Did Graham Bell steal idea for telephone?
A new book claims to have definitive evidence of a long-suspected technological crime — that American inventor Alexander Graham Bell stole ideas for the telephone from a rival, Elisha Gray.
In The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret, journalist Seth Shulman argues that Bell — aided by aggressive lawyers and a corrupt patent examiner — got an improper peek at patent documents Gray had filed and that Bell was erroneously credited with filing first.
Shulman believes the smoking gun is Bell’s lab notebook, which was restricted by his family until 1976 and later digitised and made available.
The notebook details the false starts Bell encountered as he tried transmitting sound electromagnetically over a wire. Then, after a 12 day gap in 1876 — when Bell went to Washington to sort out patent questions about his work — he suddenly began trying another method, which was the one that proved successful.
As Bell described that new approach, he sketched a diagram of a person speaking into a device. Gray’s patents, which describe a similar technique, feature a very similar diagram.
Shulman’s book, due out in January, recounts other elements that have piqued researchers’ suspicions.
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; he also resisted testifying in an 1878 lawsuit probing this question; and Bell, as if ashamed, quickly distanced himself from the telephone monopoly bearing his name.