Published: February 20, 2009
History credits Alexander Graham Bell with the invention of the telephone, but inventor Elisha Gray filed papers with the patent office describing a similar device on the same day. Who should get the credit? Seth Shulman, author of The Telephone Gambit, has the 411. [Copyright 2013 NPR]
IRA FLATOW, host:
There's a good chance you've heard the story about the invention of the telephone that puts Alexander Graham Bell working in his lab after many failed attempts at creating a telegraph for sound. And then, you know, the story goes, he had an accident; he yelled, Mr. Watson, come here, a shout that his lab assistant hears in the next room through the telephone receiver, and he runs in, and they've invented the telephone. But did it really happen that way? Alexander Graham Bell was awarded the patent on the invention of the telephone, but perhaps he should not have been. Joining me now is Seth Shulman, a journalist and author of the book, "The Telephone Gambit," recently released in paperback, and the central theme of his book is that Bell stole the key idea for his telephone from his rival Elisha Gray. He joins from the studios of WBUR in Boston. Welcome to Science Friday.
Mr. SETH SHULMAN (Author, "The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell's Secret"): Thanks, Ira. Thanks for having me.
FLATOW: Wow, that's some accusation.
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Mr. SHULMAN: Well, it is. I - you know, what my story is, that I'm a journalist, I write a lot about science and technology, and I was asked to be a sort of a writer-in-residence at MIT with a bunch of historians, and I was going to look at the relationship between Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison. That's what I set out to do. And I started my research by reading Alexander Graham Bell's lab notebooks, starting about a year prior to the time that he invented the telephone and - or supposedly invented the telephone. And it's a fascinating thing to do. Actually, anybody can do it. They're available through the Library of Congress online in high-resolution digital format. So, you can actually read his lab notebooks in his own handwriting.
And that's what I was doing, and I stumbled on a really curious thing, which is that a couple of weeks before his - that famous day you talked about, when he called to Watson, he left his lab and he went for a few weeks to Washington. And when he came back after this year's worth of work, his work was just dramatically different. He was doing a very different kind of experiment. He added water, which he had never experimented with, and it really piqued my interest. I thought, wow, what a brilliant guy. And then when I started looking into what had happened on his trip to Washington, I discovered that there in Alexander Graham Bell's notebook in his own handwriting is a picture that was copied from a filing that had been made two weeks earlier in Washington, D.C., by his main competitor, a guy named Elisha Gray. And you know, at first, I just didn't know what to do with it.
Mr. SHULMAN: But it started me - I changed what I was doing for the year at MIT, and I...
FLATOW: So, let me just back up and just get that point home.
Mr. SHULMAN: Yeah.
FLATOW: In his lab notebook was a picture that he copied from the filing to the patent office...
Mr. SHULMAN: Right, a confidential filing at the patent office.
Mr. SHULMAN: And it's virtually identical.
Mr. SHULMAN: And I published them in the book. And that was the starting point for me because, you know, just like you - you said, what an accusation - I thought, I must be wrong. And it led to a whole - you know, I decided I was going to try and look into it further and get to the bottom of it. And the great thing is that the more I looked, the more curious the whole story became, and it turns out to be - so, I write it up as my own tale of discovery, and it's really full of twists and turns and surprises, and really changes our view, not just of how the telephone was invented, but I think a lot of things about - that have been written since, about the life of Alexander Graham Bell.
FLATOW: And it surprised you yourself, yeah.
Mr. SHULMAN: Yes, it totally surprised me. And of course, as I said, I mean, I thought I must be wrong, and when I first started looking into some of the things that had been written and the secondary sources, you know, that story is...
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Mr. SHULMAN: As I say, it's one of the most famous stories of invention in the world. And a...
FLATOW: All right. Hang on, because we have to go to a break.
Mr. SHULMAN: Yeah, yeah.
