the same day the result of multiple discovery, or some other less than ethical action?
There is no shortage of conspiracy suggesting that Bell had illegally acquired knowledge of Gray's invention. Gray and Bell entered into a famous legal battle over the invention of the telephone, which Bell won.
Everyone knows the name Alexander Graham Bell because Bell Telephone is the company people associate with the evolution of the telephone.
In 1872, Elisha Gray founded the Western Electric Manufacturing Company, a company that would eventually evolve into Lucent Technologies. How many people know the name Elisha Gray?
The question of who invented the telephone may seem simple, but like so many modern devices in the history of technology, the story behind "who invented it" is very interesting because none of these "inventions" were the work of one man.
Main photograph (top): History books tell us Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone
but fail to mention Antonio Meucci (left) or Elisha Gray (right).
Smaller photograph: The little known inventor from Western Pennsylvania Dr. David Alter