Yesterday’s Disrupters are Today’s Modern Conveniences: the Telephone
By Nell Mackenzie
Yesterday’s Disrupters are Today’s Modern Conveniences: the Telephone
11 Dec 2015 - Uncategorized

Ardent representatives for Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray raced for the patent office to claim the invention of the telephone on Valentine’s Day in 1876.

What a difference a day makes.

No one agrees who arrived first past the post. One thing we do know is that Bell’s lawyer paid Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 14.25.18the fastest. When he reached the Washington D.C. Patent office, he requested that the filing fee be entered onto the accounts immediately. Gray’s lawyer, William Baldwin had filed Gray’s caveat for the telephone earlier that morning, but his application sat under a stack of papers was not processed until the next day.

What a difference a caveat makes.

A caveat announces the intent to make a patent application, but it doesn’t hold as much sway as the real thing. In a patent application, the inventor has to provide a full analysis of how the invention works. A caveat requires only a description of some of the workings and what invention would eventually do. Still, the patent office wanted to give Gray a fighting chance.

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 14.24.53Zenas Fisk Wilber, the patent examiner for both Bell’s patent application and Gray’s caveat suspended Bell’s patent for 3 months to allow Gray the time to write up a formal application.

According to some sources, Gray’s patent lawyer, William Baldwin advised Gray to abandon the application. According to others, it was people who Gray knew in the patent office. We do know that William Baldwin was employed by the Bell Company on another patent proceeding, suggesting a pretty strong conflict of interest.

Swayed by other’s’ opinions or just of his own mind, Gray abandoned his pursuit of the patent and Bell was granted the credit for inventing the telephone on March 7, 1876.

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 14.28.17

Ten years later Gray changed his mind and sued Graham. Adding fuel to Gray’s fire, the patent examiner, Zenas Wilber, an ill reputed drunk and by that time, destitute, claimed that he was bribed $100 by Bell to process his patent first. Bell was in Philadelphia when his lawyer applied for the patent and the notion was dismissed.

So, why the controversy?

Bell must have known something about the workings of Gray’s telephone. When Bell famously demonstrated the telephone, calling his assistant to say, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you,” on March 10, 1876, it was Gray’s liquid transmitter which conducted the message, not the version described in Bell’s patent.

After that March 1876 call, Bell turned his focus to the electromagnetic telephone and never used Gray’s liquid transmitter in public demonstrations or commercial use, again.

Gray died a rich man, with over 70 patents for his inventions including the music synthesizer and an early version of the fax machine. At his death, the papers revived the controversy.

Bell wrote to his wife Mabel, ‘…[Gray] went down to his grave with the idea that he had shown me how to make the telephone, in quite forgetfulness of the fact that the specifications for my patent had been prepared in 1875 and had been for a long time in the hands of Messrs. Pollock & Bailey in Washington’.


If you want to get into the telephone business expect a patent war, as they are still famously waged today.

Just this week Samsung settled to the tune of $548 million in damages in an on-going, global patent war it has had with Apple for the last 5 years.

Accounts of bad behavior litter the proceedings. Apple’s lawyers submitted side-by-side comparisons of the iPhone 3GS and the i9000 Galaxy S with doctored graphics to make the products look more similar. Lay juries, who had little understanding of patent law were used for each of the US trials. Apple’s gambit to keep Samsung products off the market still continues to progress in the courts.

More interesting are the take-aways from the trial. To submit a patent, all details of the product must be broken down and explained within the application.

During the Apple/Samsung trials, details emerged about normally top-secret Apple products we have come to love and the team building process within the confines of Apples strictly guarded company. From the trials we have prototypes of failed iPhone and we know more detail about the iPhone team-building on phone

The project was named ‘Project Purple.’ When offers initially went out to Apple company members to work on the iPhone, no one was told what they would working on, but in order to join the task, they had to promise to give up large portions of their personal lives.

Lastly and perhaps most juicily, we have emails from the legend himself, Steve Jobs, calling 2011 the year of Holy War he would wage with Google. There is a great article that includes great iPhone prototype pictures written here, in BGR.