FLATOW: And we'll come back and you'll tell us more about this story because it is an amazing tale of how Bell - and you present the evidence, it was - some very fishy things were going on there in that patent office and - with Bell and his colleagues. So, stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.
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FLATOW: You're listening to Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking about a book, a new book, that's out now in paperback by Seth Shulman. He is a journalist and an author. It's called "The Telephone Gambit," and it's a book in which - let me just recap, because a lot of people may not have heard us - it's a book in which you present the evidence that Alexander Graham Bell virtually stole the key idea from his biggest rival of the day, Elisha Gray, correct?
Mr. SHULMAN: Yes.
FLATOW: For create - for the key idea for the patent for the telephone, and what was that idea?
Mr. SHULMAN: Well, you know, the - we talked about that famous story where he calls to Watson. The big stumbling block and the thing that he was having such difficult with is making what's called the transmitter, the part you talk into. And the way that he solved it that day, when he first, you know, was - made that call to the next room, is he used what's called a liquid transmitter, where he had a needle - if you can imagine this, it was like an upside-down drum. So, there's a piece of parchment pulled across a cone that he speaks into, and there's a needle that dips down in water. And as the vibrations of his voice speak into this thing, the needle deeps down further into the water, and at the bottom, it's connected to a battery.
So, what's it doing is that converting the sound waves of his voice into an electrical charge that could be carried on a telegraph wire, and this was the key problem, to make that switch so that you could talk into it. This device was actually - had already been filed in a confidential filing by Bell's rival, Elisha Gray, several weeks earlier, and the machine that he called to Watson on is, you know - the drawing in his lab notebook, and that machine, when he relates that story, it's virtually identical, and it follows this trip where he went down to the patent office. So, the mystery was set up for me that, you know, something was going on here. And as I said, the more I looked into it, the wilder the tale got. Again, you know, something to remember here is that Alexander Graham Bell was a very young man at this time. He's in his 20s. It turns out there's a love story in the mix, too...
Mr. SHULMAN: And lots of other factors that played in. It turned out to be a really fun, sort of, twisted tale.
FLATOW: You did - it really is a - really it's a mystery tale, and you talk about all the interesting clues. For example, you say that first he has - there's nothing in his writings about this liquid transmitter, then suddenly it shows up. And in the patent filing, it shows up in the margin. So, it's like it had been written in afterwards as an afterthought.
Mr. SHULMAN: That's right.
FLATOW: And why didn't the patent - and not only that, you say that there are accusations against the patent examiner that he was in on all of this.
Mr. SHULMAN: That's right. I was...
FLATOW: He was paid off by the Bell people.
Mr. SHULMAN: Well, I was able ultimately - it's not giving too much of the mystery away to tell this part - that in the archives at Oberlin College, there is the affidavit before his death written by the patent examiner who handled this case, who admits that he showed - illegally showed Bell Elisha Gray's filing; that he, you know, is regretful of having done it and went to his grave saying, you know, for the end of his life that that's what happened. Of course, he didn't come forward with that information 'til many, many years later.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Did you give any motivation for why he had to do this? I mean, what was his motivation behind this?
Mr. SHULMAN: Well, you know, this, of course, was one of the things that motivated me and one of the fun things about this project for me; I describe it in the book as sort of falling through a historical trap door. I mean, here it is, you know, one of the most famous stories in the history of invention. I love the history of technology, and so, this is a story that we all know. And to have this evidence right in front of me that just was so far different from the way the tale was told that it just - and every time I'd look in, you know, the - as I say, the mystery would deepen. As it turns out, as I said, he was a young man, and certainly one motivation is that he fell madly in love, right at this time, at this key time in his work, fell madly in love with the daughter of his financial backer, which is really a kind of problematic thing if you're an inventor. So, you had all sorts of strange things going on because, of course, Alexander Graham Bell was a young guy, he was not a wealthy man...
Mr. SHULMAN: And here's the daughter of this powerful and wealthy guy who was a patent lawyer...
