Ring, ring!

INTA Day 2: pick up the phone! INTA calling.

To coincide with the five days of INTA’s 141stAnnual Meeting in Boston, we’ve been taking a look back through Boston’s rich history – sporting, commercial and academic – at some of the city’s most iconic brands, inventions and institutions, which have acted as a driving force for IP generation in Massachusetts and beyond.

Boston has long been a hotbed for inventive activity. Among the many innovations developed in the greater Boston area are: vulcanized rubber (1830s), the microwave oven (1940s), Tupperware (1940s) and Facebook (2000s). Another invention widely acknowledged to have come out of Boston is the telephone. Indeed, Alexander Graham Bell was a professor at Boston University when he applied for and was granted the first patent for the telephone in 1876. But was Bell really the first inventor of the telephone? We take a look from a patent perspective at the controversy that to this day surrounds that question…

On 14 February 1876 Bell filed a patent application entitled “Improvement in Telegraphy” at the US patent office. Just three weeks later, on 7 March 1876, the patent was granted. The patent included a claim to “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.” Thus, Bell became the first holder of a patent for the telephone.

However, Bell was not the only person to file a telephone-related patent document on 14 February 1876. Bell’s rival, electrical engineer Elisha Gray, had filed a patent caveat describing a version of the telephone at the US patent office on the very same day. A patent caveat was an official notice of intention to file a patent application at a later date, not dissimilar to a provisional patent application today.

It is fiercely disputed which patent document was submitted first. Bell’s supporters maintain that Gray’s caveat was filed several hours later than Bell’s patent application, and so Bell was rightly awarded the patent as the first inventor to file. On the other side of the debate it has been suggested that Bell had in fact bribed the patent examiner, not only to prioritise his patent application over Gray’s caveat, but also to illegally show Bell Gray’s caveat.

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s Bell’s patent was fiercely challenged in a series of court cases. Though Bell’s patent was upheld, this has done nothing to quell the rumours and theories of misconduct, plagiarism and even fraud, that have plagued Bell’s story ever since. 

Despite the rivalry between Bell and Gray to be acknowledged as the first inventor of the telephone, it may be that neither of them actually deserves this accolade at all. Antonio Meucci, an Italian immigrant to New York, filed a patent caveat with the US patent office in 1871 for a talking telegraph. However, Meucci did not pay the renewal fee and the caveat expired in 1874, clearing the way for Bell to file his patent application two years later.

Meucci also challenged Bell in the courts, fighting the case all the way to the Supreme Court. However, Meucci died before the case could be heard, and the case died with him.  The Italian government has since officially recognised Meucci as the inventor of the telephone, and in 2002 the US House of Representatives passed a resolution acknowledging his contribution.

Whatever the murky truth about the origins of the telephone, there is no doubt that Bell’s work whilst at Boston University contributed greatly to its development. And, as the holder of the first granted patent for the technology, it is likely that Alexander Graham Bell will always be regarded as the father of the telephone in the public’s mind.