Bell, Gray and the invention of the telephone

On the morning of February 14, 1876, a representative for Alexander Graham Bell handed in a patent application to the patent office in Washington for an apparatus for transmitting vocal sounds via electricity lines. Just hours later on the same day, Elisha Gray made a new application to the same office for an apparatus for precisely the same purpose. The fact that both patent applications were filed the same day was no coincidence.

The two inventors were very well aware of each other’s work, and when Gray heard about Bell’s application, he hastened to submit his own. That Bell was the first to submit his application was not a coincidence, either. This is explained by the relationship of both inventors to the telegraph industry.

By the middle of the 1870s, telegraphy had become a truly global telecommunications system. Telegram traffic increased extremely quickly during the 1870s, and despite new lines being constructed at a rapid rate, it became difficult in many areas to handle the increased volume. Accordingly, the largest telegraph company in the United States, Western Union, offered a prize of USD 1 million for whoever was first to develop a system for the simultaneous transmission of several communications along a single wire, so-called multiplex telegraphy.

Both Bell and Gray grappled with this challenge. As it happened, they both sought a similar solution to the problem, namely to send different sounds through the telegraph wires. Both quickly realized that such a method could be used to transmit speech, but they reacted in completely different ways to this revelation. In a letter to his patent attorney in October 1875, Gray wrote:

“Bell seems to devote all of his energy to the concept of vocal telegraphy. Certainly, this is of certain scientific interest but is of no commercial interest at the present time. I do not want to spend time and money at this stage on something that will not provide a profit.”

Previously, Elisha Gray (1835-1901) had been an established inventor within the telegraphy field and maintained close contact with Western Union. For him, it was natural to invest all of his efforts in multiplex telegraphy. He was also successful in developing a functioning system and won the prize that had been established. Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) was originally a trained speech therapist and teacher of deaf students at the University of Boston. He devoted only his spare time to developing his inventions. However, when he realized the opportunities presented by transmission of speech, he became so fascinated that he concentrated all his efforts to the development of a “talking” telegraph.

American Professor of technology and historian David Hounshell has stated that Elisha Gray had the disadvantage of being an expert. Gray was so wrapped up in the telegraphy industry and its way of perceiving the world that he was incapable of seeing the potential in a completely new type of system. The president of the United States’ largest telegraph company, Western Union, was equally incapable when Alexander Bell offered to sell him his telephone patent at the end of 1876. “We are not interested in a scientific toy,” was his answer to Bell.

Instead, Bell formed his own company, Bell Telephone Company, which was soon engaged in a tough legal battle about patent rights with Western Union, which had purchased Gray’s patent. The Bell Company emerged victorious and had a monopoly in regard to the telephone in the US, right up to the middle of the 1890s.

Author: Arne Kaijser

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