Guest Essayist: James C. Clinger

An attorney representing Alexander Graham Bell and his business partner, Gardiner Hubbard, filed a patent application for an invention entitled an “Improvement in Telegraphy” on February 14, 1876. That same day, Elisha Gray, a prominent inventor from Highland Park, Illinois, had applied for a patent caveat for a similar invention from the same office. On March 7, Bell’s patent was approved by the patent office and the battle over the rights to the invention that we now know as the telephone began. The eventual outcome would shape the development of a major industry and the opportunities for communication and social interaction for the entire country.

The invention came from an unlikely source. Alexander Graham Bell was a Scottish-born teacher of elocution and tutor to the deaf whose family had migrated to Ontario, Canada, after the death of two of Bell’s siblings. Alexander Melville Bell, Alexander Graham Bell’s father, believed that their new home in Ontario offered them a better, more healthful climate. The elder Bell was a student of phonetics who had developed a system of “Visible Speech” to allow deaf people the chance to speak intelligibly. Melville Bell lectured periodically at the Lowell Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, and his son Alexander moved to Boston permanently to assume a teaching position at the Boston University.[1]

Though trained in acoustics and the science behind the sounds of the human voice, Bell did not have a strong understanding of electrical currents or electromagnetism. But early on he realized that the magnetic field of an electrical current was capable of vibrating objects, such as a tuning fork, which could create audible sounds. As he was learning of how electrical currents could be used for sound production, other researchers such as Joseph Stearns and Thomas Edison were developing a system of telegraph transmission in which multiple signals could be sent over the same wire at the same time. These systems relied upon sending the series of dots and dashes at different frequencies. Bell joined that research to find a better “multiplex” telegraph. In order to develop what Bell called a “harmonic telegraph,” Bell needed more funds for his lab. Much of his funding came from a notable Boston attorney, Gardiner Hubbard, who hired Bell as a teacher of his daughter, Mabel, who had become deaf after a bout with scarlet fever. Hubbard, who had a dislike for Western Union’s dominance in long-distance telegraph service, encouraged and subsidized Bell’s research on telegraphy. Hubbard and another financial backer, Thomas Sanders, formed a partnership with Bell, with an agreement that all three hold joint ownership of the patent rights for Bell’s inventions. Bell made significant progress on his research, and had more success in his private life. Mabel Hubbard, who was his student, became his betrothed. Despite the initial objections of her father, Mabel married Bell shortly after her eighteenth birthday.[2]

Other inventers were hard at work on similar lines of research. Daniel Drawbaugh, Antonio Meucci, Johann Philipp Reis, and especially Elisha Gray all were developing alternative versions of what would soon be known as the telephone while Bell was hard at work on his project.  Most of these models involved a variable resistance method of modifying the electrical current by dipping wires into a container of liquid, often mercury or sulfuric acid, to alter the current flowing to a set of reeds or diaphragm that would emit various sounds. Most of these researchers knew more about electrical currents and devices than Bell did. But Bell had a solid understanding of the human voice. Even though his research began as an effort to improve telegraphy, Bell realized that the devices that he created could be designed to replicate speech. His patent application in February of 1876 was for a telephone transmitter that employed a magnetized reed attached to a membrane diaphragm when activated by an undulating current. The device described in the patent application could transmit sounds but not actual speech. Months later, however, Bell’s instrument was improved sufficiently to allow him to convey a brief, audible message to his assistant, Thomas A. Watson, who was in another part of his laboratory. In the summer of 1876, Bell demonstrated the transmission of audible speech to an amazed crowd at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Elisha Gray attempted to demonstrate his version of the telephone at the same exhibition, but was unable to convey the sound of human voices. The following year, Bell filed and received a patent for his telephone receiver, assuring his claim to devices that would both transmit and receive voice communications.[3]

In 1877, Bell and his partners formed the American Bell Telephone Company, a corporation that would later be known as American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T). The corporation and Bell personally were soon involved in a number of lawsuits alleging patent infringement and, in one case, patent cancellation. There were many litigants over the years, but the primary early adversary was Western Union, which had purchased the rights to Elisha Gray’s telephone patent. The United States federal government also was involved in a suit for patent cancellation, alleging that Bell gained his patents fraudulently by stealing the inventions of others. The lawsuit with Western Union was settled in 1879 when the corporation forfeited claims on the invention of the telephone in return for twenty percent of Bell’s company’s earnings for the duration of the patent.[4] The other lawsuits meandered through multiple courts over several years until several were consolidated before the United States Supreme Court. Ultimately, a divided court ruled in favor of Bell’s position in each case. The various opinions and appendices were so voluminous that when compiled they made up the entire volume of United States Reports, the official publication of Supreme Court opinions.[5]

The court decisions ultimately granted vast scope to the Bell patent and assigned an enormously profitable asset to Bell’s corporation. The firm that became AT&T grew into one of the largest corporations in the world.[6] Years earlier, the telegraph had transformed communication, with huge impacts on the operation of industry and government. But although the telegraph had enormous impact upon the lives of ordinary Americans, it was not widely used by private individuals for their personal communications. Almost all messages were sent by businesses and government agencies. Initially, this was the common practice for telephone usage. But with the dawn of the twentieth century, telephones became widely used by private individuals. More phones were available in homes rather than just in offices. Unlike telegrams, which were charged by the word, telephone service for local calls were priced with a flat monthly rate. As a result, telephone service was enjoyed as a means of communication for social purposes, not just commercial activities.    Within a hundred years of Bell’s initial patent, telephones could be found in almost every American home.[7]

James C. Clinger is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Sociology at Murray State University. He is the co-author of Institutional Constraint and Policy Choice: An Exploration of Local Governance and co-editor of Kentucky Government, Politics, and Policy. Dr. Clinger is the chair of the Murray-Calloway County Transit Authority Board, a past president of the Kentucky Political Science Association, and a former firefighter for the Falmouth Volunteer Fire Department.

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[1] Billington, David P. “Bell and the Telephone.” In Power, Speed, and Form: Engineers and the Making of the Twentieth Century, 35-56. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006.

[2] Billington, op cit.

[3] Stone, Alan. “Protection of the Newborn.” In Public Service Liberalism: Telecommunications and Transitions in Public Policy, 51-83. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991.

[4] MacDougall, Robert. “Unnatural Monopoly.” In The People’s Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age, 92-131. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.

[5] The Telephone Cases.  126 US 1.

[6] Beauchamp, Christopher. “Who Invented the Telephone? Lawyers, Patents, and the Judgments of History.” Technology and Culture 51, no. 4 (2010): 854-78.

[7] MacDougall, Robert. “Visions of Telephony.” In The People’s Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age, 61-91. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.


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