Who Invented That? The Telephone

Every schoolchild knows that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Or did he?

The Scottish-born Bell came to the United States in 1871 to teach at schools for the deaf in New England. This vocation came naturally to him since his mother was deaf, and his father taught elocution to deaf students. While pursuing this vocation, Bell became interested in the research topic of sending more than one message on a single telegraph wire (today, it’s called multiplexing). Bell secured financial backing from an investment group led by his father-in-law, Gardener Greene Hubbard, and got some hands-on technical help from his assist Thomas Watson. This work fortuitously led to Bell’s interest in finding a way to transmit the human voice over wires. According to Watson, Bell had said: “If I could make a current of electricity vary in its intensity, precisely as the air varies in density during the production of a sound, I should be able to transmit speech telegraphically.” And he did.

Both Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray, another speech-at-a-distance inventor, filed patents for telephone technology at the US Patent Office on the same day, February 14, 1876. Having filed his application a few hours earlier, Bell was awarded the first US telephone patent (174465) on March 7, 1876. A few days later, Bell made his first telephone call to his assistant in the next room: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.” Bell would continue his tinkering with Watson, and their work would spawn a telephone empire.

Another inventor in this story was Antonio Meucci. An Italian immigrant to the US, Meucci had begun working on a talking telegraph (or telephone) in 1849. He had first filed his first patent caveat in 1871 but failed to renew it, leaving the field wide open for Bell. Largely forgotten, Meucci’s role in the invention of the telephone was finally acknowledged by a 2002 Congressional resolution.

Many – including Gray and Meucci – challenged Bell’s patent rights to the telephone. Bell spent the next 20 years defending them in court. The matter was finally put to rest when the US Supreme Court ruled in Bell’s favor in 1888. Rumors persist to this day that someone at the patent office, or even Bell himself, had somehow caused the telephone patent to be unjustly awarded to Bell.

In Europe, at least two other scientists had worked on speech-at-a-distance before the Bell patent was issued. The Frenchman Charles Bourseul had been the first to publish the idea of transmitting voice using electricity (1854). French claims that Bourseul invented the telephone somehow ring hollow; the French government awarded Alexander Graham Bell its 1880 Volta Prize for, yes, the invention of the telephone. In Germany, Philipp Reis, who was familiar with Bourseul’s work, began pursuing his own telephone research in 1860. Bell may have even seen Reis’ invention demonstrated on a trip to Europe.

In 1878, Bell himself demonstrated the telephone to Queen Victoria on the Isle of Wight, placing the first UK long-distance calls to the mainland. The same year, a British telephone company formed to market Bell’s telephones. In 1879, the company opened its first public exchange. The American telephone invention had come to European shores.

Alexander Graham Bell is remembered today as the father of telephony; his invention launched the world’s telephone industry. Among his lesser known inventions was the photophone (1880, US patent 235199), the world’s first wireless communication system.  This was never a commercial success for Bell, but it laid the groundwork for another inventor, Guglielmo Marconi. By 1896, Marconi had secured the world’s first patent for a wireless telegraphy system. His commercialization of wireless would launch the industry on which our cell phones rely today. So who really invented wireless? Good question.