Who Invented Your Telephone?

Issue #22 - Telephone

For many of us, it’s difficult to imagine life without our phones… not that they resemble the original telephone much anymore. But unlike the steam engine (patented in 1804), the telephone is still with us--and still useful. The Bell Telephone Company, the corporation Alexander Graham Bell founded after registering his patent, soon changed its name to American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T) and it established and then monopolized the American telephone industry for most of the twentieth century, long after the death of Bell himself in 1922. AT&T survived to become a multinational corporation and is today the largest telecommunications company in the world. So when you’re looking through those old family papers, keep an eye out for any 1876 Bell Telephone Company shares… there must be some still out there.

Almost 150 years ago, on Valentine’s Day, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell did not invent the telephone. No, on that Monday morning two lawyers in Washington, D.C. traveled to the United States Patent Office on behalf of their respective clients, Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray. Each lawyer represented a talented inventor, and each was filing documentation regarding what was broadly known at the time as telegraphy: the electromagnetic transmission of sound through electricity and wires. Elisha Gray’s lawyer was the 39th name in the logbook that day to register their invention. Alexander Graham Bell’s lawyer must have woken up a little bit earlier, because his name was the 5th.

The virtually simultaneous announcement of the telephone’s invention immediately became a legally contentious issue. There was a widespread sense of anticipation for this invention; people knew it could potentially revolutionize human communications. But the reason for that anticipation only muddied the waters more, because it turned out neither Gray nor Bell had actually filed the first patent for a telephone. A patent caveat had been filed on December 28, 1871 for a device called a Sound Telegraph, the invention of an Italian immigrant to Staten Island, New York, Antonio Meucci.

The patent caveat is familiar to historians of science. Discontinued in 1908 by the U.S. Congress, a patent caveat was an official announcement, often accompanied by drawings and diagrams, of a future claim to file a patent. The caveat was a way to ensure that the idea itself would be credited. In the case of Antonio Meucci (and most others who filed patent caveats), this probably reflected an inability to afford to create the invention itself at that moment. 

Meucci was born in Florence in 1808 and trained as an engineer. He first put his skills to work in the theater, where in 1834 he built a functioning acoustic telephone (not electric) in Florence’s historic opera house, the Teatro della Pergola. There he constructed a telephonic device made of pipes that enabled operators in the control room to speak directly with the people onstage--a device that still functions in the nearly 400-year-old theater today. 

Inspired by the wealth and fame of Samuel Morse, who invented the single-wire telegraph in 1832 and later the Morse Code, Meucci moved to New York City in 1850 and soon created another telephone--this one using electricity--to allow him to communicate with his wife on the second floor while he was tinkering in the basement. In 1870 Meucci reportedly made a successful electromagnetic telephone call across a mile distance, using something he called a “telletrefono” and, later, in his 1871 patent caveat, a Sound Telegraph. 

Meucci’s invention did not propel him to wealth and fame. Injured by a boiler explosion on the Staten Island Ferry in 1870, the accident caused his family’s financial ruin. His scientific drawings and materials were ultimately sold to raise money for his medical bills and he never was able to file a formal patent, at least not before Alexander Graham Bell.

The late-nineteenth century saw the rise of not only new communications technology but also the widespread growth and professionalization of the field of law. An army of lawyers emerged to serve the needs of an increasingly bureaucratic American business sphere. So when the established, well-financed Alexander Graham Bell announced in 1876 that he had invented this new device, legal teams representing Elisha Gray, Antonio Meucci, and quite a few other claimants, arrived on the scene to stake their claims. 

Bell’s lawyers spent the next two decades in court, successfully defending his intellectual property rights. Bell’s personal archive of laboratory notes, models, and correspondence won the day; Meucci, of course, had lost almost all the records of his experiments with the teletrofono. Meucci died in 1889.

The next year Alexander Graham Bell founded the Bell Telephone Company (later called Atlantic Telephone and Telegraph Company, aka AT&T) and within ten years over 150,000 people owned telephones. 

