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On This Day: Alexander Graham Bell Granted Patent for Telephone

Last updated: February 14, 2023

On March 7, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell received a patent for the telephone; three days later, he and associate Thomas Watson successfully tested their invention. Elisha Gray, Antonio Meucci and Thomas Edison all claimed to have invented the telephone first, and the issue is still a source of controversy.

Patent Gives Bell Credit for Inventing Telephone

Scotland native Alexander Graham Bell had always been interested in sound and speech. His grandfather studied elocution and speech impediments and his father developed the first phonetic alphabet. His mother was nearly deaf, but Bell communicated with her by speaking in a low voice close to her forehead, believing that “his mother would be able to ‘hear’ him through the vibrations his vocal intonations would make,” says PBS.

Young Alexander experimented with sound even as a boy, obtaining a human inner ear from a medical school to observe how sound waves vibrated the bones. He continued his experiments with sound waves after immigrating to North America, moving between Ontario and Boston.

Bell worked on creating a multiple telegraph, which could send multiple telegraph messages simultaneously. Bell surmised that this could be accomplished by sending messages of different pitch, which led to his invention of the “harmonic telegraph.” Bell theorized that the same principles he used to develop the harmonic telegraph could be used to create a device that transmitted voices.

Working with electrician Thomas Watson, Bell created an early model of a telephone in June 1875. Bell and Watson continued to perfect their model; on Feb. 14, 1876, knowing that Oberlin College teacher Elisha Gray was close to finishing a similar device, Bell filed for a patent just hours before Gray filed a patent caveat, a preliminary step to reserve the right for a patent.

On March 10, he was granted patent 174,465 for “The method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically, as herein described, by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sounds, substantially as set forth.”

Three days later, Bell and Watson completed the first successful trial of the device. In his lab notebook, Bell described: “I then shouted into M [the mouthpiece] the following sentence: ‘Mr. Watson–come here–I want to see you.’ To my delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said.”

Bell presented his invention that June at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and wowed the crowd. After Western Union declined to buy the patent for $100,000, Bell started the Bell Telephone Company, which brought telephone technology to the masses and made the Bell name synonymous with the telephone.

Several years later, writes Julie M. Fenster in American Heritage, the president of Western Union “told colleagues that if he could get the patent for $25 million he’d consider it a bargain. By then it wasn’t for sale.”

University of Virginia professor Mike Gorman explains the process through which Bell invented the telephone.

Did Bell Steal the Telephone Patent?

Sources in this Story

  • PBS: The Telephone: More About Bell
  • Library of Congress: The Telephone and the Multiple Telegraph
  • Library of Congress: “Mr. Watson–come here!”
  • American Heritage: Inventing the Telephone—And Triggering All-Out Patent War
  • The Washington Post: The Bell Telephone: Patent Nonsense?
  • Scientific American: Whose Phone Is It, Anyway: Did Bell Steal The Invention?
  • Library of Congress: Everyday Mysteries
  • Gallaudet University: The Influence of Alexander Graham Bell

There has long been a debate over whether Bell was truly the first man to invent the telephone. Bell was presented with more than 600 patent lawsuits, but the courts continually ruled that he was legally the inventor.

There are several controversies about the invention. First is that Bell received a patent before he had a working device, which was unusual. His critics, including Elisha Gray and Thomas Edison—who claimed to have had a working telephone but did not file for a patent—accused Bell’s father-in-law, former Congressman Gardiner G. Hubbard, of persuading the patent office to give Bell his patent over Gray.

Seth Shulman, author of “The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret,” presents a case that Bell actually stole Gray’s patent. According to Shulman, Bell was having difficulty getting his device to work before a February 1876 trip to Washington, D.C., where he bribed a patent officer to get a look at Gray’s caveat filing. When he returned to his lab on March 8, he made a breakthrough using a water-and-acid solution described in Gray’s caveat.

Edward Evenson, author of “The Telephone Patent Conspiracy of 1876,” also believes that Bell saw Gray’s caveat. But University of Virginia professor Bernard Carlson disputes this notion, telling The Washington Post, “Bell doesn’t simply take what he saw or didn’t see in Gray’s caveat. They are two similar devices but two very different principles. They look alike but they don’t work alike.”

Some people believe that the telephone predates the work of Bell, Gray and Edison. Antonio Meucci, an Italian immigrant, developed the design of a “talking telegraph” in 1849. He filed for a patent caveat in 1871, but due to financial difficulties he was unable to renew it three years later. He, too, later sued Bell, but died before the Supreme Court could hear his case.

In 2002, Italian-American Congressman Vito Fossella persuaded the House of Representatives to recognize Meucci as the true inventor of the telephone. “If Meucci had been able to pay the $10 fee to maintain the caveat after 1874, no patent could have been issued to Bell,” said the House resolution.

Shulman and Edwin Grosvenor, Bell’s great-grandson and biographer, say that Meucci’s device was too crude to be recognized as the first telephone. “Meucci’s telephone was more like two tin cans and a thread,” said Shulman.

Key Player: Alexander Graham Bell

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In addition to the telephone, Bell worked on hundreds of other projects throughout his life, including designs for airplanes, kites and helicopters, with members of the Aerial Experiment Association. He also patented the “photophone” in 1880, the Lemelson-MIT Program writes.

Though he is remembered as an inventor, he considered himself a foremost advocate for the education of deaf children. Bell’s support of oral education changed the way deaf children were taught. He married one of deaf pupils and also befriended Helen Keller, who dedicated her autobiography to him.

Reference: Bell’s Papers

Bell’s heirs donated his papers to the Library of Congress in 1975. The collection, totaling about 130,000 items, 4,695 of which are online, covers Bell’s entire career in detail, including his work on the telephone and his interest in aeronautics.

Source: Library of Congress

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Alexander Graham Bell’s drawings for the telephone patent, Thomas Edison’s patent sketches for the electric light, lesson plans and other resources are provided at the National Archives.

Source: The National Archives

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