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The Bell telephone: patent nonsense?

In a new book, "The Telephone Gambit," science historian Seth Shulman concludes that Alexander Graham Bell plagiarized a rival's idea for the telephone.
Image: Alexander Graham Bell
Alexander Graham BellTopical Press Agency / Getty Images file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

On May 22, 1886, The Washington Post published a shocking front-page scoop: Zenas F. Wilber, a former Washington patent examiner, swore in an affidavit that he'd been bribed by an attorney for Alexander Graham Bell to award Bell the patent for the telephone over a rival inventor, Elisha Gray, who'd filed a patent document on the same day as Bell in 1876.

Furthermore, Wilber asserted, he'd illegally shown Gray's application to Bell, who responded by slipping him a $100 bill.

Immediately, Bell swore out an affidavit of his own, denying that he'd bribed Wilber.

"A most amazing story," The Post called it.

Now, for loyal Post readers who've been waiting patiently for the past 122 years, here's an update on that amazing story: In a new book, "The Telephone Gambit," science historian Seth Shulman concludes that Wilber was telling the truth and that Bell plagiarized Gray's idea for the telephone.

Needless to say, some people dispute that claim, and Edwin Grosvenor of Bethesda, who is a Bell biographer as well as a Bell great-grandson, disputes it with a ferocity bordering on apoplexy. You can practically see steam shooting out of his ears when he discusses Shulman's book.

What we have here, folks, is a full-blown historical brouhaha.

‘A total accident’
Shulman says he did not set out to debunk Bell: "It was all a total accident."

Author of four other books on science and technology, Shulman, 48, was planning to write his fifth book on the relationship between two of America's most famous inventors -- Bell and Thomas Edison -- when he stumbled upon evidence for what he calls "a vexing intrigue at the heart of one of the world's most important inventions."

Shulman was reading Bell's laboratory notebooks when he noticed something odd: Bell had been working on his telephone for months without much success until suddenly, on March 8, 1876, he tried a new contraption that used a needle in a water-and-acid solution to complete an electrical circuit. Two days later, Bell used that method to make his now-famous telephone call to his assistant: "Mr. Watson, come here."

At first, Shulman regarded Bell's sudden breakthrough with the water-and-acid solution as "a sign of Bell's genius." But then he noticed that Bell had been missing from his lab for 12 days before he tried that method. During that time, Bell had traveled to Washington to visit -- a drumroll, please -- the Patent Office.

Several weeks earlier, on Feb. 14, 1876, Bell's attorneys had filed his application for a patent. Most of the application related to an invention that could send several telegrams simultaneously. But written in the margins of the application, presumably as an afterthought, was a paragraph relating to a method of "transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically."

On that same day, Elisha Gray had filed a "patent caveat" for what he called "an invention to transmit the tones of the human voice." (A "caveat" gave a would-be inventor a year to turn an idea into a working, patentable invention.) In his caveat, Gray proposed that his machine would use a water-and-acid solution, and he included a sketch of his contraption. Seeing two filings for the same general idea, Wilber, the patent examiner in charge of electrical devices, ruled that there was a conflict that would have to be investigated.

Within days, Bell traveled to Washington to meet with Wilber. On March 7, Bell was awarded the patent for the telephone, receiving it only three weeks after he'd filed, which was very unusual. The next day, he returned to Boston, where he drew in his notebook a sketch that was nearly identical to the sketch in Gray's caveat. And he began experimenting with the acid-and-water method mentioned in the caveat. Two days later, it worked.

‘Litigated and litigated and litigated’
"The more I looked at this, every aspect of it looked fishy," says Shulman. After months of research, Shulman concluded -- reluctantly, he says -- that Bell plagiarized one of the world's most famous inventions.

That kind of talk drives Ed Grosvenor up the wall. "It's just [expletive]!" he says. "What bugs me is that these things were litigated and litigated and litigated. So many courts looked at this."

He's right about that. Bell's patent was challenged in literally hundreds of legal cases in the 1800s and each time the courts ruled for Bell.

"Here are Wilber's affidavits," Grosvenor says, slapping photocopies on the table. "The affidavit where he makes the accusations contradicts three previous affidavits."

He's right about that, too. Before Wilber swore that he'd been bribed by Bell and Bell's attorneys, he'd previously sworn that he hadn't been bribed by anybody.

Grosvenor rips into Shulman, calling him "unscrupulous" and accusing him of violating the ethics of the history profession: "He's trying to make a case and he takes out of context highly discredited perjury. Does he say that Zenas Wilber three times denied any wrongdoing?"

Actually, Shulman does write about Wilber's conflicting affidavits. Has Grosvenor actually read Shulman's book?

"I have not read it," he says. "I didn't want to pay him the money."

On and on it goes, as the telephone patent controversy enters its 132nd year. Grosvenor and Shulman are hardly the only people sparring over this issue. Plenty of alleged experts line up on both sides.

A. Edward Evenson, author of "The Telephone Patent Conspiracy of 1876," published in 2000, agrees with Shulman. "I have no doubt that Bell saw Gray's caveat," says Evenson, a retired engineer. "When you see Gray's sketch and Bell's sketch, it jumps out at you. They're almost carbon copies. The evidence is there in black and white. Bell saw Gray's caveat, which is illegal."

"Just because two things look alike, it doesn't mean they're the same thing," says Bernard Carlson, a professor of science, technology and society at the University of Virginia, who has written extensively on Bell's experiments. "Bell doesn't simply take what he saw or didn't see in Gray's caveat. They are two similar devices but two very different principles. They look alike but they don't work alike."

So there you have it: Some experts say Bell invented the telephone; others say he swiped it.

It would all be very confusing except that the question of who invented the telephone has already been debated and decided by an august body of distinguished Americans -- the United States House of Representatives.

In 2001, Vito Fossella (R-N.Y.) introduced a resolution to honor Antonio Meucci for "his work in the invention of the telephone." Meucci was an Italian-born inventor who immigrated to New York in 1850 and created some kind of device that enabled him to communicate between the rooms of his house. According to Fossella, Meucci obtained a caveat for his invention in 1871, five years before Bell and Gray, but he was too poor to renew the caveat.

"If Meucci had been able to pay the $10 fee to maintain the caveat after 1874," Fossella wrote in his resolution, "no patent could have been issued to Bell."

On June 11, 2002, Fossella's resolution came to the floor of the House for debate. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.) called Meucci "the true inventor of the telephone." Danny Davis (D-Ill.) said that Meucci "discovered electrical speech transmission." And Fossella praised Meucci as a representative of "Americans of Italian descent who have and will continue to make this the greatest country in the history of the world."

Nobody said a word in defense of Bell. The resolution passed on a voice vote.

Case closed, right? After all, who would dispute the wisdom of the United States House of Representatives?

Well, actually, Shulman would. And so would Grosvenor.

‘Two tin cans and a thread’
"Meucci's telephone was more like two tin cans and a thread," says Shulman.

"Meucci never had any equipment that worked," says Grosvenor. "It never worked."

Grosvenor launches into a long monologue on the absurdity of the idea that Meucci invented the telephone, which leads into an equally long monologue on the absurdity of the idea that Gray invented the telephone.

Suddenly, he is interrupted by a sharp, jangling noise. A phone is ringing. The phone is in Grosvenor's pocket. He pulls it out.

"Hello," he says. "Richard? . . . Richard?"

He can't hear Richard. He can't hear anybody. "Hello!" he yells.

No response. Something's wrong.

"[Expletive!]" he says. And then the great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell sticks his phone back in his pocket, a disgusted look on his face.

Who invented this thing?