The world is reeling in horror today over news of the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto. There's little I can intelligently say about this; more knowledgeable folks than I will be weighing in and analyzing this shocking event over the next several days (and beyond). All I can do is join the rest of us regular folk who mourn not just the loss of Bhutto, but the 20 or so others who were killed when the assassin blew himself up after shooting Bhutto — mostly because they were standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. The world, alas, is not always fair, or just.
World affairs are not my forte, so for now, I'll stick with scientific history, specifically, a news item yesterday in Wired about a new book by Seth Shulman claiming to provide "definitive evidence … that Alexander Graham Bell stole ideas for the telephone from a rival, Elisha Gray." The book in question is The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell's Secret and it's due out January 7th. It should make for an interesting read, whether or not one is inclined to buy Shulman's argument. The invention of the telephone is one of the most hotly contested issues in scientific (and patent) history, figuring in a major court case as recently as 2002. Feelings still tend to run pretty high whenever the subject comes up.
Shulman's focus is on Gray, who famously filed his own patent application for a telephone just a few hours after Bell did, on February 14, 1876. But there is equally compelling evidence in support of an Italian immigrant named Antonio Meucci inventing the device. Meucci was born in 1808 in Florence, Italy, and studied chemical and mechanical engineering at the Florence Academy of Fine Arts. He got a job as a stage technician at the Teatro della Pergola, where he met his future wife, Ester, a costume designer. The same year they married, Meucci built a nifty sort of acoustic telephone system, similar to the pipes used for communication on ships; apparently that system is still working. The following year, after Antonio was briefly imprisoned for opposing his country's totalitarian regime, the couple fled Italy and emigrated to Havana, Cuba, where they both worked at the Great Tacon Theater for several years.
While in Cuba, Meucci became interested in the use of electric shocks to treat various medical ailments, such as migraine headaches and his wife's crippling rheumatoid arthritis. He wasn't a doctor, but he built up a rough approximation of a private practice in one of the theater's back rooms. One day, while preparing to treat a man with a migraine headache, he heard the man's voice over the piece of copper wire running between them when he switched on the current, even though the "patient" was in the next room. In a later affidavit, Meucci identified this moment as "my first impression, and the origin of my idea of the transmission of the human voice by electricity."
In 1950, the Meuccis emigrated to the US and settled on Staten Island, where Meucci set up a tallow candle factory with the capital he'd saved up while living in Cuba. Maybe he should have stayed there. His fortunes took a sharp downturn after moving to the US. He fell victim to "fraudulent debtors" and was financially ruined. His little Staten Island cottage was auctioned off, although the purchaser graciously allowed the couple to continue living there rent-free. Soon he was reduced to relying on public welfare and the generosity of friends, one of whom (William E. Ryder) invested money in Meucci's continuing experiments.
Furthermore, Ester's condition worsened, effectively turning her into a bedridden recluse. Meucci set up what his supporters call the first electromagnetic telephone as a means of connecting the second-floor bedroom with his basement laboratory — basically, an intercom system so Ester could ring a mechanical call bell when she needed him. He called this a telegrafo parlante ("talking telegraph"). Between 1856 and 1870, he apparently developed some 30 different types of telephonic devices based on this simple prototype. In August 1870, Meucci demonstrated a telettrofono capable of transmitting a human voice over one mile using copper insulated by cotton as a conductor.
This should have been his big break, but Lady Luck just wasn't working in Meucci's favor. He was severely burned in a boiler explosion aboard the Staten Island Ferry, and while he was recovering, their financial straits were so dire that Ester sold his drawings and prototype devices to a second-hand dealer to raise some much-needed cash. Still, Meucci was determined despite these setbacks, even making preliminary arrangements to establish a fledgling company with three entrepreneurial-minded investors (all Italian) in December 1971. That was also when he filed a caveat at the US Patent Office for his "Sound Telegraph." (A caveat is basically an intent to file a patent. The filing fees are cheaper, require a less detailed description of the device, and if someone else submitted a formal patent application when a caveat was in place, the holder had three months to submit his or her own formal application.)
