Mar 182013

It was a race to the finish….and the beginning of a controversy.

You, no doubt, have heard of Alexander Graham Bell, but have you heard of Elisha Gray? Gray is considered by many to have actually invented the variable resistance telephone. 
Gray held more than 70 patents including many related to telegraphs. His harmonic telegraph that used a series of multi-tone synthesizers is a rudimentary prototype for the music synthesizers which we are familiar with today. He and Enos Barton founded a company to supply equipment to Western Union Telegraph Company. Gray’s company received funding from a series of prominent financiers.

One of Gray’s financiers, Samuel White, insisted that Gray focus his work on telegraph related inventions. However, Gray secretly worked on a devise that would transmit sound across wires. On February 11, 1876, he asked William D. Baldwin, his patent attorney, to complete paperwork to file for a provision patent for a machine which telegraphed sound and used a water-based microphone to intake that sound. Baldwin submitted the document to the US Patent office on February 14, 1876. 

If all that is true, why have you learned that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone? The twists and turns of this story are fascinating! There were several inventors, including Bell and Gray, who were working to develop what would ultimately become the telephone. Bell had submitted a patent to Britain’s patent office before doing so in the US because that Britain refused to issue patents to ideas which had been patented elsewhere. Bell hoped to develop his idea for the telephone on both sides of the Pond. Bell’s lawyer, Marcellus Bailey, purportedly learned of the provisional patent which Baldwin would file on Monday morning. He added a claim of variable resistance, as well as a description of Gray’s liquid microphone, to what Bell instructed him to file. Although Bell was not aware of the changes to his application, nor that his application would be filed at all, Bailey filed the document on Monday morning in Washington D.C. Gray and Baldwin claimed that Gray’s application arrived first at the US Patent Office, but Bailey asked that Bell’s forms be recorded and hand-delivered to the patent examiner immediately. The patent examiner in the matter was Zenas Fish Wilber. Wilber examined the forms submitted by both Gray and Bell. He immediately noticed similarities as documented in the attached image. Wilber allowed Gray to file for an actual patent by placing Bell’s application on hold. This is where the story becomes particularly interesting. 

Unbeknownst to Gray and Baldwin, Zenas Wilber had served with Bailey in the Civil War. He was deeply in debt to Bailey and suffered from alcoholism. After filing Bell’s patent, Bailey told Bell to return to Washington, D.C.. Wilber showed Gray’s provisional patent request to Bell for the mere sum of $100.00. Of course, this was clearly in violation of the rules of the U.S. Patent Office, but no one knew of Wilber’s scandalous behavior until 1886. While Gray should have been working on his formal patent request, Bell returned to his lab with great hast. A copy of the notes that he made in his lab book on March 9 bear a suspicious similarities to the provisional patent request filed by Gray. The attached image is a copy of Gray’s request placed on top of Bell’s lab book. On March 10, he made his now famous test, using Gray’s design complete with a water-based microphone, and uttered the phrase telephonically, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”

Bell supplied his own amended patent application which cleared up several inconsistencies, as well as noting that he had actually submitted a patent one year before which used a transmitting fluid. Of course, the fluid, mercury, would not have actually worked, but no matter. He was, after all, making his argument to Zenas Wilber. After reviewing Bell’s amended form on March 3, Wilber approved Bell’s application and granted him the patent. 
While Bell was hard at work, Gray did not submit a patent request. He did, however, submit a patent for something very similar to what was offered by Bell, but not until 1877. At that time, it was denied by the Patent Office with the statement, “while Gray was undoubtedly the first to conceive of and disclose the [variable resistance] invention, as in his caveat of February 14, 1876, his failure to take any action amounting to completion until others had demonstrated the utility of the invention deprives him of the right to have it considered.”

As part of ongoing litigation between Gray and Bell, Wilber admitted to showing Bell the request filed by Gray in 1886. Eventually, Bell was found to be the inventor of the telephone because Bell’s application was listed as the fifth entry at the U.S. Patent Office on February 14, while Gray’s was listed as the 39th. Bell had Marcellus Bailey to thank for that! However, No need to feel sorry for Gray. The company he co-founded with Enos Barton morphed into Graybar Electric Company, and eventually Western Electric Manufacturing Company. You may remember that company as the developer of the princess telephone, the touch tone phone, and the as well as a series of inventions related to stereo sound recordings. Gray continued to produce amazing inventions for the remainder of his life including a telautograph which transmitted handwritten documents via a telegraph, as well as a telephote which was similar to a closed circuit television.

Hear the  recently uncovered recording of Alexander Graham Bell’s voice:



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