The invention of the telephone seems to be a worldwide mess in terms of who first invented the device.  There seems to be great financial disparity between who invented it and those that patented it. It’s an interesting story of those who had nothing, coming up with a revolutionary idea and ensuring that it worked, but being first or second or even third in line to invent it, was not enough to secure rights to the concept. 

The concept was presented as early as 1854 by Charles Bourseul, a civil engineer and tc4mechanic for the French Telegraph company.  Bourseul’s thoughts on voice transmission over a wire were as follows:  “Suppose that a man speaks near a movable disc sufficiently flexible to lose none of the vibrations of the voice; that this disc alternately makes and breaks the currents from a battery: you may have at a distance another disc which will simultaneously execute the same vibrations“.  It seems that Bourseul’s thoughts were seminal to the experiments of the time.

Further investigation into the invention of the telephone, the transmission of voice over a telegraph wire, leads us to other tc1European players that began theoretical consideration of devices that resembled the telephone as early as the 1840s with working models that were scientific novelties in the 1860s.  The first of these was an Italian, Innocenzo Manzetti (1826-1877).  To some Manzetti is the real inventor of the telephone and to others it’s Johann Phillip Reis (1834-1874), a German.  

Manzetti composed a make and break tc2transmitter and a magnetostriction receiver that was similar to the device invented and researched by Phillip Reis.  Manzetti and Reis did not know each other; they worked independently and neither inventor was showered with accolades for their inventions until much later.  Reis was even told by the Free German Society of Frankfurt that his telefon was a “philosophical toy”.  Both devices were probably the first to transmit speech over a wire and were demonstrated to royalty and scientific societies in Europe.  Reis was rather sickly and both inventors were quite poor and did not have the resources to obtain patents or move their inventions on to a commercial success.   




Antonio Meucci

Antonio Meucci (1808-1889) was an Italian immigrant born in the area of Tuscany who gc8began his adult life as a Florentine artist and stage hand.  In the 1830s he moved to Cuba and while working on methods to treat illnesses with electric shocks, he found that sounds could travel by electrical impulses through copper wire.

With knowledge of Bourseul’s comments and sensing potential, Meucci moved to Staten Island in 1850 to develop the technology.  Several notes by Meucci, purportedly written in 1857, describe basic principles for electromagnetic transmission of sound and voice, arguably put him as the first to invent the telephone.  When Meucci’s wife Ester became paralyzed, he set up a series of components that linked her bedroom with his neighboring workshop and, in 1860, held a public demonstration which was reported in New York’s Italian-language press.

Due to his wife’s condition and some financial setbacks, Meucci could not afford the $250 needed for a definitive patent of his “talking telegraph”.  So in 1871, three years prior to Bell or Gray, Meucci filed a one-year renewable notice of an impending patent, or a caveat. Three years later, however,  he could not afford the $10 to renew it and, thus, the idea “went up for grabs” to anyone who could afford the filing fees for a similar invention.  He sent a model and technical details to the Western Union telegraph company but for some reason failed to win a meeting with executives. When he asked for his materials to be returned, in 1874, he was told by the Patent Office that they had been lost. Two years later, Bell–who shared a laboratory with Meucci–filed a patent for a telephone.


Alexander Graham Bell


Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) was born in Edinburgh, Scotland and educated there and at the University of London.gc5 He also studied under his grandfather, Alexander Bell, a noted speech teacher. Bell’s father was also a speech teacher and noted phonetician.  Bell taught elocution at a school for the deaf in London using his father’s methods.

In 1870, Bell immigrated with his parents to Canada.  Two years later he established a school for the deaf in Boston, Massachusetts, and the following year became a professor in speech and vocal physiology at Boston University. While teaching, he experimented with a means of transmitting several telegraph messages simultaneously over a single wire and also with various devices, such as the visible speech apparatus to help the deaf learn to speak, including a means of graphically recording sound waves.  Bell was a visitor to the laboratory of Manzetti and much of the Reis research was known to him as he worked to develop his device before the others that working to develop the telephone.


Elisha Gray


Had patents been recorded on February 14, 1874 with the usual and customary processing schedule, more of us would know Elisha Gray (1835-1901).   Born in Barnesville, Ohio, Gray worked as an apprentice to a blacksmith before attending Oberlin College, just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. Gray was always interested in the way in which mechanical objects functioned and began to make a name for himself as an inventor. He invented the first music synthesizer called the “musical telegraph” and the device is sometimes credited as being the first electronic musical instrument. 

As an American electrical engineer, Gray co-founded gc6the Western Electric Manufacturing Company and is best known for his development of a telephone prototype in 1876 in Highland Park, Illinois and for contesting Alexander Graham Bell’s actual invention of the telephone.  In his time, Gray was a well known inventor and went on to invent other interesting concepts and machines such as the telautograph in 1887, forerunner of the fax machine.  Since the device could remotely transmit handwriting through the telegraph it was used by banks for signing documents at a distance and by the military for sending written commands during gun tests when the deafening noise from the guns made spoken orders on the telephone impractical. The machines were also used at train stations for schedule changes.

Gray was granted several patents for these pioneer fax machines, and the Gray National Telautograph Company was chartered in 1888 and continued in business as The Telautograph Corporation for many years; after a series of mergers it was finally absorbed by Xerox in the 1990s.  Gray displayed his telautograph invention in 1893 at the 1893 Columbian Exposition where he was also chairman of the International Congress of Electricians at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.  A talented professor and brilliant inventor died in 1901 in Newtonville, Massachusetts.


Zenas Fisk Wilber


Mr. Wilber, a distant relative of US President Rutherford B. Hayes, was appointed to the US Patent Office in 1870 and became the patent examiner for telegraph related patents.tc3  Wilber was a major player in this saga as he was the one that approved patents and recorded when these patents were granted.

Zenas Fisk Wilber fought in the civil war as an Army Major with Bell’s attorney, Marcellus Bailey. Wilber was, however,  an alcoholic and owed Bailey money (a serious Patent Office ethics violation). For a $100 bribe (about $2,100 in today’s money) Wilbur showed his ex-Army buddy Gray’s caveat application which described how to send a voice over a wire. Bailey was startled to find that it wasn’t a patent on a harmonic telegraph–the device Bell was submitting. Rather, Gray’s was a patent for a telephone, capable of transmitting all the sounds of human speech and music. Bailey summoned Bell to come to DC at once where he (Bell) made modifications to his patent that virtually copyed Gray’s design.  Wilber’s serious departure from normal ethical standards in the US Patent Office was a grave error that affected the timing of the recording of Bell’s patent relative to Gray’s caveat and led to one of the most controversial patent wars in history.

Next week in the conclusion of this story, we will put these US players in perspective and discuss the controversy over the most lucrative patent in US history.



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