Meucci managed to scrape up funds to renew his caveat until 1874, when he finally allowed it to expire. Two years later, Bell filed his patent (closely followed by Elisha Gray), and Meucci sued for patent infringement. Bell counter-sued on similar grounds, instigating a legal circus that spanned some 15 years. Bell, frankly, had deeper pockets. He hired a team of lawyers, while Meucci had just one lawyer acting pro bono on his behalf. Meucci supplied his annotated drawings and records, even testifying about publishing a description of his electromagnetic telephone in early 1861 in an Italian-language newspaper in New York called L'Eco d'Italia. Unfortunately for Meucci, all the archived issues from that time period had been destroyed in a fire by the time his dispute with Bell came to trial, so he could only testify what he could recall about that article. There were also mentions of his experiments in October 1865 in the paper, though, as well as a letter published in Il Commercio di Genova in December 1865. The court wasn't convinced. Bell's team countered by accusing the Italian of forging the records and backdating them so that they appeared to predate Bell's invention.
It didn't help matters that the presiding judge in the second case (where Meucci was the defendant), William J. Wallace, was openly hostile to the Italian immigrant. His sentence, issued in July 1887, was scathing in its condemnation and pretty much accused Meucci of attempting to defraud his investors with a device that had never really worked. The legal grounds for the judgment against Meucci were that his device was a mechanical, not an electrical telephone, and did not contain "any elements of an electric speaking telephone as would give the same priority over or interfere with the said Bell patent…." (Italian history Giovanni Schiavo considered the Wallace ruling to be "one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in this history of the U.S., and one of the most offensive." But he probably had his own biases in favor of his countryman.)
Meucci's case went through years of appeals, and just when he seemed on the verge of victory — fraud charges were filed against Bell in 1888, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in 1889 — he died. The lawsuit died with him. But the controversy sure didn't. And finally, over a century later, he received some symbolic vindication: in 2002, the US House of Representatives approved a resolution delcaring that Meucci should be considered the rightful inventor of the telephone: "If Meucci had been able to pay the $10 fee to maintain the caveat after 1874, no patent could have been issued to Bell." The Italian newspaper La Repubblica open gloated about it, choosing to view the resolution as a comeuppance of sorts for Bell (dismissed by the editors as a "cunning Scotsman" and "usurper"). And still the debate rages on.
As moving as the tale of Meucci's fruitless struggle is, Bell's story is just as compelling, in its own way — plus it has a happy ending. His interest in telegraphy and telephony was perfectly natural, seeing as how he hailed from a family who loved speech and sound. His grandfather was an elocutionist, and his father developed the first international phonetic alphabet a form of "visual speech" that enabled the deaf to make specific sounds. The family had first-hand experience with deafness, since Bell's mother was almost entirely deaf.
The young Bell learned about resonance at a very young age, noting that when he pressed his lips against his mother's forehead, the bones would resonate to his voice, and that a chord struck on one piano would sometimes be echoed by a piano in another room. His conclusion? Whole chords could be transmitted through the air, vibrating at the other end at exactly the same pitch. Bell also participated in his father's demonstrations of "visual speech," and one summer managed to acquire a human ear from a local medical school, which he used to build an "ear phonoautograph": whenever he spoke into the ear, an attached stalk of hay would vibrate in response and trace the sound waves onto a piece of smoked glass — pretty much like a modern seismograph. All those things contributed to his work on building a telephone.
Mary Bellis, who writes online entries on famous inventors for About.com, has faced her share of criticism for crediting Bell, and not Meucci, with invention of the telephone, prompting her to post this somewhat snippy entry in her defense (her exasperation is almost palpable, and understandably so). She makes a strong case, and is very careful not to claim that Bell was the first inventor; rather, "This website credits Alexander Graham Bell as being the first person to patent the telephone and whose company was the first to bring telephone services successfully to the marketplace." While recognizing Meucci's talent, she is skeptical of his claims of not renewing his caveat, or filing a formal patent, for his device because he couldn't afford it. Meucci was awarded patents in 1872, 1873, 1875 and 1876; it seems his attention was divided among many brewing inventions. As for the accusations of Bell stealing Gray's or Meucci's ideas, she points out that Bell couldn't do so without also falsifying every step toward invention: he'd need a fabricated cover story, fake notebooks, and so forth. And there's just no evidence that he did so. As for the Congressional resolution, Bellis is dismissive: "Are politicians now our historians?" (It was Italian-American deputate Vito Fossella who pushed for the bill, and his maneuver, while well-intentioned, was not free of bias either.)
