© Zak Keith, 2009
If you answered “Alexander Graham Bell,” then you, along with millions of people around the world have been misinformed.
In 2001, the US Congress finally succumbed to the nagging truth and “changed its mind” on the issue, according credit to the real inventor and declaring that the original telephone was in fact invented by Antonio Meucci, a penniless Italian who did not speak a word of English and could not afford to patent his discovery.
As to Alexander Graham Bell? Well, he was just a successful patent applicant and, some would say, thief.
According to the US Congress, Bell was a cunning opportunist who took all the credit for a more brilliant scientist’s work. The House of Representatives voted to recognise mechanical genius, Antonio Meucci, as the father of modern communications, following a protracted battle by historians and Italian Americans.
The real inventor of the telephone, Meucci (1808—1989), had been working in Cuba in the 1830s, developing methods for treating illnesses using electric shocks, when he discovered the ability of sound to travel through electrical impulses. He later moved to Staten Island to follow up on his discovery. In 1860—16 years before Bell claimed to have invented the telephone—Meucci demonstrated his teletrofono in New York, but could not afford the $250 required to register a patent.
Bell, who took an interest in Meucci’s invention, convinced him to share his research material. They shared a lab together and Bell had full access to Meucci’s materials. Bell made good and clever use of Meucci before coming up with his own “invention” and applying for a patent in his own name. Meucci duly protested, but lacking connections, was unable to convince anyone that Alexander Graham Bell had stolen his ideas. Under general patent laws, then and today, Bell should have credited Meucci and agreed to share royalties with him.
Beset with debt, Meucci could not afford the $10 fee for maintaining the patent caveat and temporarily gave up pursuit of Bell in 1874. Two years later, Bell, uncontested by Meucci, was granted ownership of the patent. Interestingly, another contender, Elisha Gray, had also submitted a patent for the telephone some hours before Bell, but due to a technicality, Bell was the registrant whose application won.
Meucci finally decided to sue Bell, charging him with fraud in the Supreme Court. The case looked rather promising for Meucci, but unfortunately, before any proceedings could begin, Meucci died on October 18, 1889.
In 2001, the United States Congress took the extraordinary decision of doing justice to Meucci, passing a resolution officially according recognition to Meucci as the real inventor of the telephone, stating that “if Meucci had been able to pay the caveat after 1874, no patent could have been issued to Bell.” The US Congress further stated that given all the facts of the patent disputes between Gray and Bell, under no terms should Alexander Graham Bell have been awarded the patent for the telephone by the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 1876. Alexander Graham Bell was posthumously stripped of his dubious honor as the inventor of the telephone.
“Justice” was finally served... Well, sort of...
In effect, the Congressional resolution served only as a declaration and did not technically annul or modify the patent received by Bell in 1876. The resolution was also subsequently followed by another legislative declaration upholding Bell’s priority and his status as the inventor (patent holder) of the telephone.
Credit where credit is due:
Both Antonio Meucci and Elisha Gray should be credited with successfully inventing telephones in the United States before Alexander Graham Bell “invented” it in 1876. Others who performed pioneering experimental work with electrical voice transmissions over wires included Thomas Edison, Innocenzo Manzetti, Charles Bourseul and Johann Philipp Reis. The telephone, as we know it today, is largely based on improvements made by Thomas Edison on the original design—which was not Bell’s but Meucci’s.
©Zak Keith, 2009