Maybe Bell didn't invent the phone

Maybe Bell didn't invent the phone
Determining the true inventor of a specific invention can be tricky.

Often credit goes to the inventor of the most practical or best working invention or the first person to secure a patent, rather than to the original inventor.

There is a lot of controversy and intrigue surrounding the invention of the telephone, with court cases, books, articles and websites dealing with the subject.

Alexander Graham Bell's design that was first one patented (in 1876), but he was not the first inventor to come up with the idea of a telephone.


Antonio Meucci, an Italian immigrant to the US, began developing the design of a telephone in 1849. In 1871, he filed a caveat (an announcement of an invention) for his design.

Due to financial hardship, Meucci could not renew his caveat, and his role in the invention of the telephone was overlooked until the United States House of Representatives passed a Resolution in 2002, honoring Meucci's contributions and work.

That resolution, "Sense of the House Honoring the Life and Achievements of 19th Century Italian-American Inventor Antonio Meucci" was sponsored by Italian-American Congressman Vito Fossella who represented Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn, NY. Fossella said, "Antonio Meucci was a man of vision whose enormous talents led to the invention of the telephone. Meucci began work on his invention in the mid-1800s, refining and perfecting the telephone during his many years living on Staten Island."


Elisha Gray, a professor at Oberlin College, applied for a caveat of the telephone on the same day Bell applied for his patent of the telephone.

In Historical First Patents: The First United States Patent for Many Everyday Things, Travis Brown, reports that Bell got to the patent office first, on February 14, 1876. He was the fifth entry of that day, while Gray was 39th. The US Patent Office awarded Bell the patent, Number 174,465 rather than honor Gray's caveat.

On the morning of Monday February 14, 1876, Gray signed and had notarized the caveat that described a telephone that used a liquid microphone. His attorney submitted it to the Patent Office.

That same morning a lawyer for Alexander Graham Bell submitted Bell's patent application. The caveat allowed an inventor to delay filing the more expensive application, while still establishing priority of invention.

If a patent application for the same invention was later filed by a different person, the patent office would declare an interference and contact the first person and allow him or her to file a substitute application within three months.

When Gray was notified through Baldwin, his lawyer, of this interference, Baldwin advised Gray to abandon his caveat because he said Bell had invented it first and had it notarized earlier than Gray. When Gray agreed to abandon his caveat, the examiner granted the patent to Bell.

Gray's caveat was taken to the US Patent Office a few hours before Bell's application. But the filing fee for Gray's caveat was entered on the cash blotter hours after Bell's filing fee which led to the myth that Bell had arrived at the Patent Office earlier.

Bell was in Boston on February 14 and did not know this was happening until he arrived in Washington on February 26. Whether Bell's application was filed before or after Gray's caveat no longer mattered, because Gray abandoned his caveat and that opened the door to Bell being granted the patent.

Although Gray had abandoned his caveat, Gray applied for a patent for the same invention in late 1877. This put him in interference with Bell's patents. The patent examiner held "while Gray was undoubtedly the first to conceive of and disclose the [variable resistance] invention, as in his caveat of February 14, 1876, his failure to take any action amounting to completion until others had demonstrated the utility of the invention deprives him of the right to have it considered." Gray challenged Bell's patent anyway, and after two years of litigation, Bell was awarded rights to the invention, and as a result, Bell is credited as the inventor.

In 1869, prior to his telephone "inventing," Elisha Gray and partner Enos M. Barton had founded Gray & Barton Co. in Cleveland, Ohio to supply telegraph equipment to Western Union. In 1872, the partnership became Western Electric. Ironically, despite Gray's patent loss to Bell, Gray's Western Electric became the exclusive manufacturer of telephone equipment for the Bell System. By the early 1900s, Western became of the largest manufacturers in the world.

Western Electric also had a thriving electrical distribution business, furnishing customers with non-telephone products made by other manufacturers. The distribution business was spun off as Graybar Electric Company in 1925. Graybar is now a major distributor of telephone equipment, including products made by Western Electric successors Lucent and Avaya.


Other claimants as inventors of the telephone, challenging the universal fame gained by Alexander Graham Bell, are Johann Philipp Reis, Innocenzo Manzetti, and Charles Bourseul in Europe, and Amos Dolbear, Sylvanus D. Cushman, Daniel Drawbaugh, Edward Farrar, and James McDonough in the United States.


(info from the Library of Congress, Wikipedia and esanet.it)