Human nature being what it is, someone who achieves such major success is bound to find him or her self facing a few frivolous lawsuits, some by folks who truly believe they are entitled to a share of the profits. (Lots of people have eccentric relatives who claim they invented Velcro, for instance.) Per N. Herbert, author of The History of the Telephone, "To bait the Bell Company became almost a national sport. Any sort of claimant, with any sort of wild tale of prior invention, could fine a speculator to support him." Herbert goes on to dismiss this "motley array" of pretenders to the throne, and no doubt many merited the criticism, but Meucci and Gray hardly fit that description. Still, again and again, most historians tend to come down on the side of Bell, with the above noted qualifications.
Shulman's take is that Bell was well connected enough to finagle an illicit peek at patent documents filed by Gray, and that a (possibly corrupt) patent examiner erroneously gave Bell credit for filing first. He also finds supposedly damning clues in Bell's own lab notebook (which has been digitized and available online since 1999) — things like Bell's admittedly crude hand-sketched diagram of a person speaking into device being suspiciously similar to Gray's drawing in his own patent application. Other "evidence":
Bell's transmitted design appears hastily written in the margin of his patent; Bell was nervous about demonstrating his device with Gray present; Bell resisted testifying in an 1878 lawsuit probing this question; and Bell, as if ashamed, quickly distanced himself from the telephone monopoly bearing his name.
Um… okay. Look, I haven't read the book yet, so it's possible that Shulman has something a bit more compelling than the items listed above, which strike me as largely circumstantial, and even downright conjectural. Really, unless Shulman found undiscovered (until now) damning passages in Bell's private correspondence where the inventor states his feelings explicitly, I don't see how anyone could possibly know whether or not Bell was nervous about facing Gray, reluctant to testify at a trial (although who wouldn't be just a tad bit reluctant if one were being sued?), or was so ashamed he deliberately distanced himself from his own company. (Maybe he was just ready to move on, being more interested in invention than commercialization, however much he appreciated the financial rewards of the latter.)
So, even taken collectively, all of Shulman's evidence might not add up to the "definitive" proof he claims. Authors, alas, are not immune to the phenomenon of becoming so enamored of their own theories that they lose their objectivity when evaluating evidence. (Just look at Patricia Cornwall's embarrassing tome claiming to "prove" once and for all the identify of Jack the Ripper.) That doesn't dampen my enthusiasm for reading the book (which I have duly ordered from Amazon), since every new addition to this fascinating historical patent battle can shed further light on a very murky issue. A few things I hope to see addressed by Shulman:
(1) What proof is there that Bell had access to Gray's patent, or that Bell was erroneously credited with filing first?
(2) How does Gray's "case" stack up against the case for Meucci, who also claimed that Bell stole his concept for a telephone; and
(3) As for the similarities between Bell's and Gray's diagrams, again, unless Shulman has uncovered something new to bolster his case (which would indeed be exciting), it's primarily circumstantial.
I'm not necessarily a diehard Bell fan. The man wasn't a saint, but that doesn't necessarily make him a villain, either. He really was quite brilliant. A mere four years after demonstrating his telephone at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 — prompting a visiting Emperor Don Pedro of Brazil to exclaim "My god, it talks!" — Bell demonstrated the first wireless telephone message on his newly invented photophone, which transmitted sound on a beam of light instead of electricity. Seriously. Bell projected his voice through the device onto a mirror which vibrated in response. Those vibrations were projected as reflections when he then shone sunlight onto the mirror, and the reflections were then captured and transformed back into sound at the receiving end of the system. There was no immediate application for this, which should come as no surprise, since Tesla's pioneering work on wireless technology using radio waves was still 13 years in the future. But the photophone is nonetheless widely recognized as an ancestor of sorts for today's fiber-optic telecommunication systems.
On the whole, while I'm moved by Meucci's plight, I tend to agree with Bellis's take: that "several inventors independently worked on a telephone device, and that Alexander Graham Bell was the first to patent his and was the most successful in bringing the telephone tomarket." It's true, lots of would-be inventors were working on telegraphs and telephones and all manner of other devices in the late 19th century, and there's really only so many variations possible to make a working telephone-type thing. In addition to Gray and Meucci, there was a German inventor named Philipp Reis who built rudimentary telephone-like devices in the 1860s; there were others, too, most notably Charles Bourseul and Innocenzo Manzetti. Meucci's story is just the most tragic. Life dealt him a raw hand, while Fortune smiled upon Bell. But he has not been forgotten, as evidenced by the ongoing heated debates. That's justice of a sort.