The Telephone Gambit: Did Bell Steal His Legendary Invention? (Part Two)

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the government subsequently dropped the option by 1910, a caveat formally notified the patent office of an inventor’s discovery, providing him or her, in exchange, up to a year with an exclusive right to turn the idea into a working, patentable invention. In those days an inventor who had conceived of a device but had yet to build it could use a caveat to warn away would-be competitors. Once it was granted, a caveat afforded all the same rights as a patent during the provisional year while the applicant worked to complete the invention in question. Gray’s caveat described an “instrument for transmitting and receiving vocal sounds telegraphically.” In what is normally described as a strange twist of fate, Gray filed his claim on February 14, 1876, the very same day Bell filed his patent application.

As I inspected the caveat document, I learned that Gray proposed to use a liquid in his telephone transmitter: water with acid in it. That fact alone seemed like a remarkable coincidence.

But Gray’s sketch for his invention, on page 3 of his patent claim, hit me almost like a shock from the electric current it described. I recognized immediately that I had just seen a virtually identical drawing—in Bell’s lab notebook.

The implication was instantly clear. Unless I was somehow mistaken, Bell must have returned to his lab in Boston from his trip to Washington, D.C., dropped his prior line of inquiry, and drawn an almost perfect replica of his competitor’s invention in his own notebook.

As I stared incredulously at the drawing in Gray’s caveat, I tried to make sense of the chain of events. Gray had filed a confidential caveat at the U.S. patent office, clearly outlining his prescient idea for a machine to transmit speech, an invention he had envisioned fully but had yet to build. Bell, on the other hand, returned from a visit to the nation’s capital in possession of a U.S. patent on an invention that had never yet transmitted speech. Upon his return to Boston, Bell scrapped his former efforts and penned an unmistakable picture of his competitor’s idea for a liquid transmitter into his own laboratory notebook, passing it off as his own discovery. Next, in his laboratory in a boarding house on Exeter Street, Bell built and used this machine—Gray’s machine—to carry on what would forever be immortalized as the world’s first telephone conversation.

I was dumbfounded. Could Bell have committed such a blatant, wholesale act of plagiarism? If he did, I wondered, how could no one have noticed it before? After all, however long ago it may have occurred, this was an act of tremendous historical consequence. The telephone sits high atop any list of the most important modern inventions and Alexander Graham Bell is surely one of the best-known inventors of all time. Even beyond issues of fame and historical accuracy, Bell’s seemingly iron-clad patent claim to the telephone led directly to a company, American Telephone & Telegraph, that became one of the largest and most lucrative monopolies the world has ever known.


I know it sounds improbable that Alexander Graham Bell, almost universally canonized as the inventor of the telephone, might be undeserving of the title. Or that I, in a relatively casual reading of Bell’s notebook might have discovered something that had eluded generations of historians. So, before going on with my tale, let me pause a moment for those who, reasonably enough, suspect that my account is fictionalized or embroidered. Here, for your own inspection, are the documents that first set me upon the strange quest to track down the true story about Alexander Graham Bell (click each to enlarge and see the caption):

Alexander Graham Bell’s notebookElisha Gray’s diagram

Bell’s Plagiarism of Gray?

The drawings left me little room for doubt about where Bell’s idea for a liquid transmitter had come from. But, in so doing, they suggested an historical intrigue so at odds with the conventional story of the telephone’s invention that I could hardly think of where to begin to try to unravel it. I had come to MIT to explore the rivalry between Bell and Edison. But now Thomas Alva would have to wait. I had happened upon a stunning fissure in the polished façade of Bell’s legacy and I couldn’t help but try to pry the history open from the beginning…

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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