Phone Theft

Alexander Graham Bell was granted a patent for his telephone on this day in 1876; three days later he made his first, legendary voice transmission: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” While the call would transform communications, the patent, says Seth Shulman in The Telephone Gambit (2008), represents “the most ignominious act of Bell’s life” and “one of the most consequential thefts in history.”

Many earlier historians and biographers have noted the claims of fraudulence that have surrounded Bell and his invention, beginning with a well-publicized but inconclusive U.S. Supreme Court lawsuit lasting from 1887 to 1897. Shulman goes further than others, however, building his emphatic and compelling case — though still a circumstantial one — around Bell’s laboratory notebooks and his love letters to his fiancée. Shulman finds evidence of anguish and guilt in the letters; he finds a sort of smoking gun in a comparison of the lab notebook entries Bell made just before and after the patent grant. These show Bell suddenly shifting “to some strikingly new ideas after months of slow, incremental work.” Most incriminating is a March 8 notebook entry that, says Shulman, Bell “inexplicably adds to his experiments a dish of water laced with sulfuric acid” and makes possible his call to Watson two days later.

The March 8 notebook entry had come after a twelve-day gap caused by Bell’s trip to the Patent Office in Washington. He had been summoned there to help clarify what he called a “patent muddle” regarding his patent application and a pre-patent “caveat” filed by Elisha Gray — a document that contained a water-acid transmitter exactly like the one Bell began immediately to use once back home. Shulman pursues these and other suspicious clues, arriving confidently at charges of bribery, theft, and cover-up:

I had found evidence that Bell’s patent was filed under highly irregular circumstances and that its original version had suspicious additions written into the margin that were never fully explained.… I had documented the way Bell withheld from the public — and from Gray — the truth about his path to the telephone, with actions that are all but inexplicable except as a skillful effort to cover his tracks…. And, of course, my research had led me to the problematic confession of an official of the U.S. Patent Office who claimed to have facilitated Bell’s plagiarism and awarded him an airtight patent on an invention Bell had not, at the time, properly reduced to practice.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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