The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell's Secret


"A stellar example of historical investigation at its probing best."—Chuck Leddy, Boston Globe
Throughout his career, Alexander Graham Bell, one of the world's most famous inventors, was plagued by a secret: he stole the key idea behind the invention of the telephone. While researching at MIT, science journalist Seth Shulman scrutinized Bell's journals and within them found the smoking gun: a hint of deeply buried historical deception. Delving further into Bell's life, Shulman unearthed the surprising story ...

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The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell's Secret

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"A stellar example of historical investigation at its probing best."—Chuck Leddy, Boston Globe
Throughout his career, Alexander Graham Bell, one of the world's most famous inventors, was plagued by a secret: he stole the key idea behind the invention of the telephone. While researching at MIT, science journalist Seth Shulman scrutinized Bell's journals and within them found the smoking gun: a hint of deeply buried historical deception. Delving further into Bell's life, Shulman unearthed the surprising story behind the telephone, a tale of romance, corruption, and unchecked ambition.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
"Mr. Watson, come here!" These words, spoken by Bell to his assistant, are among the most celebrated in scientific lore because, as the story goes, they signaled the birth of the telephone, a device that would forever change the world. But the words are also a clue to a dark and convoluted tale, as Shulman discovered while researching Bell's invention at MIT. U.S. Patent #174465 is the most valuable ever issued; unfortunately, it was likely issued to the wrong man. Documents only recently made public provide irrefutable evidence that corruption and chicanery secured the honor for Bell rather than for electrician Elisha Gray, who filed competing patent paperwork the very same day. That Gray and Bell had rival claims is nothing new. What Shulman found, however, is the smoking gun -- or rather a gallery of many small smoking guns -- proving that Gray, not Bell, developed the components needed to transmit the voice, and that Bell stole the key information, passing it off as his own.

By all accounts, Bell was an honest man who preferred to work with the deaf rather than chase the fabulous wealth new inventions could bring. Why then, would he dishonor himself by not only pirating the work of another inventor but participating in a long, demoralizing campaign to keep the secret? The key to unlocking the mystery lies in his call to Watson on that fateful day. (Spring 2008 Selection)
Entertainment Weekly
Seth Shulman's The Telephone Gambit masterfully breathes life into a long-forgotten controversy.
The Washington Post
Masterful...[the] story never intrepid journalist-turned-historian's quest for the true story of the invention of the telephone.
“Starred Review. Rewrites history even as it immediately lures readers with scandal and iconoclasm.”
New Scientist
“A great tale of historic detection.”
Wall Street Journal
A page-turner....The Telephone Gambit is solid history, and Seth Shulman makes it as much fun to read as an Agatha Christie whodunit by using the techniques of historiography the way Hercule Poirot used his 'little gray cells.' That's no small accomplishment.— John Steele Gordon
Christian Science Monitor
A portrait of the thrilling era of innovation in which Bell lived....Succeeds splendidly as an edge-of-your seat historical tale.— Marjorie Kehe
Marjorie Kehe - Christian Science Monitor
“A portrait of the thrilling era of innovation in which Bell lived....Succeeds splendidly as an edge-of-your seat historical tale.”
Henry Petroski
In barely 200 pages of text, Shulman has presented a highly complicated web of tales clearly, succinctly, sympathetically and almost seamlessly. He has done such a masterful job that we're not even sorry to see the book, pleasurable though it is, come to an end. He has let his wholly integrated tales and his writing style dictate its pace and length. Its story never flags, nor does it leave any significant business unfinished.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Absolutely by accident, I fell through a kind of historical trap door into a vexing intrigue" surrounding the invention of the telephone, writes science journalist Shulman (Undermining Science: Suppression and Distortion in the Bush Administration). The result is a dramatic probe into a shocking intellectual theft. In 2004, studying Alexander Graham Bell's laboratory notebook, he found a 12-day gap followed by a March 7, 1876, note, "Returned from Washington," and a striking shift in Bell's ideas that resulted in his famous "telephone" call to Mr. Watson on March 10. The suspenseful details of "Bell's life-altering visit" emerge as Shulman learns that electrical researcher Elisha Gray had filed a claim on a device to send "vocal sounds telegraphically" on the same day Bell filed his patent application, February 14, nearly a month before Bell's notebook recorded his success. Bell, Shulman realized, had "drawn an almost perfect replica of his competitor's invention in his own notebook." The reader follows Shulman as he contacts curators, explores archives and unravels the mystery, leading to a remarkable re-creation of the 1876 Centennial Exposition, where a nervous Bell attempted to avoid demonstrating his telephone because he knew Elisha Gray would be present. Although much of this book involves comparisons of correspondence, documents and journals, the skillful, polished writing makes century-old events spring to life. 20 illus. (Jan. 7)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Shulman (Unlocking the Sky; Owning the Future) brings a journalist's storytelling skills and a historian's persistence to this account of his year at MIT's Dibner Institute spent researching the life of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. Or did Bell really invent the telephone? Here is where the suspense lies in this account of how "invention occurs and is remembered." Shulman meticulously studied long-forgotten patent litigation transcripts and reread Bell's laboratory notebooks, which had been almost entirely unavailable to scholars until recently. He painstakingly sifted the facts surrounding Bell's work, exploring the politics and influence underlying how Bell obtained a patent for the technology we know as the telephone. Shulman builds a strong circumstantial case for Bell and his colleagues copying another inventor's innovation and exploiting it to complete Bell's own work. With humor and intelligence, the author helps us understand how myth overtakes historical events. This title is ideal for history undergraduates learning scholarly methods; general readers will enjoy it for its engrossing descriptions of historical detective work. Recommended for all libraries.

—Michael Dashkin
The Barnes & Noble Review
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. "[I] had forgotten what an upsetting malady [love] 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 exposé of the administration's politicization of scientific research. Gambit is an altogether different kind of exposé, 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. --Barbara Spindel

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York,, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393333688
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 1/7/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 708,836
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Seth Shulman is an author, editor, and journalist specializing in issues in science, technology, and the environment. His most recent books include Unlocking the Sky and Owning the Future. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 15, 2009

    Telephone Gambit - Who Knew!

    Who knew- Alexander Graham Bell really didn't invent the telephone! The book takes its time getting to the story, and it goes around a couple times before it tells the whole story, but overall it is an enjoyable and well researched tale.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 10, 2009

    New Light on an Old Controversy

    In doing research for a book on the friendship between Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, author Seth Shulman came across a startling discovery that raised doubts as to whether Bell was truly the first to invent the telephone; his book informally traces his efforts to get to the truth, recovering a long forgotten controversy in the history of technology. His ultimate conclusions are convincingly supported by Bell's own journals which have only recently been made public. Shulman's book on the crediting of the invention of the telephone is a fun read, more detective work than dry research. After raading "The Telephone Gambit" you'll find yourself wondering what other famous inventions have been miscredited to the wrong person. Recommended.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 30, 2010

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