It was 141 years ago today, March 7, 1876, that Alexander Graham Bell received U.S. Letters Patent No, 174,465 covering his latest invention – the telephone. The original patent application was filed just three weeks earlier on February 14, 1876. In fact, Bell’s patent application was filed a mere two hours before Elisha Gray filed a similar patent application for a telephone.
Because Gray’s patent was filed second in time, Bell received the patent monopoly on the world’s first telephone. In what would foreshadow today’s modern technology patent wars, Western Union saw the value of the invention, ignored the patent rights of Bell, and instead decided to develop its own telephone technology. Western Union employed none other than Thomas Edison and Elisha Gray to create the competing product. In turn, Bell filed a patent infringement lawsuit to enforce his patent monopoly against Western Union. That case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. But before we get to how the High Court ruled on Bell’s patent, let’s remember the history of Bell’s amazing discovery.
While living in Boston, Scottish-born Bell became interested in the possibility of transmitting speech over wires. Samuel F.B. Morse’s invention of the telegraph in 1843 had made nearly instantaneous communication possible between two distant points. Bell wanted to improve on this by creating a “harmonic telegraph,” a device that combined aspects of the telegraph and record player to allow individuals to speak to each other from a distance.
With the help of Thomas A. Watson, a Boston machine shop employee, Bell developed a prototype for his idea. In this first telephone, sound waves caused an electric current to vary in intensity and frequency, causing a thin, soft iron plate–called the diaphragm–to vibrate. These vibrations were transferred magnetically to another wire connected to a diaphragm in another, distant instrument. When that diaphragm vibrated, the original sound would be replicated in the ear of the receiving instrument. Three days after filing the patent, the telephone carried its first intelligible message – “Mr. Watson, come here, I need you”–from Bell to his assistant.
As indicated above, Bell’s patent filing beat a similar claim by Elisha Gray by only two hours. Not wanting to be shut out of the communications market, Western Union employed Gray and fellow inventor Thomas A. Edison to develop their own telephone technology. Several other companies jockeying to enter the market followed Western Union’s lead and soon a number of different companies claimed to have intellectual property rights superior to Bell. In response, Bell sued them all and the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld Bell’s patent rights. See Dolbear v. Am. Bell Tel. Co., 126 U.S. 1, 572–73, 8 S. Ct. 778, 802, 31 L. Ed. 863 (1888).
As we celebrate Bell’s invention today, we are reminded that imitation may be the highest compliment to a truly unique invention. We are also reminded that greed and willful disregard for a man’s property and his inventions are nothing new.