The Telephone Gambit: Did Bell Steal His Legendary Invention?

1/3/08

Editor’s note: Just about everyone knows the story of Alexander Graham Bell and his invention of the telephone—and those famous words uttered in the inventor’s Boston workshop to his assistant, Thomas Watson.

But what if the whole history of the telephone was rooted in a lie? A few years ago, when I walked into the Dibner Institute at MIT to turn in a letter of recommendation for Xconomy contributing writer Seth Shulman to spend a year as a fellow studying the history of science and technology, I had no idea that in some small way I might be taking part in challenging Bell’s famous account. But a few months ago, when I first saw the fruits of the labor Seth began during his fellowship year—a manuscript for a book entitled The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret (W. W. Norton 2008)—I was instantly brought alive with the awareness that history was being rewritten.

I decided on the spot that Xconomy had to run an excerpt when the book was published (sales officially begin next Monday). Bell, after all, was a Boston entrepreneur. His startup company—the Bell Telephone System, aka AT&T—is one of the area’s greatest corporate success stories. Of course, Xconomy normally covers the present and future of entrepreneurship and new technology—and Bell’s first telephone call took place more than 130 years ago. But Seth’s research and its potential impact on Boston’s innovation legacy are just too compelling to ignore.

So, in two parts, beginning today and concluding tomorrow, you can judge for yourself whether Bell deserves his place in history, or whether the story of the telephone needs to be reconsidered. —Robert Buderi.

*******

Mr. Watson, come here!

Thomas Watson hunched over the bureau in Alexander Graham Bell’s attic bedroom at the modest boardinghouse at 5 Exeter Place in Boston. Watson’s ear pressed tightly against the metal frame of the small “speaking telegraph” receiver.

The booming voice was unmistakable, even in a tinny, ghostlike facsimile. Watson reeled in amazement when he heard it. Jumping back, he swung open the bedroom door and ran into the hallway.

In the adjacent room, Bell was leaning over his workbench and shouting into the mouth of a metal cone clamped onto a block of wood…

Bell was undoubtedly still shouting into the contraption when Watson burst into the room to report what he had heard. Only then did Bell realize that he had placed the world’s first telephone call.

The feat was hard for either man to believe. They had labored toward the goal for so long—and with such paltry success—prior to that moment on March 10, 1876.

*******

The Bell and Watson “eureka” moment is one of the best-known stories in the history of invention and among the most romantic with its two earnest and visionary young inventors profoundly changing the world from their humble quarters. I first heard the tale as a child and have read enough versions now for its familiarity to give it a luster, the way polished old wood develops a patina.

Bell’s voice traveled just ten yards along a bare wire from one room to another. It was a modest transmission of sound waves to have unleashed such an enormous change in human interaction. Yet even today, after untold billions of long-distance conversations spanning more than a century, Bell’s oddly emphatic words are still probably the most famous ever uttered into a telephone.

The story of the telephone’s invention is not just well known, it is impeccably documented, beginning that very evening, when both men wrote about it in their notebooks. With contemporaneous eyewitness accounts from each of the episode’s principals, the story is the historian’s equivalent of a slam dunk.

*******

Late one October evening, I was working in the plush office I had been given for the year at MIT. On my computer screen, courtesy of the Library of Congress, was a high-resolution, digital reproduction of Alexander Graham Bell’s laboratory notebook from 1875 and 1876, exactly as he had written it in his own hand.

The large windows near my desk looked out on the Charles River and downtown Boston. I gazed at the glow of the night skyline and realized I could practically see the spot at 5 Exeter Place in Boston where, more than a century ago, Bell had written the words before me.

On the screen, the images of Bell’s notebook lacked only the musty smell of the notebook’s leather binding and the brittle feel of its lined pages. In every other respect, they offered a perfect facsimile, allowing the viewer to follow Bell’s work straight from his own fountain pen. In some passages, I thought I could even roughly gauge Bell’s excitement from the way his penmanship got scratchy when he seemed to write more hurriedly.

I wondered what Bell would have made of the fact that I was viewing a perfect reproduction of his notebook via the World Wide Web. He’d surely marvel at the technology. And he would also be justified to feel proud. After all, the Internet is little more than a powerful descendant of the communication device he himself pioneered.

As a journalist who specializes in science and technology, I have long been interested in invention—how it occurs and how it is remembered. So I jumped at the opportunity to spend a year as a science-writer-in-residence at the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology at MIT. It was the first time they had invited an outsider to join in the program’s seminars and discussion groups.

Given my interest in inventors, I had proposed to do a year of research on the relationship between two towering icons: Thomas Alva Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. It was a project that seemed full of possibility and I was grateful for the opportunity to begin it. …

*******

On the night I was paging through Bell’s notebook, the first thing I noticed was its sensible progression. Day after day, Bell made incremental changes in his experiments using the same elements: electromagnets, vibrating reeds, and tuning forks. The work was clear, tangible, elegant. I felt I understood what Bell was doing and maybe even what he was thinking about.

