The Bell vs. Gray Telephone Patent Conspiracy
“Had he [Bell] been the first to invent it [telephone], is there any reason why he should not have described it in his [patent] application?” (George Prescott, Western Union’s chief engineer, ”The Speaking Telephone, Electric Light and Other Recent Electrical Inventions”, 1879)
If you read Bell’s patent application that was filed on February 14th, 1876, which was later described as the most valuable patent in history, you can’t help but ask the same question: why didn’t Bell describe the telephone in his application if that’s what he claimed he invented? Not only didn’t Bell describe the telephone, he titled it as “Improvements in Telegraphy” without mentioning a telephone whatsoever.
Elisha Gray, on the other hand, who filed a caveat on the same day as Bell, titled his application “Instruments for Transmitting and Receiving Vocal Sounds” in which he described a method “to transmit the tones of the human voice through a telegraphic circuit”, in other words a telephone.
There was a lot of controversy surrounding Bell’s patent application filed on Feb. 14th, 1876. There were claims that the crucial part of the telephone (liquid transmitter) was stolen from Gray’s caveat, added to Bell’s “Improvements in Telegraphy” patent application over the weekend of February 12th and rushed to the patent office the following morning. The way Bell’s application was filed at the patent office was highly irregular, to say the least. There were also allegations that the patent attorney firm that managed all Bell’s patent affairs, Pollok & Bailey, had an “underground railroad” to the patent office through an alcoholic patent examiner, Zenas Fisk Wilber. The list of suspicious and morally questionable events goes on and on.
What prompted my interest in the Gray vs. Bell controversy was the article by Patrick M. Boucher titled “Recent developments in US patent law.” After reading the article and a couple of follow-up books (see references below) it became obvious to me that the things that I had thought I knew about the invention of the telephone were simply untrue. Like many people I had thought that Alexander Graham Bell was the inventor of the telephone and that he filed his patent application two hours before Elisha Gray. As I learned, this was a myth.
The popular anecdote that Gray showed up at the Patent Office two hours after Bell was orchestrated by Bell’s patent attorneys (Pollok & Baiely). It was repeated over and over again by the media, numerous biographers and historians until the public began to believe that indeed Bell had filed his patent application two hours before Gray, so he must have been the true inventor of the telephone.
The most important part of the telephone invented in 1876 was the idea of the variable resistance transmitter (or liquid transmitter). To better understand how this variable resistance transmitter worked, let’s first review how the human ear works and then see how the liquid transmitter replicated this process.
When we hear sounds the following process takes place:
- Sounds waves enter the ear canal.
- Sound waves hit the eardrum (membrane), which begin to vibrate.
- The membrane vibration causes the tiny bones that connect the membrane to the inner ear to move.
- The bone movements cause waves in the inner ear fluid.
- These waves in the fluid push against another membrane with hair cells.
- The hair cells are attached to nerve fibers.
- As the second membrane moves, the nerve fibers send signals to the brain.
- The brain interprets these signals as sounds.
The variable resistance transmitter made it possible to move sound waves along an electric wire, much like the sound waves in the human ear.
The following process takes place in the variable resistance transmitter:
- Sound waves enter a metal cone.
- Sound waves hit the diaphragm at the bottom of the cone, which begins to vibrate.
- The diaphragm vibration causes the platinum needle, which is attached to the bottom of the diaphragm and dipped into the container with acid liquid, to move up and down.
- These rising and lowering of the needle into the container with liquid moved the tip of the needle closer and further from a metal contact submerged in the same container of liquid.
- The needle was connected to a battery, which created an electric circuit that was completed though the acid water to the receiver.
- The depth of the needle in the liquid and as a result the resistance of the circuit varied as the sound waves made the diaphragm vibrate.
- The receiver included a small strip of metal, which vibrated in accordance to the current.
- The sound waves traveled through the wire as “undulating current” and were heard in the receiver.
As mentioned above, this variable resistance transmitter was the single most important part of the telephone. It’s what made the telephone capable of transmitting the human voice clearly and audibly to the listener. What’s interesting is that the description of this transmitter only appeared in Bell’s lab journal 2 days after he received his famous patent. It was not in his patent application either. It was however, in Gray’s caveat that was filed 3 weeks before it appeared in Bell’s notebooks. What is really disturbing, though, is the striking similarities between the way Bell depicted his variable resistance transmitter and the way Gray described it in his caveat 3 weeks prior (the left image is from Gray’s caveat and the right one is from Bell’s notebook):
This and other evidence strongly suggest that Bell plagiarized the idea of the liquid transmitter from Elisha Gray. There were so many irregularities surrounding Bell’s telephone patent that the Assistant Secretary of the Interior George A. Jenks had this to say in the conclusion of his report regarding the 1876 patent controversy:
“If in passing through a forest the woodsman should come upon the course of a tornado, and finds the tops of the trees all pointing in one direction he would be as firmly convinced of the direction the wind had blown as though he had been an eye witness to the storm. In this one-sided contest between the Bell application and the Gray caveat the tree tops all point one way.” (Evenson 2000, p. 91)
Because there were so many people involved and so many connections between the people and the events that took place during 1875-1876, I decided to keep track of all the information in the form of a mind map, which you can view below. Even though this mind map consists of only key events, it is still a large file (>5 Mb, click the image below to view in full). I hope by examining this mind map everyone will be able to make his or her own decision about which direction “the tree tops point.”
Evenson, Edward. The Telephone Patent Conspiracy of 1876. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2000
Shulman, Seth. The Telephone Gambit. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2009.
Gray, Sharlotte. Alexander Graham Bell and the Passion for Invention. New York: Arcade Publishing Inc., 2006
Thompson, Silvanus. Philipp Reis: Inventor of the Telephone. London: William Clowes and Sons, Limited, 1883
Wilber, Zenas. Mr. Wilber Confesses. Washington Post. May 22, 1886. Web. January 15, 2012
Bell’s Telephone Patent. New York Times. January 28th, 1887. Web. January 31, 2012.
Bell, Alexander. Improvement in Telegraphy; Patent: 174,465. US Patent Office. March 7, 1886. Web. January 20, 2012