The Graying of Bell’s Telephone Patent: Part I

Robert Traynor
April 20, 2016

As Audiologists we are interested in how voices are transmitted.  Back in the day before the telephone there were numerous individuals vying to be the first to transmit voice over a wire.  Of course when asked “who invented the telephone”, the “pat answer” is and has always been Alexander Graham Bell.  Its much like the answer to the question, “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb”….of course the answer is President U.S. Grant.

There are, however, gc1forgotten questions surrounding patent #174465, which was eventually won by Alexander Graham Bell as the first person to transmit voice over a wire, thus inventing the telephone. Pizer (2011) suggests that it is a story involving an individual who has been called one of America’s scientific and inventive geniuses and has been held in the highest regard as the inventor of the telephone.

The invention of the telephone, however, is shrouded in the claims of othersgc8 that are said to have invented the device.  Was it Antonio Meucci, an Italian immigrant that began developing the design of a talking telegraph or telephone in 1849? Was it Elisha Gray that applied for the patent on the same day as Bell…or was it really Alexander Graham Bell?

Careful scrutiny of hundreds of documents, including thousands of pages of sworn testimony before a Congressional Investigation Committee on the matter beginning in April of 1886, demonstrate that A. G. Bell was not necessarily the innocent, inquisitive and inventive deaf educator that just happened upon the telephone while working on a visible speech apparatus to assist his wife with her hearing.  With much assistance from his father-in-law, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, it has been suggested that Bell was a party to what might be considered gc9one of America’s most far-reaching historical deceptions.

In the US  Patent Office there is a now outdated term that is unfamiliar to most who are not used to patent terminology.  In the 19th century when an individual was ready to file a patent but either could not afford to do so or the invention was is not quite ready, a one year renewable notice could be filed with the Patent Office. At the time this notice was called a Caveat. 

Caveats were introduced by the US Patent Act of 1836. The Act provided that: “any citizen of the U.S., or an alien who resided in the U.S. one year, and who has made oath of his/her intention to become a citizen of the U.S.; and who invented any new art, machine, or improvement can file a caveat in the US Patent Office making a request to protect the invention until the person has matured the invention.” A fee was also attached but the fee was much less than the fee paid for a patent application. Caveats were filed in the confidential archives of gc7the US Patent Office, and preserved in secrecy. They were discontinued in 1909.

There is discussion that Meucci had discovered the electromagnetic voice transmission technique long before Bell or Gray and had written a US Patent Office caveat long preceding any other claims. But the real controversy was relative to Gray’s Caveat.  Some of the players in this drama were, of course, Alexander Graham Bell and Gardiner Greene Hubbard, but also Antonio Meucci, of Staten Island New York; Elisha Gray, an inventor from Illinois and the man thatgc10 some feel was Bell’s “key to the city”. Also Zenas Fisk Wilbur, a patent examiner for telegraph related inventions and projects in the 1870s U.S. Patent Office,   who tells one story in court and to congressional hearings, and a totally different one to clear his conscience on his death bed.

Of course, the patent attorneys that represented each of the applicants were also heavily involved in the controversy.  And of course there was gossip — the main controversy included suggestions that Wilbur was an alcoholic and accepted a bribe from Bell’s Attorneys………

Next week at Hearing International we shall tell the story of a web woven in congressional hearings, legal battles, bribery of public officials by old military buddies–all of which cloud the story of who is the REAL inventor of the telephone.    As we shall see, the 1870s patent process, caveats, and officials may not have been very honest process during this time, especially for one as lucrative as the telephone.


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

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

US Legal (2016).  Patent Caveat law and definition.  US  Retrieved April 20, 2016.

ZoomInfo (2016).  Zenas Fisk Wilbur.  Retrieved April 18,2016.



Famous scientists (2016).  Antonio Meucci.  Retrieved April 20, 2016.

Grigonis, R. (2016).  Gray versus Bell.  Retrieved April 20, 2016.

Smit, W. (2016).   The invention of the Telephone:  Graham Bell.   My Home Page.  Retrieved April 20, 2016.

Spokeo (2016).  Gardiner Greene Hubbard.  Retrieved April 20, 2016.

Rave (2016).  AG Bell’s demonstration of the telephone.  Retrieved April 20, 2016.


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