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Question Who is credited with inventing the telephone?

Answer

Alexander Graham Bell is often credited with being the inventor of the telephone since he was awarded the first successful patent. However, there were many other inventors such as Elisha Gray and Antonio Meucci who also developed a talking telegraph.

First Bell Telephone, June 1875. Emile Berliner collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress.

Attributing the true inventor or inventors to a specific invention can be tricky business. Often credit goes to the inventor of the most practical or best working invention rather than to the original inventor(s). This happens to be the case with the invention of the telephone!

Drawing by Alexander Graham Bell, 1876. In Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

There is a lot of controversy and intrigue surrounding the invention of the telephone. There have been court cases, books, and articles generated about the subject. Of course, Alexander Graham Bell is the father of the telephone. After all it was his design that was first patented, however, he was not the first inventor to come up with the idea of a telephone.

Louise Brooks … holding telephones, with various other models on table before her. 1936. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Antonio Meucci, an Italian immigrant, began developing the design of a talking telegraph or telephone in 1849. In 1871, he filed a caveat (an announcement of an invention) for his design of a talking telegraph. Due to hardships, Meucci could not renew his caveat. His role in the invention of the telephone was overlooked until the United States House of Representatives passed a Resolution on June 11, 2002, honoring Meucci’s contributions and work. You can read the resolution (107th Congress, H Res 269) on Congress.gov.

The Party Wire. Norman Rockwell, 1919. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

To make matters even more interesting some researchers suggest that Elisha Gray, a professor at Oberlin College, applied for a caveat of the telephone on the same day Bell applied for his patent of the telephone—these gentlemen didn’t actually visit the Patent Office, their lawyers did on their behalf. In Historical First Patents: The First United States Patent for Many Everyday Things (Scarecrow Press, 1994), Travis Brown, reports that Bell’s lawyer got to the patent office first. The date was February 14, 1876. He was the fifth entry of that day, while Gray’s lawyer was 39th. Therefore, the U.S. Patent Office awarded Bell with the first patent for a telephone, US Patent Number 174,465 rather than honor Gray’s caveat. However, some authors dispute this story and suggest that there was malfeasance by certain individuals at Patent Office, and possibly Bell himself.

If someone asks who is credited with inventing the telephone, you can explain the controversy that still surrounds this question.

Published on 11/19/2019

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