The Graying of Bell’s Telephone Patent: Part III

Robert Traynor
May 3, 2016

Over the past couple of weeks we have seen that the invention of the telephone was not necessarily the brainchild of Alexander Graham Bell.  We have found that there were atc6 number of European and American inventors involved in its development but many gc7either did not have the funds to obtain a patent or were simply interested in the scientific merit of their project.

Some of the inventors were known to each other and others were not; some even shared the same laboratories and stole information from each other. While there were others that vied to obtain a patent for similar devices, we now know that there was another significant person involved, Elisha Gray, who challenged Bell for the lucrative honor of inventing the telephone.  Bell’s patent will be one of the most contested patents in history but eventually he will stand in US courts and Congressional investigations as the individual that invented the telephone.

But was AG Bell really first?  Was his design the best?  That is our Hearing International story this week.

Was Gray’s Caveat First?

As mentioned in Part II, a caveat was akin to a provisional patent application with drawings and description but without a request for examination.  It was a type of tc7preliminary application for a patent that gave an inventor an additional ninety-day grace period to file a regular patent application. The caveat would prevent anyone else that filed an application on the same or similar invention from having their application processed for ninety days, giving the caveat holder an opportunity to file a full patent application first.  A caveat was an inexpensive method of reserving the precedent of an idea or invention at a very reduced cost and was allowed by US Patent Law from 1839-1909.

The Meucci issue of not having enough funds to renew his caveat for the real invention of the telephone notwithstanding, it seems that the key day for who tc5ultimately obtained the US patent for the telephone was February 14, 1876.  St. Valentines Day began in Washington D.C. as a patents and a caveat show at the US Patent Office on G Street.

On that day in the US Patent Office there was a certain procedure for handling the documents that was always the same.  According to Evenson (2000), the clerk’s procedure never varied: all of the documents received by mail in the morning and afternoon were recorded first, followed at the end of the day by the hand delivered ones, which were taken from the in-baskets.

It seems that Elisha Gray’s Caveat , titled “Instruments for transmitting and receiving vocal sounds telegraphically” and Bell’s patent application were hand-delivered before noon.  While Gray’s caveat was simply deposited to the in-basket fortc8 processing later in the afternoon, the person hand-delivering Bell’s patent application (Bell was in Boston at the time) demanded that the paperwork immediately be given to the Telegraphic Patent Examiner Zenas Fisk Wilber in Room 118.  On the way to Rm 118, the Chief Clerk recorded Bell’s application as the fifth one received that day, while Gray’s caveat was entered a couple of hours later through the normal, slower process and became the 39th application processed from the in-basket.  Gray’s application in the in-basket would have been recorded ahead of Bell’s, if not for the extraordinary processing received by the latter.

tc10This leads to the popular myth, encouraged by Bell’s father-in-law Gardiner Hubbard and his other attorneys, that Bell’s patent application was filed “two hours” before Gray’s caveat (in some versions of the story, it’s four hours). During the following week, Patent Examiner Zenas Fisk Wilber examined both sets of paperwork (Bell’s and Gray’s). He saw that the claims in Bell’s application might interfere with Gray’s caveat and, in accordance with standard procedure, sent a letter to Bell and his attorneys, suspending Bell’s patent for 90 days. Gray should then have had 90 days to file a full patent application and, upon submission, the patent examiner, Zenas Wilber would determine if a real interference condition existed.

After the suspension, Bell came to see Wilbur in his office where he was shown the Gray caveat. It has been suggested that Bell amended his patent at this point to reflect some of the principles that were part of Gray’s design.  At the end of this visit, Wilber, a known alcoholic and said to be “under the influence” at the time, accepted Bell’s $100 bribe.  According to Wilber’s confessional affidavit in 1886, he also freely admitted that his wartime relationship with Marcellus Bailey, one of Bell’s attorneys, also influenced him toward the Bell patent.  Of course, Mr. Bell’s response to this affidavit was, “There is not a shred of truth in the story”.


Yes, Gray’s Caveat was first!

While Bell’s court battles against Gray and others have always held up in court, without the expedited processing, the patent amendment, the $100 bribe and thegc4 wartime relationship with Marcellus Bailey, it seems probable that Elisha Gray would have been the official inventor of the telephone.

Thus, the Graying of Bell’s Telephone Patent! 





Carroll, R. (2002).  Bell did not invent the telephone, US Rules.  The Guardian.  Retrieved April 20, 2016.

Evenson, E. (2000). The telephone patent conspiracy of 1876.  Jefferson, North Carolina:  McFarland & Company.  Retrieved May2, 2016.

Grigonis, R. (2016).  Who really invented the telephone, part III:  Elisha Gray (1835-1901).  Zippy’s blog.  Retrieved May 3, 2016. (2016).  Alexander Graham Bell.  Retrieved April 19, 2016.

Library of Congress (2015).  Who is credited with the invention of the telephone.  Retrieved April 19, 2016.

Pizer, R. (2011). The tangled web of patent #174465.  Retrieved April 18, 2016.


Nicius (2016).  US Patent Office 1880.  Retrieved May 3, 2016.

Wikipedia Commons (2016).  Mr. Wilbur Confesses:  Ex-patent examiner says he was bribed.  Affidavit of Zenas F. Wilbur, April 8, 1886.  Retrieved May 3, 2016.

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