Everybody knows the telephone was invented by Alexander Graham Bell, but what a lot of people don’t know is that someone else also had a design for a slightly different version but wasn’t able to register it speedily enough.
The gentleman’s name in question was a certain Elisha Gray.
He was born in Ohio in 1835 and was a physics professor that had previously invented the musical telegraph. As legend has it, Gray arrived at the patent office on the same day as Bell, only two hours later and as a result history awarded the credit for one of mankind’s greatest inventions to Alexander Graham Bell.
The law in the United States dictates that the first person to invent a new product is the rightful owner of the design irrespective of who applies for a patent first. Accurate records are however required to help settle any dispute and since Bell applied for a patent first, all credit for the design initially went to him.
Gray subsequently managed to temporarily prevent the issuance of the telephone patent to Bell pending a legal hearing, but since he didn’t have adequate records for his design, the US Supreme Court eventually upheld Bell’s right to the patent.
The legal basis for Gray’s action against Bell was that Bell didn’t actually have a working model of his telephone. The Supreme Court ruled however, that a person can prove his design is ready for patenting without actually having a fully functioning prototype – a principal that served as a precedent for other lawsuits later on.
Bell ultimately endured over 600 lawsuits that challenged his patent, but the courts consistently found in his favour because rather than being first across the line at the patent office on that fateful day, the small detail of having, ‘Variable Resistance,’ (the key to the telephone’s technology) written in the margin of his application was said to give credence to his claim. Countless have argued that this detail was the result of a cynical move by Bell after he saw Gray’s caveat expressing an intention to file a patent within three months for, “the art of transmitting vocal sounds or conversations telegraphically through an electric circuit,” but Bell ultimately prevailed to be enshrined by history.
Had Gray been a couple of hours faster on 14th February 1876, the world may have been talking about Elisha Gray as the inventor of the telephone – although it’s hard to imagine ever being asked to, ‘give someone a Gray on the blower.’
Bell went on to own the telephone system in the US, and even though today the industry has been broken up into, “Baby Bells,” like AT&T, Qwest, Verizon and Alcatel-Lucent – his influence in the telecoms industry is paramount.
Gray on the other hand was largely forgotten by the history books despite inventing the facsimile telegraph system that he patented in 1888.
Just think – with some better admin and a slightly faster horse, Elisha Gray would have been the reason why people call you up at 19:30pm asking if you’ve ever been mis-sold PPI insurance.