“The inventor looks upon the world and is not contented [sic] with things as they are,” Bell said. “He wants to improve whatever he sees, he wants to benefit the world; he is haunted by an idea. The spirit of invention possesses him, seeking materialization.” Bell was and remains a model of the modern inventor, working ceaselessly in a variety of scientific fields, including building an early air conditioner that he used in his own family home. Bell’s work in telegraphy was inspired by his desire to improve the lives of those around him; both his mother and his wife were deaf, and he was interested in the physiology of human speech from an early age. 

When Bell died in 1922, every telephone in America was silenced for the duration of his funeral.  Today it’s impossible to imagine the last century without the telephone. Bell might not recognize the small rectangular devices we now use as phones, but there’s no doubt that his invention remains one of the most important inventions of the past 200 years.

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Just Like a Game of Telephone, “Facts” in Family Legends are Often Misunderstood and Misquoted

Beginning researchers are normally taught to start building their family tree by recording details about themselves, ascending back to the facts personally known about their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents, along with any known information about collateral relatives (siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles). Once everything known is recorded, the next step in creating the foundational family tree is to interview living elder relatives.  It is inevitable that at least one of these interviewees will reveal an ancestral story, in great detail, of an ancestor who performed a heroic feat, claimed descent from a famous or notorious figure in history, or that there is a familial connection to nobility, great wealth, or even an indigenous tribal leader. If you think to yourself “this is too good to be true,” you very well may be right, at least in part.

Do you remember playing the game of telephone as a child?  It's the game where children form a circle and the first person whispers a complex sentence or phrase to the person to their side, then that person whispers to the next person and so on, continuing around the circle until it arrives back to the originator and you guessed it, is different from the phrase originally uttered.  

The family stories and details of ancestors also change, as they are relayed from person to person, from one generation to the next. Though the story can morph greatly over time, there normally remains threads of accuracy nestled within.  The role of a family historian often involves sifting through these family legends; similar to panning for gold, but instead looking for nuggets of truth.  

These wonderfully exciting, but not all-together-true family legends can be used for clues.  In order to separate the myth from fact, begin by verifying aspects of the story that would likely have been documented, such as the names, dates, occupations, and the like. Seek out documentation pertinent for the time period in question, including vital, census, military, land, court and immigration records, as well as published works.  Look deeper, going beyond just the names and dates found in the records, in order to create a clear picture of the subject.  Use the facts extracted from the records to create a timeline of live events for the individual, which might potentially either support or refute the details of the story.

There are myriad ways to verify the accuracy of these family legends and you may just learn that your immigrant ancestor was actually born during a journey across the Atlantic, just as your Grandma Ruth remembered.  However, even if along the way you find you don’t really descend from Sacagawea, as your great-grandfather adamantly claimed, or a familial relation wasn’t actually a signer of the Declaration of Independence, as your mom’s Uncle Sammy storied at last year’s family reunion, you will learn more about the tenacity and perseverance of your interesting-in-their-own-way ancestors. 

Good luck and enjoy the journey to the truth!


Helpful Resource

Learn more about Investing Your Family’s Legends in this recounting of a family historian’s research spurred by family lore.

Past Issues 🗞


Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/ : accessed 11 March 2021), “Who is credited with inventing the telephone?”

Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/ : accessed 11 March 2021), “Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers at the Library of Congress.” 

Wired (https://www.wired.com/ : accessed 11 March 2021), “March 10, 1876: 'Mr. Watson, Come Here ...'.” 

New Hampshire Telephone Museum (https://www.nhtelephonemuseum.org/ : accessed 11 March 2021), “C is for Caveat.” 

Telephone & Light Patent Drawings, digital images, National Archives (https://archives.gov : accessed 11 March 2021), digital image of original patent drawing, “Alexander Graham Bell's Telephone Patent Drawing”, Records of the Patent and Trademark Office, NARA, Washington, D.C., Record Group 241, identifier 302052.

Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Teléfono de cordel (1882).jpg : 11 March 2021), digital image of original illustration artwork,  “File:Teléfono de cordel (1882).jpg;” photograph uploaded by user clusternote.

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