Today is Alexander Graham Bell’s birthday. Did he steal plans that made his telephone work?

By | March 3, 2008

When science journalist Seth Shulman began a year of study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Dibner Institute, his goal was to compare the lives of inventors Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell.

Alexander Graham Bell (March 3, 1847 – August 2, 1922) was a Scottish-born scientist and inventor. Today, Bell is still widely considered to be the foremost inventor of the telephone, although this matter has become controversial, with a number of people claiming that Antonio Meucci was the ‘real’ inventor (in June 2002, the United States House of Representatives passed a symbolic bill officially recognizing Meucci for his contributions to the invention of the telephone). Others advance Elisha Gray, the founder of the Western Electric Manufacturing Company. (It is reasonably clear that each of these men independently invented a telephone.) In addition to Bell’s work in telecommunications technology, he was responsible for important advances in aviation and hydrofoil technology.

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That was before he got a look at the original laboratory notebook that Bell kept at the time of his work on the telephone in 1876. In it, Shulman saw a cartoonish drawing of a head bent toward a rudimentary telephone receiver. What struck him about the drawing was that it almost duplicated one in a patent application by a rival inventor, Elisha Gray.

This book is the story of how Shulman followed up on that first clue to reach the conclusion that Bell had stolen the key technological breakthrough needed to acquire his famous telephone patent from Gray.

The novella-length book cannot absolutely prove that Bell and his backers robbed Gray of his rights to the first commercial telephone, but it lays out a strong case of circumstantial evidence.

At times, Shulman’s insistence on taking the reader along with him as he pursues his quest bogs down the book, but that’s a minor complaint about an otherwise fascinating tale of what could be the greatest intellectual property theft in history.

In their lifetimes, Gray, an Ohio native who helped establish Western Union, was a much more famous inventor than Bell, a transplanted Scotsman better known for his work with the deaf and his mastery of the art of elocution.

The vital addition to Bell’s experiments was a device that suspended a needle in liquid so that sound waves from the person talking into a transmitter would vary the resistance in the electrical circuit running to the receiver. That apparatus is what enabled his assistant, Thomas Watson, to hear Bell on March 10, 1876, when he supposedly spilled battery acid on his pants and yelled, “Watson, come here!”

This “variable resistance” device was described in Gray’s preliminary patent application, which was filed before Bell’s, and it never appeared in Bell’s experiments until after he made a mysterious visit to the patent offices around that time.

Other tantalizing tidbits: Shulman discovered that Bell’s description of the liquid transmitter was written into the margin of his original patent application, and he found an affidavit filed 10 years later by patent examiner Zenas Wilber in which he admitted that he let Bell see Gray’s paperwork, in part because Wilber owed money to one of the lawyers representing Bell. – postgaz

12 thoughts on “Today is Alexander Graham Bell’s birthday. Did he steal plans that made his telephone work?

  1. willshakespeare

    i didn’t know that. wow.

    there really are lots of issues like that… inventors taking credit for other inventors’ work.

  2. Alan Leckie

    So Alexander Bell stole the plans for the telephone !! I wonder what the situation would be regarding the Wright Brothers if it was known that another person flew an aeroplane before they did. It is widely accepted that Richard Pearse flew before the Wrights. Would the US House of Reps pass a symbolic bill recognising Pearse and his efforts ?

  3. cara

    wow. Is that right . I never actually new that he stole the idea. If that is true hes a thief and cheat

  4. aishu

    hes a bloody [screw]er
    i swear……
    he sucks to the core
    hes a prostitute…………………..etc……….

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