The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret

It’ll be stacked in the science shelves, but The Telephone Gambit might be an early contender for best thriller of the year. Seth Shulman’s unlikely whodunit poses a question most of us think we already know the answer to: Who invented the telephone?

The patent for the telephone is said to be the most lucrative ever awarded. In addition to wealth, it guaranteed immortality to the man to whom it was issued, Alexander Graham Bell, a historical icon whose first successful transmission of speech over a wire — “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you” — is the stuff of legend, familiar to schoolchildren across the land.

But Shulman, without intending to, tripped over a smoking gun. While a writer-in-residence at MIT’s Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology, he was examining in Bell’s notebooks a sketch of a liquid transmitter, the “brilliant and elegant” innovation that enabled the sound waves of his voice to be converted into a signal that could be carried by electric current on a wire. Up to that point, Bell’s notebooks hadn’t included anything like it. The liquid transmitter stood out markedly from everything else the inventor had attempted in his quest to transmit speech, and indeed, his telephone conversation with his assistant, Thomas Watson, came just two days after that entry, on March 10, 1876.

Shulman, who admired Bell, wondered what had prompted the inventor’s fateful change in direction. What he discovered astonished him. He came across a virtually identical sketch by Elisha Gray, who is remembered, if at all, as the poor schnook whose patent claim for the telephone arrived at the U.S. Patent Office on February 14, 1876, the same day as Bell’s. Investigating the historical record, Shulman pieced together a disquieting sequence of events: Gray filed a confidential caveat (a provisional patent for an invention that had been conceived of but not yet built) with the office on the same day that Bell filed a patent application, although Bell himself had yet to build a working telephone. Bell subsequently visited Washington, D.C., home of the Patent Office; during the trip, he was granted the patent (the speed with which it was issued was itself a suspicious departure from procedure). Returning to Boston, Bell reproduced a picture of his rival’s transmitter in his own notebook. He then built that machine — Gray’s machine — and used it in his groundbreaking communication with Watson.

“I was dumbfounded,” Shulman writes. “Could Bell have committed such a blatant, wholesale act of plagiarism? If he did, I wondered, how could no one have noticed it before?” The Telephone Gambit is devoted to exploring both of those questions, and it succeeds marvelously.

It’s a riveting tale of ambition, corruption, and sex (well, make that love — these were modest times). Bell, who was earning his living as a teacher of the deaf, was engaged in telegraphic research for the wealthy and hard-driving Gardiner Hubbard, his financial backer and the father of Bell’s student Mabel Hubbard. When the teacher became enamored of his pupil, his obligation to Hubbard became even more intense. (He and Mabel were eventually married and remained so for 45 years.) Throw in underhanded dealings by Hubbard and the written confession of an alcoholic patent examiner who claimed to have shown Gray’s caveat to Bell, and a disturbing picture begins to emerge, one that would have hardly seemed out of place on a Reagan-era episode of Dallas.

Shulman’s findings explain why the inventor, after his initial success, switched gears again and didn’t publicly demonstrate the telephone until he’d found another means of transmitting speech, using a much less effective “magneto-electric” method. Shulman, quoting Bell’s letters, masterfully evokes the panic Bell felt as he was virtually forced by the Hubbards into demonstrating his invention at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia to an audience that included Gray (“Fate has brought me here against my will,” he wrote Mabel gloomily). But the demonstration, using the magnetic transmitter, was a success, temporarily convincing Gray that his competitor had beaten him fairly.

With Bell’s copious papers available to the public, the evidence for these deceptions has, as Shulman says, been hidden in plain sight (the author also credits others who have attempted to set the record straight). The wealth of documentation helps Shulman support his claims, even those that might otherwise have seemed overly speculative. Does attributing the theft to Bell’s love for Mabel sound like two-bit psychologizing? Slightly, but Watson’s autobiography is vivid in recalling how affected his boss was by his desperate feelings for Mabel. “ had forgotten what an upsetting malady could be until I observed its effect…on the professor. He was quite incapacitated for work much of the time,” Watson writes. And Shulman’s theory that guilt drove Bell to distance himself from the telephone is lent weight by Bell’s own tortured musings on the subject. “I am sick of the telephone and have done with it…. I feel myself growing irritable, feverish and disgusted with life,” he wrote Mabel in 1878. In another letter he asks, “Why should it matter to the world who invented the telephone so long as the world gets the benefit of it?” As Shulman notes, these are hardly the responses one would expect from a competitive man who had won the day.

It is startling to learn that in his own time, Bell’s claim to have invented the telephone was widely challenged. Hundreds of lawsuits were filed, and in 1886 Congress investigated whether the government should annul Bell’s patent; meanwhile, Gray was feted at an 1878 banquet for inventing the telephone. Still, Bell, backed by the Bell Telephone Company (which was founded by Hubbard and would become AT&T), triumphed at every turn, and his myth took on a life of its own. As recently as 1947, according to Shulman, the London Science Museum covered up information crediting German physicist Philipp Reis with inventing the telephone in 1858 (Reis never sought a patent), so as not to jeopardize a corporate deal with AT&T.

Thus the book, while telling an incredible story, also asks important questions about historical memory. “If I learned anything from my research…, it is that history needs to be constantly challenged and interrogated,” Shulman concludes, and indeed, he is especially up to the task. A lucid and engaging writer, Shulman was handpicked by the Union of Concerned Scientists to author Undermining Science: Suppression and Distortion in the Bush Administration, the 2007 expos? of the administration’s politicization of scientific research. Gambit is an altogether different kind of expos?, and Shulman admits to feeling out of his element. As a journalist surrounded by academics in MIT’s hallowed halls, he questions his own authority to write history and is daunted by the prospect of taking on a figure as iconic as Bell. But Shulman pulls it off, producing a book that’s rigorous, provocative, and, like any thriller worth its salt, a blast to read.