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Invention and innovation: An introduction
Invention and innovation: An introduction

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4.3 Who invented the telephone?

The popular image of Bell inventing the telephone, while it has some truth, is by no means the whole story. The two most significant players in the invention of a practical working telephone were Bell and Elisha Gray.

Gray was the co-owner and chief scientist of a company that manufactured telegraphic equipment. Bell's patent description had sound transmission as a minor purpose. But Gray's caveat declared that the main purpose of his device was ‘to transmit the tones of the human voice through a telegraphic circuit and reproduce them at the receiving end of the line, so that actual conversations can be carried on by persons at long distances apart’. Although Bell had built a prototype, it wasn't a working telephone system, and while his early devices worked as receivers they never worked well as transmitters. In fact Gray's idea was sounder in concept than Bell's (including using liquid in the transmitter, an idea that Bell later adopted, some say copied), and Gray's intentions were clearer, but he hadn't built a working prototype either. The US patent system of the time didn't require inventors to produce a working prototype.

Gray chose to register his detailed specification as an incomplete invention, while Bell registered his partial specification as a complete invention. On the one hand, it could be said that Bell was displaying the self-confidence needed by any inventor. However, it was discovered in a Congressional inquiry 10 years later that an official from the Patent Office had informed Bell's lawyers of the content of Gray's caveat rather than just of its existence. Therefore when, a few weeks later, Bell was called to explain the similarities of his patent to one he had been granted a year earlier for a harmonic telegraph, it is suggested that he was able to use inside information to persuade the examiner that his was a new device – the telephone. A patent was granted to Bell in March 1876.

When doubts finally emerged about the propriety of Bell's original patent, the US government brought a case in 1887 to annul the Bell patent on the grounds of ‘fraud and misrepresentation’. However, the claims could not be substantiated, most of the rival claimants had died or been bought off and the Bell patent was due to expire in 1893. To quote Congress, ‘the case was discontinued as moot without ever reaching the underlying issue of the true inventor of the telephone entitled to the patent’.

To be fair, Gray never claimed to be the sole inventor of the telephone but seemed to believe it was a case of ‘simultaneous invention’. However, with both men intent on exploiting the invention commercially it was inevitable that there would be a patent dispute. Gray lined up with Western Union, which funded his research, and which had obtained control of Thomas Edison's patent for a carbon transmitter. The giant telegraph company had set up a subsidiary, the American Speaking Telephone Company, to exploit the emerging technology that was being greeted enthusiastically by some of their best telegraph customers, the New York stockbrokers. Bell had a growing organisation on his side to exploit his invention – the Bell Telephone Company had become National Bell.

When Western Union started to use a system incorporating Edison's transmitter but Bell's receiver, National Bell resorted to the courts to stop it. At the same time Bell had Emile Berliner (later the inventor of the gramophone) working to produce a rival transmitter to go with Bell's superior receiver – and to bypass Edison's patent.

In 1879 an agreement was finally reached that saw Western Union agree to drop its counter-suits and sign over its own telephone patents. Apparently Western Union thought the telephone would only ever be a rival to the telegraph over short distances. In exchange National Bell agreed to drop its cases, buy out its rival's subscribers and equipment and pay Western Union a 20 per cent commission on each telephone rental for the remaining 15 years of the patents (this eventually totalled $7m). In addition Gray was paid $100 000 and Western Electric (Gray's company) was contracted as Bell's sole equipment supplier – an arrangement that lasted for almost 100 years.

Although there were many more patent cases brought both by and against Bell, Gray's had been the most significant. From this point on it was Bell's name and company that were associated with the invention and development of the telephone.

So the identification of a particular individual as the inventor of a new technology is not necessarily straightforward. Boldness and determination, allied with sufficient resources and a good support team – especially good patent lawyers – seem to be just as important as technical ingenuity. There also seems to be an element of history being written by the winners.