Did Bell steal the idea for the phone?
An author says he has damning evidence that settles an old question
BRIAN BETHUNE | January 23, 2008 |
Is it time to let the Americans have him after all? Canadians have always jealously guarded Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, as our very own icon. We admit the Scottish-born immigrant conducted the first telephone conversation in Boston; we'll even acknowledge, more quietly, that his gravestone reads Teacher - Inventor - Citizen of the U.S.A. But we're proud that his burial plot is in Cape Breton, N.S., where Bell spent his summers and performed many of his later experiments, and that the first long-distance telephone call (Brantford to Paris, Ont.) occurred in Canada. Clearly we have always found Bell Canadian enough, and more than important enough: the phone alone, not to mention early work in aviation, gives him a place in the pantheon of inventive geniuses that is shared only with Thomas Edison. But now there's a new question in the air: was Bell honest enough? In The Telephone Gambit (Penguin), U.S. writer Seth Shulman argues that the Canadian hero stole the phone's key technological breakthrough from American inventor Elisha Gray.
The canonical story of the telephone's invention is well-known. On March 10, 1876, struggling with a mechanism for transmitting voice, Bell was in his Boston lab when he spilled battery acid on himself and yelled for his assistant in the next room: "Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you." To his amazement, Tom Watson heard the cry, not directly from Bell's room, but via the apparatus they had been experimenting with. The two young men, according to Charlotte Gray's bestselling 2006 account, Reluctant Genius: The Passionate Life and Inventive Mind of Alexander Graham Bell, "exploded with excitement." They switched places so Bell could hear Watson, and laughed and tested through the night until Bell concluded the world's first telephone conversation with "God save the Queen!" and launched into an impromptu Mohawk war dance. (That final exclamation should settle the nationality question for all time: in Boston, epicentre of the American Revolution, in 1876, the year of the U.S. centennial, a man who achieves his life's goal cries "God save the Queen"? He might as well have yelled "I am Canadian!") All the rest — from the birth of Ma Bell and what was once the ultimate widows-and-orphans stock, all the way down to those two annoying beavers — is generally reckoned history.
Not quite, though. Shulman's claim is hardly the first made against Bell. The inventor and his fledgling telephone company had to fight off some 600 lawsuits over the following two decades, including five that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. But what soon became the world's largest monopoly won them all, and nobody seriously disputed Bell's claims for another century. In 2002, the U.S. House of Representatives finally responded to pressure from Italian-Americans and recognized the pioneering role of Antonio Meucci with a carefully worded resolution "that his work in the invention of the telephone should be acknowledged." That in turn prompted a tit-for-tat from Parliament in Ottawa: "This House affirms that Alexander Graham Bell of Brantford, Ont., and Baddeck, N.S., is the inventor of the telephone."
This sort of jingoistic competition is fairly common in the history of science, where there is often a distinction to be drawn between who first had the ingenious theoretical insight and who first came up with a viable economic possibility. Whatever work Meucci did, it was Bell who acquired the patent and invented the phone company. What Shulman charges, however, is orders of magnitude beyond sharp business practices, and more like fraud.
In 2006, Shulman was a writer-in-residence at MIT and reading Bell's 1876 notebooks when he had a eureka moment of his own. Bell was in Boston, experimenting slowly in the early part of the year, making incremental changes, trying batteries of differing strengths, magnets in different combinations — and getting nowhere. (Even so, Bell's attorneys, knowing others were getting close, filed for patent in Washington, adding to the pressure on Bell.) His daily logs cease on Feb. 24, with no entries until a single line on March 7: "Returned from Washington." The very next day, the notebooks record that Bell was on to something completely unlike his previous approaches, adding a dish of water with sulphuric acid and a new contraption, a diaphragm with a needle going into that water, to complete his electrical circuit. The first phone call was only two days away. What had happened in Washington to make Bell think of that, Shulman wondered.