Tuesday, September 9, 2008


February 14, 1876, Valentine's Day. It was an eventful day at the U.S. Patent Office. As the story goes, Alexander Graham Bell showed up at the patent office with his application for the telephone while Elisha Gray's lawyer got stuck in rush hour traffic--or maybe stopped for a beer or two on the way over. In any case, his patent application came in an hour later. So now we have Bell Telephone rather than Gray Telephone, which would sound like a pretty boring name anyway.

But, as usual, there are conflicting stories behine all this. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually got to the bottom of it and decided in favor of Mr. Bell. That patent became the most valuable patent in history. While Bell became one of the most famous people in history, Gray remained virtually unknown.

Despite his anonymity, Gray did invent some other useful things at his laboratory in Highland Park, IL. a suburb of Chicago. For example he invented the "telautograph" which would transmit handwriting through telegraph systems. In effect, it was an early fax machine which was used by banks for signing documents at a distance. The Telautograph Corp. continued in operation for many years until it was absorbed by Xerox Corp. in the 1990's.

Mr. Gray's invention was massacred on that fateful Valentine's Day because, according to Gray, his patent caveat was delivered to the patent office early in the morning when it opened, but it found its way to the borrom of the in-basket until that afternoon. Meanwhile Bell's application was filed around noon, by Bell's lawyer who requested that the filing fee be entered and taken to the examiner immediately and that he be given a receipt. Gray's filing fee was not recorded until later that afternoon, and his application did not reach the examiner until the next morning. Bell wasn't even in town that day, but, in effect, his lawyer won the race to the courthouse.

For the record, the Supreme Court's decision turned partly on the subtle difference between a caveat and a patent application. A caveat, which is not used anymore, was a confidential, formal declaration made by an inventor stating his intention to file a patent on an idea yet to be perfected. The purpose was to protect an idea from being usurped by fellow inventors. Gray would have had to file his actual patent application within 3 months after the caveat. Bell, of course, filed his application and was awarded the patent.

Historians still debate whether Bell stole key aspects of the invention from Gray, as there was some correspondence between the two inventors. Bell kept an extensive paper trail of several drafts of his patent application. When the dust had settled, it appears that Bell had smarter lawyers than Gray did.

According to Burton H. Baker in his 2000 book The Gray Matter, The Forgotten Story of the Telephone, the patent office determined, "while Gray was undoubtedly the first to conceive of and disclose the invention as in his caveat of February 14, 1876, his failure to take any action amounting to completion until others had demonstrated the utility of the invention deprives him of the right to have it considered."

Despite his relative obscurity, Gray was a fairly successful businessman and professor. His company, Gray & Barton Co. of Cleveland, OH. supplied telegraph equipment to Western Union Telegraph Co. In 1872, his firm sold 33% of the company to Western Union and changed the name of his company to Western Electric Manufacturing Co. of Chicago, which eventually became a major subsidiary of AT&T. Although several inventions came out of Gray's Highland Park, IL. laboratory, and I am very familiar with that town, I know of no memorial or any other indication that history was almost made there.

The controversy made its way into that great interpreter of American popular culture, The Simpsons, in a 2005 episode. THe Springfield Stamp Museum had an exhibit of oversized, interactive stamps showing Elisha Gray on a 1-cent stamp, and Alexander Graham Bell on a 10-cent stamp. When Gray accuses Bell of stealing the idea of the telephone from him, Bell holds up a medallion around his neck and says, "Read the patent number, bitch!"




Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even though this is late, I would like to point out that the Supreme Court makes rulings, which can be far from the "right" decision. It is unfortunate that you base the fact that Bell was right and Gray was wrong based on the Supreme court ruling which was 5-4. The truth is that Bell stole the caveat by paying off the agent in the patent office. This is not fiction but the truth. Read the Telephone Gambit. Bell had to live for all eternity knowing the truth which may have sent him to his grave early. Your reference to a bitch seems offensive and to joke about the injustice that took place seems to be an inappropriately conceived ending to your post.

July 13, 2013 at 5:15 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home