For the most part, he was not thinking about the device we now call the telephone. Bell, like many other inventors in his day, was actually trying to solve a problem then plaguing the burgeoning telegraph industry: how to send more than one message at a time over a wire. Bell didn’t know too much about the relatively new fields of electricity and magnetism but, as a teacher of the deaf, he did know a good deal about sound. Bell’s idea for what he called a “multiple telegraph” was to try to build machines that could send messages at different pitches, or frequencies, so that they wouldn’t interfere with one another. That way, in theory at least, multiple messages, tuned to different musical pitches, could be sent over the same wires at the same time without interfering with one another.

Toward that end, Bell was systematically trying to build a series of telegraphlike devices that would be receptive only to a signal sent at a particular pitch. He tried batteries of different strengths. He tried magnets in different arrangements. He even built a cylinder lined with bar magnets that could be spun at different speeds to adjust the pitch of the vibrating reeds in his circuit.

Of course, in addition to this commercial goal, Bell was interested in many other things, too. He had a sharp, restless mind and a great imagination. He was fascinated by the possibility of transmitting vocal sounds over telegraph wires. And he was so interested in the way people perceived sound that, with the help of Clarence Blake, a local doctor, he even experimented on the ear of a human corpse as part of his work during this period. Bell’s grasp of acoustics and his focus on trying to send differently pitched sounds over the telegraph wires would also soon lead him toward a device that could successfully transmit the human voice.

I lost track of how late it was getting. Somewhere around midnight, I reached Bell’s accounts from March 1876, the period of his momentous breakthrough with the telephone. An entry jumped out at me.

Bell’s research notes on March 8th make an inexplicable shift to some strikingly new ideas after months of slow, incremental work. On that day, for the first time, Bell inexplicably adds to his experiments a dish of water laced with sulfuric acid. He still uses a reed and a magnet at one end of the circuit he is building but, seemingly from nowhere, he introduces a striking contraption: a diaphragm with a needle sticking through it into the acidic water to complete the electrical circuit. From that entry on, some liquid or another becomes a feature in a quick succession of experiments. And, of course, just a day and a half after introducing this new scheme, Bell has his amazing success calling to Watson next door.

After following many months’ worth of Bell’s steady and methodical work, I couldn’t help but be struck by his sudden conceptual leap. What made Bell think of dipping a needle into liquid in his transmitter, I wondered, after a steady diet for more than a year of reeds, magnets, and batteries in widely varied configurations?

I viewed the shift as a sign of Bell’s genius. I made a note to that effect in my own handwritten journal that night.

I was especially struck by this shift in Bell’s thinking because I’ve found that a kind of magic often seems to inhabit the moment of discovery: that instant when something formerly unknowable, beyond reach, becomes forever clear. The element that makes such a shift possible—the fleeting insight or fortuitous accident—is often hard, if not impossible, to explain or capture. I’m as excited by such moments as a prospector might be to unearth a rich vein, or a book collector to stumble upon a vanishingly rare first edition.

Wilbur Wright’s pathbreaking idea for bending the wings of an airplane to give it control in the air purportedly came to him in his bicycle shop while he idly twisted a box that had held an inner tube. Alexander Fleming, excellent scientist that he was, became fascinated by the mold that had crept in from the damp London air to ruin his experiment growing colonies of Staphylococcus bacteria in culture. Thankfully, Fleming studied the mold instead of tossing the tainted samples, and penicillin was the world-changing result.

Musing on the account in Bell’s notebook of his experience at the threshold of his discovery, I had a little “eureka moment” of my own. I noticed that there was a twelve-day gap between Bell’s entries at the end of February and those beginning in March. With consecutive entries on every page, notebooks often make work appear relatively seamless but, in this case, Bell left his experiments on February 24 and didn’t resume them for nearly two weeks. He mentions the fact himself on page 34, the day before he introduces his new transmitter idea, with this cryptic notation:

Returned from Washington March 7th, 1876.

It seemed immediately clear that Bell’s absence from his lab spurred him in a new direction. I wanted to find out more about the trip to Washington and what might have led him to change his work so noticeably upon his return.

This, I imagined, was precisely the kind of challenge my historian colleagues engaged in routinely. For me, though, it was new. A primary source document had suggested a small, historical puzzle. And I was fortunate enough to have the time and resources available to explore such an open-ended lead. I doubted the question had much to do with Bell’s rivalry with Thomas Edison. But I was curious nonetheless. I never for a moment suspected what would happen next…

Reprinted from The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret by Seth Shulman
Copyright (c) 2008 by Seth Shulman
With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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