144 years since the telephone was invented… by whom?

Today, almost 150 years ago (back in 1876), the very first telephone call ever was made by Alexander Graham Bell. It was a demonstration of a device that would change the world in an unimaginable way. Today, the number of calls made every single day I estimate is more than a billion. Just our platform alone handles more than a million calls every week.

Not only is Bell famous for making that very first phone call according to history books, but he’s also often credited as the inventor of the telephone. Indeed, he was granted the patent for the telephone, but his claim he invented it first is often disputed.

A call for inspiration

Before the invention of the telephone, the fastest type of communication that worked over a long distance was telegraphy. The concept of electrical telegraphy served as inspiration for inventors, one of them being the Italian inventor Innocenzo Manzetti. An allegedly working “speaking telegraph” by his hand is mentioned in a French newspaper from 1865, years before Bell voiced his ideas for the telephone.

Around the same time, another Italian inventor by the name of Antonio Meucci also developed several prototypes. His inventions were able to transmit voice electromagnetically, connecting an upstairs bedroom to his basement laboratory. Meucci prepared a patent application but eventually didn’t pay the fee required to have the request processed.

Not only Manzetti and Meucci worked on similar telephone-like developments. Several other inventors created similar devices before 1876, but none of them filed patents or successfully exploited their ideas commercially.

The 14th of February, 1876

Meanwhile in America, electrical engineer and inventor Elisha Gray worked on improving the electrical telegraph. A rich dentist from Philadelphia, Dr Samuel S. White, invested in Gray by paying for his material and patenting costs. With telegraphy being popular at the time, White urged Gray to continue to research improving the telegraph instead of the interesting but otherwise unknown concept of the telephone.

While experimenting with telegraphy, Gray eventually discovered a way to transmit speech over an electrical wire and asked his patent lawyer William D. Baldwin to prepare a provisional patent application. Baldwin took the provisional application to the patent office for submission on the morning of 14 February 1876 around 09:30 AM.

It’s exactly on that very same day in 1876, just a little later in the morning, that Alexander Graham Bell’s lawyer submits a full patent application claiming Bell invented the telephone.

Patent pending

Several days after both applications were submitted, the patent examiner noticed the similarities between Gray’s and Bell’s ideas. Since Gray submitted only a provisional patent application, he was notified and given the opportunity to file a full application. After consulting with his lawyer, Gray did not pursue this option.

And thus, on the 7th of March 1876, U.S. Patent number 174,465 was granted to Alexander Graham Bell.

Gray challenged the decision to grant the patent, claiming Bell bribed the patent examiner to gain knowledge of Gray’s application, amongst other accusations. Gray and his lawyers were ultimately unable to convince the U.S. Supreme Court that the grant was illegal, and Bell was recorded as the inventor of the telephone.

Bell went on to co-found several telephony-related organisations, the most famous one being the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, now known as AT&T. Building on the work of Bell and other inventors, telephony networks became bigger and bigger, eventually spanning the globe and allowing cross-continent long-distance calls.

A great success

So, is Alexander Graham Bell the inventor of the telephone? There are several pointers that indicate he wasn’t the first person to create a working telephone, but it is without a doubt that he was the first to have been granted a U.S. patent for a telephone. For that reason, I believe it is fair that he is credited as the inventor of the phone, with honourable mentions to those who did similar (but less well documented) discoveries.

But in my opinion, Bell’s biggest achievement is that he successfully exploited this patent for commercial success, leading to the creation of long-distance networks which made telephony popular. It is absolutely certain that without Bell, telephony would not be the same today, and that has to do with much more than just the invention of the phone.