The Bell Telephone: Patent Nonsense?

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On May 22, 1886, The Washington Post published a shocking front-page scoop: Zenas F. Wilber, a former Washington patent examiner, swore in an affidavit that he'd been bribed by an attorney for Alexander Graham Bell to award Bell the patent for the telephone over a rival inventor, Elisha Gray, who'd filed a patent document on the same day as Bell in 1876.

Furthermore, Wilber asserted, he'd illegally shown Gray's application to Bell, who responded by slipping him a $100 bill.

Immediately, Bell swore out an affidavit of his own, denying that he'd bribed Wilber.

"A most amazing story," The Post called it.

Now, for loyal Post readers who've been waiting patiently for the past 122 years, here's an update on that amazing story: In a new book, "The Telephone Gambit," science historian Seth Shulman concludes that Wilber was telling the truth and that Bell plagiarized Gray's idea for the telephone.

Needless to say, some people dispute that claim, and Edwin Grosvenor of Bethesda, who is a Bell biographer as well as a Bell great-grandson, disputes it with a ferocity bordering on apoplexy. You can practically see steam shooting out of his ears when he discusses Shulman's book.

What we have here, folks, is a full-blown historical brouhaha.

Shulman says he did not set out to debunk Bell: "It was all a total accident."

Author of four other books on science and technology, Shulman, 48, was planning to write his fifth book on the relationship between two of America's most famous inventors -- Bell and Thomas Edison -- when he stumbled upon evidence for what he calls "a vexing intrigue at the heart of one of the world's most important inventions."

Shulman was reading Bell's laboratory notebooks when he noticed something odd: Bell had been working on his telephone for months without much success until suddenly, on March 8, 1876, he tried a new contraption that used a needle in a water-and-acid solution to complete an electrical circuit. Two days later, Bell used that method to make his now-famous telephone call to his assistant: "Mr. Watson, come here."

At first, Shulman regarded Bell's sudden breakthrough with the water-and-acid solution as "a sign of Bell's genius." But then he noticed that Bell had been missing from his lab for 12 days before he tried that method. During that time, Bell had traveled to Washington to visit -- a drumroll, please -- the Patent Office.

Several weeks earlier, on Feb. 14, 1876, Bell's attorneys had filed his application for a patent. Most of the application related to an invention that could send several telegrams simultaneously. But written in the margins of the application, presumably as an afterthought, was a paragraph relating to a method of "transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically."

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