the first Telephone, Alexander Graham Bell is credited with inventing the telephone, but there is some debate over whether he actually did. Some people believe that Antonio Meucci, an Italian immigrant, was the true inventor of the telephone.
Phones are indispensable in the everyday lives of most individuals,
but determining the mastermind behind the device can be challenging. Alexander Graham Bell, a Scottish-born inventor, is commonly credited with inventing the telephone and making the first phone call on March 10, 1876. During this call, he famously asked his assistant Thomas Watson, “Mr. Watson, come here; I want to see you.”
However, as Iwan Morus explains in his book “How the Victorians Took Us to the Moon: The Story of the 19th-Century Innovators Who Forged Our Future” (Icon Books, 2022), inventions rarely have a single driving force. Morus mentions that many 19th-century electrical inventions were highly disputed, with various inventors claiming to have been the first to find a solution. Similar disputes occurred with the lightbulb and other notable inventions.
According to Christopher Beauchamp, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, numerous individuals claimed to have invented the telephone around the same time as Bell. Some even accused Bell of fraudulently seizing the honor. In such situations, historians like Morus become more concerned with understanding how certain individuals emerge from the pack to gain the credit, rather than determining the absolute “inventor.”
Ultimately, it’s important to recognize that many inventions, including the telephone, are the result of collaborative efforts and simultaneous developments in technology. This perspective helps us appreciate the harmonious aspect of innovation and the individuals who have shaped our world.
Italian inventor Antonio Meucci,
who was belatedly recognized by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2002 for his contributions to the invention of the telephone, American engineer Elisha Gray, and German physicist Johann Philipp Reis, who built the first “make-and-break” telephone in 1861, all played significant roles in the development of the telephone.
Reis’ invention differed slightly from Bell’s more sophisticated solution, as it worked by making and breaking connections within a circuit. His device captured sound and converted it into electrical impulses, which were then transmitted via electrical wires to another device that recreated the sounds. However, because the system relied on connections being constantly made and broken, continuous conversation was not possible, unlike with Bell’s device.
Part of the reason Bell’s name has endured is due to this technological advantage, but as Beauchamp explains, the primary reason is more bureaucratic – patent law. During the 1880s, Bell hired a group of high-profile, influential attorneys who successfully won numerous patent cases related to the telephone industry, leading to a “legal monopoly.” Courts ruled in favor of Bell’s claims that he developed the telephone’s technology and granted him extensive rights over electrical speech communication.
It’s important to note that both Bell and Gray submitted separate telephone-related patents on February 14, 1876. Although Gray’s application arrived at the patent office before Bell’s, Bell’s lawyers were more proactive in paying the application fees immediately. As a result, Bell’s application was processed and registered first, leading to its approval on March 7th, just three days before his iconic call with Watson.
But what, exactly, did Bell invent?
“The essence of the telephone was finding a method to convert the vibrations caused by the voice into a varying electric current, and transforming those electrical fluctuations back into acoustic vibrations at the other end,” Morus said. “Bell’s genuine breakthrough was discovering a reliable way of accomplishing that.” This, Morus notes, is what made Bell’s device superior to Reis’. In addition, Bell’s ability to create a compelling narrative may have played a crucial role. A year after Bell secured the patent, his father-in-law Gardiner Greene Hubbard organized the new Bell Telephone Company. “Bell’s success could be attributed, in part, to having a captivating inventor story to share,”
Morus said, “along with the fact that his telephone company quickly took off and remained dominant in the US for a long time.” Another factor in Bell’s legacy was his focus on transmitting vocals as opposed to written messages. “What people found intriguing during that time was the transmission of the human voice,” Morus said. “By the 1870s, telegraphy was a thriving business on both sides of the Atlantic, and inventors – including Bell – were competing to find ways to send messages with increasing efficiency. Ironically, not many of Bell’s competitors were particularly interested in transmitting the voice because they believed it was not an adequately efficient means of sharing information.
While there may be differing opinions on who deserves credit for inventing the telephone, it’s undeniable that it was one of the most transformative and significant inventions of the Victorian era. “The telephone played a pivotal role in bringing the prospect of electric power directly into Victorian middle-class homes,” Morus said. “It became an integral part of how the Victorians envisioned what the future would look like.”
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All about telephone