FLATOW: Ah, love.
Mr. SHULMAN: Entrepreneur and - so, you're set up right there, because, of course, one of the questions I had - Alexander Graham Bell is very beloved by almost everyone that knew him throughout his life. And it just didn't comport, like, how would a guy like that with the reputation he had through his life, why would he ever have gotten into it? And as it turns out, I think, you know, by the end of a lot of research going all over the place, to archives to find the oddest little - you know, chasing down these clues, I think I was really able to put together a piece that...
FLATOW: Yes, you do - you do a good job of it. I'm talking with Seth Shulman...
Ms. SHULMAN: Thank you.
FLATOW: Journalist and author of the book, "The Telephone Gambit," and I have to admit, I have written about this many times myself over the past years and have been taken in by, you know, the story that we've all heard over the years, and some very famous authors have written about this. There must have been some courage - you must have sat at some point and said, shaking maybe a bit, can I change history?
(Soundbite of laughter)
FLATOW: Am I the right person to do this? I'm just a little, you know - who do I compare to the big authors, you know?
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Mr. SHULMAN: Well, you're absolutely right. I had a lot of hesitation about even - I mean, as I said, the initial feeling was, I must be wrong. And of course, there is a guy, Robert Bruce...
Mr. SHULMAN: Spent 11 years doing a very authoritative...
FLATOW: The icon, the icon of Bell's biography, yeah.
Mr. SHULMAN: He's the icon. So, of course, one of the first things I did is, well, how does Bruce, who wrote this, spent so long and read so much of Bell's work, how does he treat this? And by looking at that, if anything, I just got more confused. I mean...
FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.
Mr. SHULMAN: It didn't - it did - is absolutely true, something like this. I mean, I'm a little bit ashamed in retrospect to say it, but my initial thought was, well, maybe, I don't - you know, maybe I just don't know enough about this, and maybe I'm wrong. But again, as I - that's sort of the one of the fun things, and another thing about it is that as a working journalist, I rarely put myself in the story. But in this case...
FLATOW: You're all through it, yeah. And...
Mr. SHULMAN: I decided to do it because...
FLATOW: And it worked.
Mr. SHULMAN: Well, I - thank you. I'm glad it worked. I felt that, you know, because I was just as skeptical as anybody else.
Mr. SHULMAN: Like, how could it be that this story that we've all heard would be wrong? And so I take the reader along with me on the journey to try and piece it together.
FLATOW: And you show that there was suspicion, though, even, you know, 100 years ago.
Mr. SHULMAN: Absolutely.
FLATOW: There was still suspicion about him getting credit for this, and there were lawsuits and yeah...
Mr. SHULMAN: I think there were - yeah, even more than suspicion, I mean, I think people knew more about the real story of the invention of the telephone in Bell's time and in the immediate years afterward than they do now. And that's a very interesting thing. Certainly, one of themes of the book is this question of how we remember history and how these kinds of historical myths build up that can be often so at odds from the way things really happened. It's a fascinating fact.
FLATOW: Let me see if I can get a phone call in here. Karen in San Antonio. Hi, Karen.
KAREN (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me on. I adore this show.
FLATOW: Thank you.
KAREN: I find this topic kind of ironic because my 11-year-old son just wrote a paper on influential Americans and chose Tesla, and he's a bit of a geek.
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KAREN: And he spent a week stomping around the house complaining because Marconi got credit for the radio.
KAREN: And my question is, how often does this - has this - have they discovered things like this happening, where the patent was credited - the invention was credited to someone else? But in reality someone...
FLATOW: Yeah, who is the real inventor?
KAREN: Yeah, exactly.
FLATOW: Seth, any comment?
