The Telephone Gambit: Did Bell Steal His Legendary Invention? (Part Two)
Editor’s note: This marks the second and final installment of a unique profile—a detective story, really—of a Boston-area entrepreneur and his famous invention. The story was excerpted from Xconomy contributing writer Seth Shulman’s The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret (W. W. Norton 2008), which will be officially released on Monday. The first installment ran yesterday. Be sure to examine the pictures in today’s article.
Over the next few days, in a binge of work, I puzzled over a complex knot of irregularities about Bell’s life-altering visit to Washington, D.C. To begin with, the timing of the trip seemed more than a little odd. Bell filed his telephone patent on February 14, 1876, but, according to Bell’s laboratory notebook, he did not successfully transmit intelligible speech over a telephone until March 10th. Was it true that, in the lingo of the patent office, Bell had yet to “reduce his invention to practice” at the time he filed his patent application? That, in other words, Bell patented an invention he had never actually made?
Even the logistics of this question were mystifying. I knew from reporting on disputes over intellectual property that working models of inventions were required by the U.S. Patent Office in the 1800s. It took only a little digging to learn that on February 14, 1876—the very day Bell filed his telephone patent—a U.S. Senate Committee held hearings on a bill calling for the agency to do away with this requirement. Supporters of the bill, proposed by Connecticut Senator James E. English, testified that the patent office’s attic coffers were literally overflowing and that there was no space to put the roughly twenty thousand new models the agency expected to receive in the coming year.
Of course, there would have been no point for the Senate to debate the issue unless, as of February 1876, the patent office at least technically continued to require working models to accompany patent applications. Why, then, hadn’t the patent examiner in Bell’s case required him to submit a functioning model of his telephone?
Equally baffling was the patent office’s decision to grant Bell his telephone patent even before he had returned to his lab in Boston on March 7, 1876. How was it, I wondered, that one of the most momentous patents in history was issued in just three weeks? When I looked at other patents filed and issued around the same time, they all seemed to have taken months, if not years, to issue…
The U.S. Patent Office’s speedy work to approve Bell’s patent seemed all the more extraordinary because, on February 19, 1876, the patent examiner had notified Bell that his patent would be “suspended” for three months, after which time, the letter said, the office would formally decide whether to declare so-called interference proceedings. Such interference disputes almost always include formal hearings to determine which inventor can rightfully claim “priority of conception.” Sorting out the interference claims on inventor Emile Berliner’s 1877 patent application on the microphone, for instance, ended up taking more than thirteen years. That was, of course, an extreme case, but even the more common interference proceedings lasted for one or more years.
There was no question about it: the swiftness of the patent office’s actions seemed highly unusual. I wondered what had made U.S. Patent officials change their minds so quickly about their contention that the claims of others overlapped with Bell’s. For that matter, I wondered exactly what those other claims were.
Thanks to the Dibner Institute’s extraordinary library at MIT, I easily answered the latter question. The filing that conflicted Bell’s telephone patent came from an electrical researcher named Elisha Gray.
Today, if he is remembered at all, Elisha Gray is known as a technological footnote: the unlucky sap whose patent claim for a telephone arrived just hours after that of Alexander Graham Bell.
History is harsh in ascribing winners and losers.
As I soon learned, once you start looking, you can find a good deal of information about the fight between Bell and Gray over rights to the telephone. The battle dragged on through the courts, in one form or another, for more than a decade. But it is not much remembered today. After all, there is little question about who prevailed in the end…
In the case of the telephone, I learned, Gray had filed what the patent office called a “caveat.” Although 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):
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.