Tech UPTechnologyThe dark side of the invention of the telephone

The dark side of the invention of the telephone


Once the telegraph began to spread, radically changing the world of communications, the next step was obvious: the search for the “talking telegraph”. That meant finding a way to convert electrical impulses into sound.

This happened in 1876. Although we all have in mind the name of Alexander Graham Bell , the thing is not so simple. On February 14, 1876, Elisha Gray -an inventor of humble origins who is considered the father of the music synthesizer- presented the documentation of his invention in the patent office in Washington while Bell, in Boston, did the same. . Gray’s application reached the patent office a few hours before Bell’s , but Bell’s attorneys insisted on paying the application fee immediately: as a result, the office filed Bell’s application first, which was approved and officially registered on March 7. Three days later, Bell made the famous call to his assistant, demonstrating the feasibility of his invention: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”

The debut of the telephone was held at the World’s Fair in Philadelphia in June 1876. Among those in attendance was the physicist William Thomson (later to be known as Lord Kelvin ), who had quickly amassed a small fortune from patents in the field. of telegraphy and that, being the good bon vivant he was, he had polished it during a brief stay in Paris.It was he who brought Bell’s telephone to England.

However, the model that was described in the patent was not practical . Only after extensive redesign of the original idea was Bell able to build a phone that could be produced on a large scale. The Bell Telephone Company began operating on July 11, 1877, and that same month the first commercial telephone arrived in Europe, which was introduced in Plymouth by the Chief Engineer of the General Post Office, William H. Preece, in the presence of the Bell.

telephone foul play

In 1878 the first telephone line was deployed and the first telephone exchange was put into operation. Three years later, almost 49,000 phones were in operation. In 1885 the American Telegraph and Telephone Company (AT&T) was created, which would dominate telephone communications for the next century. At one point, Bell System employees deliberately denigrated the US telephone system in order to drive down the stock prices of all telephone companies and thus make it easier for Bell to acquire its smaller competitors. In 1900 there were almost 600,000 telephones in the Bell system, which skyrocketed to 2.2 million telephones in 1905, and 5.8 million in 1910. In 1915, the first transcontinental telephone line became operational.

The real inventor was not Bell

But there is a dark part in this whole story. In 1854 an Italian living in New York, Antonio Santi Giuseppe Meucci, had developed a primitive telephone (“telettrofono”) with which he had made a first test in Staten Island. In 1871 he filed a provisional patent with the United States Patent Office . A resolution of the United States House of Representatives in June 2002 made it clear that Meucci had to be recognized for his pioneering work in developing the telephone and that if he “could have paid the $10 fee to keep the provisional patent in 1874 , no patent could have been granted to Bell” . There are even those who point out that Bell was not very honest, and could have used the ‘ telettrofono ‘ as a starting point. Interestingly, some of Meucci’s material disappeared without a trace from the same laboratory in which Bell was conducting his experiments. And the accusations of foul play against Bell don’t stop there: there are also indications that certain technical details of Gray’s invention were acquired by Bell’s lawyers, which were added to Bell’s patent after having presented it and that they used in the prototype that served to make the first telephone call in history.


Evenson, A. E. (2000) The Telephone Patent Conspiracy of 1876: The Elisha Gray – Alexander Bell Controversy. McFarland & Co

Sterling C. H. (2004) CBQ Review Essay: History of the Telephone (Part One): Invention, Innovation, and Impact, Communication Booknotes Quarterly, 35:4 222–241. doi:10.1207/s15326896cbq3504_1

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