Mr. SHULMAN: Well, you know, I think it's certainly an interesting question, and I think the honest answer is that when you look into any of these big developments, you find, when you do an honest look, that lots of people contribute toward the change that happens. So, even though someone usually gets the claim and gets the patent, it's based on a lot of work done by a lot of people, and the telephone was no exception. And so, in the midst of this very twisted mystery story, I do try and do at least a little bit of justice to some of the many other people that were doing work at the time and answer that bigger question of who, maybe, deserves credit for the telephone. But in this case, you also have this added thing, because I don't think what happened in this case happens all that often, where it really is kind of like...
Mr. SHULMAN: Some outright plagiarism and a real - you know, a lot of malfeasance and strange and surprising happenings, so...
FLATOW: Some of the evidence that you present is something that is, you know, is very interesting in that Bell, even as he's, as you say, he's stealing the patent, he refuses - almost it's like he has a guilty conscience about showing off his new ideas.
Mr. SHULMAN: Yeah. That's abs...
FLATOW: He has to be pushed into it by his girlfriend and his wife and other people, and through his whole lifetime, he says, I wish I never had this burden.
Mr. SHULMAN: Yeah, it's really true. You know, it's interesting, and that's another really, really fun and interesting thing about this kind of work, that sometimes when you - when, you know, you have this kind of experience of falling through this historical trapdoor, you discover something and it throws a different kind of light on so many related questions. And in this case, a lot of people who are historians of Bell or who do work in this time period, when you look, you find all sorts of evidence of remorse later on.
I mean, one of the things you'll read almost everywhere about Bell is he always - he's very famous for saying he'd rather be remembered as a teacher of the deaf than as the inventor of the telephone, and this is usually used to show what a great humanitarian he was. And of course, he was a great teacher of the deaf. He found Helen Keller her teacher and taught many deaf students, but it certainly throws that saying in a different light and many, many other things about his later life and his reluctance to - I mean, one - the biggest one, probably, is that he never really had anything to do with the company that bore his name. He really sort of washed his hands off the whole business development of the telephone...
FLATOW: You mean Bell Telephone?
Mr. SHULMAN: Bell Telephone, yeah.
Mr. SHULMAN: And people often, you know, will say that, well, he wasn't that interested in business. But I think when you look more closely, you really do see a lot of guilt and remorse for something that happened as a very young man.
FLATOW: What about the descendants? Have they gotten in touch with you? Bells or Grays or...
Mr. SHULMAN: Well, actually both, yeah. That's been a very interesting part of it. You know, the book has been very well-received, I'm happy to say, and even people who - historians who follow this find the argument pretty compelling that's there. I tried to do both things. It tries to be both a relatively scholarly work with a lot of footnotes, but also a fun thing to read, and I think - so, that's been good. I've gotten a lot of calls and emails from descendants of Gray, some of whom will, have told me that some of the stories in the book were told around the family dinner table by their grandmother or whatever, and they always thought that it was just their family sort of exaggerating their claim in history to rights on the telephone and were amazed to see that some of it, what they had heard as kids, was actually true.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. James in Bishopville, Maryland. Hi, James.
JAMES (Caller): Hey. How are you?
FLATOW: Hi there.
JAMES: I just had a comment. I don't know how prevalent this theory was among the general populace before the book was released, but I remember 20 years ago in elementary school, in a science class, they were teaching us about Bell, and the teacher kind of stopped in the middle of the lesson and said, now, listen, you know, this is - the history books say that Bell that did this, but it was actually Gray, and actually went through and said a lot of what you're saying now, and I guess that was just his own, you know, personal thing that was never in the lesson plan. But I just - and I'll take my answer off the air. I was just wondering how prevalent the theory was before your book was released. Has anything been written about this? And thank you very much for taking my call.
FLATOW: You're welcome.
