Did Alexander Graham Bell Steal Phone Technology

180px-1876_Bell_Speaking_into_Telephone.jpgA new book by author Seth Shulman entitled “The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret” argues that Bell stole ideas for the telephone from rival, Elisha Gray. By hiring clever lawyers and a corrupt patent examiner, Shulman makes the claim that Bell was able to examine patent documents Gray had filed which helped Bell perfect his telephone.

Some of the best evidence supporting Shulman’s claim comes from Bell’s own laboratory notes. The notebook is full of false starts as Bell and assistant Thomas Watson tried to transmit sound electromagnetically over a wire. Then there is a 12 day gap in the notes during the time Bell went to Washington to visit the patent office. On his return, Bell was able to transmit his voice over the new invention. A revolution in telecommunications was born with the first words, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.”

Shulman’s book points out other suspicious activity by Bell. For instance, Bell’s transmitter 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.

The book also examines why historical memory favors Bell over Gray and German inventor Philipp Reis. Reis invented a telephone in the 1860s that worked on a different principle.

One reason fate shined on Bell may be due to the fact that he demonstrated his invention to other people and was a good promoter. Gray was more interested in solving his era’s communications challenge: how to send multiple messages simultaneously over the same telegraph wire. As Gray told his attorney, “I should like to see Bell do that with his apparatus.”

This is a good historic lesson for our Century. New technology needs to be protected with strong but fair patent laws so that those who put the effort into inventing new ideas are protected. It also shows that we shouldn’t be of a one-track mind. Solving the problems of today may lead to new breakthroughs but it takes a promoters mind to point out revolutionary change.