Telephone Tag

Alexander Graham Bell (1876)
Alexander Graham Bell (1876)
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Reviewed by Henry Petroski
Sunday, February 3, 2008


Chasing Alexander Graham Bell's Secret

By Seth Shulman

Norton. 256 pp. $24.95

Does the right person always get credit for a great invention? Was Thomas Edison or the Englishman Joseph Swan responsible for the light bulb? Did Al Gore or some other geek invent the Internet? Did Alexander Graham Bell steal from Elisha Gray a key idea behind the telephone? Such questions can fuel debates between historians of technology and champions of neglected genius.

Science journalist Seth Shulman did not set out to tackle the Bell-Gray controversy, but a chance discovery made the challenge irresistible. While reading Bell's 1875-76 notebook, which the Library of Congress has made available in high-resolution digital form on the World Wide Web, Shulman noticed a curious leap of inspiration after a 12-day hiatus in entries, a gap that coincided with an apparently sudden trip to Washington, D.C.

Bell's seminal patent application for the telephone was filed just a week or so before his trip and was granted on the day he returned. That was a remarkably short processing time, especially since there was some question about whether confidential patent papers filed with the patent office almost simultaneously by the telegraph-equipment manufacturer Gray should have prevented Bell's patent from being granted. Based on startlingly similar drawings in Gray's papers and Bell's notebook, Shulman hypothesized that Bell had somehow seen a specific idea in his rival's work and claimed it as his own.

Shulman was the first science writer-in-residence to have been invited to spend time at MIT's Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology (which has since been relocated to the Huntington Library, in San Marino, Calif.), and he was keenly aware that he was a journalist among historians. When he tentatively related his hypothesis to some of his new colleagues, he was cautioned about the pitfalls of interpreting the past out of its context. If Shulman had indeed uncovered a clue that Bell had stolen a key idea from Gray, incontrovertible evidence would have to be produced.

In The Telephone Gambit, Shulman tells several interrelated stories, all of which dovetail nicely to relate his quest to discover a "smoking gun." He leads us along his own research trail, recounting the daringness of setting out to challenge "generations of trained and respected historians," who have credited Bell with the invention of the telephone, and "confronting the failings of the U.S. legal system," which repeatedly ruled in favor of Bell and the monopoly that grew out of his patent.

Interleaved with his own story, Shulman tells that of Bell and, to a lesser extent, Gray. We learn of the Bell family's systematic approach to teaching elocution, and of Alexander Graham Bell's tutoring of deaf Mabel Hubbard, daughter of the enormously successful and influential attorney and entrepreneur Gardiner Greene Hubbard, to whom Bell revealed his early insights into a means for transmitting multiple telegraph messages along a single wire. This brought Bell and Hubbard into a partnership that led to the formation of the Bell Telephone Company, which eventually became AT&T.

Shulman also tells the story of how Bell got to see Gray's confidential filing in the Patent Office, and how it came to be that Bell and not Gray was awarded the patent. Of the several narrative threads running through The Telephone Gambit, this is the most intriguing. It is also the one that should be left for the reader to experience from the book itself.

In barely 200 pages of text, Shulman has presented a highly complicated web of tales clearly, succinctly, sympathetically and almost seamlessly. He has done such a masterful job that we're not even sorry to see the book, pleasurable though it is, come to an end. He has let his wholly integrated tales and his writing style dictate its pace and length. Its story never flags, nor does it leave any significant business unfinished.

If there is anything to fault in The Telephone Gambit, it is someone's decision to reproduce on less than half of one book page an image of the two pages of Bell's notebook on which Shulman based his captivating hypothesis. This is a quibble, though, for the reader can easily call up the entire notebook on the Web, thereby experiencing what sparked an intrepid journalist-turned-historian's quest for the true story of the invention of the telephone. *

Henry Petroski, professor of civil engineering and of history at Duke University, is the author of "The Toothpick: Technology and Culture" and other books on engineering and design.

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