Mr. SHULMAN: No. Well, it's a great question. And you know, the interesting thing is that as you look into it, this has been a controversial claim right from the start. There were 10 years of lawsuits over Bell's claim, and so, there are people who believe that Gray deserved credit throughout. And with ebbs and flows, you know, there - it was kind of a minority view with different bits and pieces, and some people had written about it. Of course, it did very little, for the most part, to dent the story that we've all heard. And I think, you know, the amazing thing and sort of one of the mysteries in the book is how it would be that the picture, which is such really damning evidence and sort of started me on the detective trail to look into this, why it was that that didn't come out. And a piece of that is that at the time, the rules of evidence in court were different. They were never - they never subpoenaed Bell's laboratory notebooks. I think if some of the evidence that I was able to collect in the book had ever been out there, we might have made more of a dent, and of course, it might have actually worked to annul his patent rights in an earlier time.
FLATOW: Talking with Seth Shulman, author of "The Telephone Gambit," this hour in Talk of the Nation: Science Friday from NPR News. So, what you discovered, then, was - you would consider to be the smoking gun, your contribution?
Mr. SHULMAN: Well, I think that the picture in his notebook is something of a smoking gun, but I think that the interesting thing is that when you go and you start looking at all the circumstantial evidence and putting together the story and going back and reading Bell's letters from the time, knowing this information, it just gives you a very different perspective. And so, one of the fun things - and there's just - it may be close to a smoking gun. I mean, you mentioned the fact that it's never been explained why some of these key features of Bell's patents were written into the margin of his - of the handwritten version that he had in his files. It's still never been explained...
FLATOW: And then...
Mr. SHULMAN: And when he start...
FLATOW: And there was a copy that was brought over to Europe that didn't even have it.
Mr. SHULMAN: Right.
FLATOW: This handwriting...
Mr. SHULMAN: That was supposed to be contemporaneous.
Mr. SHULMAN: And so, there's just all these fishy things that need to be teased out. It was one of the real pleasures and fun of doing this kind of historical research. And that the other thing is, you know, I had this funny situation where I - it was the first time they'd ever invited a science writer to come to this group of historical scholars that are invited as fellows every year. So, I had around me several dozen of just top historical experts that I could consult, and some of them are in the book, where I - you know, it's a part - I learned an awful lot about how you go about doing that research, and how do you know when you have something? Like, what is the standard of proof for something, like what is a smoking gun? And it becomes very difficult to ascertain this stuff. But there's no question that as I looked in, the evidence was all pointing in one direction and starting to really fill out a very, very different picture than the one that we all learned in school.
FLATOW: Is there something still left that you'd like to know, that you couldn't get to?
Mr. SHULMAN: Well, I think there are certainly a lot of things I'd like to know, but you know, I think there are lot of things about Gray that I'd really like to know, because unlike Bell, who kept everything and whose archive is amazingly huge - it has 147,000 documents, and you can search a lot of them on the computer - Gray's papers are scattered and not nearly as numerous. We do know that he died embittered. In fact, there was, in the leading electrical journal of the day, two days after his death, there was a letter published where he actually finally formally accused Bell of having stolen his idea because he himself had put together some of the information that I re-uncover in the book. So, there's certainly a lot more I would have liked to know about, you know, how it was - what he knew during this period and why he didn't pursue his claim a little more actively. It's still a bit of an outstanding mystery.
FLATOW: Well, it's a great - it's a great read. It's a great...
Mr. SHULMAN: Well, thanks, Ira.
FLATOW: I enjoyed it. It reads - does read just like a mystery novel and all kinds of twists and turns and things that, you know, you piece together. I - it's a great read, Seth, and thanks for coming on the show today, and good luck to you.
Mr. SHULMAN: Appreciate being here. Thank you.
FLATOW: Seth Shulman, journalist and author of the book, "The Telephone Gambit," that's recently now out in paperback. We're going to take a break, and when we come back, we're going to talk about some nanotechnology, drawing tiny conducting wires and transistors and things like that with, like Etch-A-Sketch. Remember the game Etch-A-Sketch? Well, what if you could make tiny nanodevices by sketching them like you do in Etch-A-Sketch? Somebody figured out how to do it. Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.
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FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.