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Telephone History Dont be a FOOL; The Law is Not DIY

It is my heart-warm and world-embracing Christmas hope and aspiration that all of us, the high, the low, the rich, the poor, the admired, the despised, the loved, the hated, the civilized, the savage (every man and brother of us all throughout the whole earth), may eventually be gathered together in a heaven of everlasting rest and peace and bliss, except the inventor of the telephone. - Mark Twain (Twainquotes citing Caroline Harnsberger's Mark Twain at Your Fingertips )

Phillip Reis

1860: Phillip Reis German invents device that could transmit sounds but not words. [Brooks p 36] [Lienhard 1098] See The Telephone Cases, 126 US 1 (1888) (reproducing Reis' papers). " Reis discovered how to reproduce musical tones, but he did no more. He could sing through his apparatus, but he could not talk. From the beginning to the end, he has conceded this. " The Telephone Cases, 126 US 1, 540 (1888)

See Kingsbury, Chapter XII: Phillip Reis and His Work, p. 125-39..


1848: Antonio Meucci performs teletrofono experiment in Havana. [Catania]

1860: Antonio Meucci demonstrates his invention teletrofono. [H Res 269] Meucci publishes an article in L'Eco d'Italia describing his invention. [Catania]

Antonio Meucci
Source: Library of Congress

Dec. 28, 1871: Antonio Meucci filed a caveat with PTO for his teletrofono. Short on funds, Meucci was not able to renew his caveat on 1874. [LOC] Meucci learns that the Western Union affiliated laboratory where he was working "lost" his equipment and materials; Alexander Graham Bell "conducted experiments in the same laboratory where Meucci's materials had been stored" [H Res 269] Meucci A., Sound Telegraph, Caveat No. 3335, filed at the US Patent and Trademark Office, Washington, DC on 28 December 1871; renewed 9 December 1872; renewed 15 December 1873, Loc. [A], Box 10, Folder 1. Meucci lacks sufficient resources to develop his invention. He is seriously injured in 1871 during the Westfield Ferry accident, and his wife sells his models in order to raise funds. The Telettrofono Company is established in 1871. [Catania] A lawsuit will be brought in 1885 by the USG against Bell attempting to void his patents based on Meucci's prior art. [See also Brooks p 77] [See also Wash Post 022008]

1889: Meucci dies [H Res 269]

Thomas Edison

Elisha Gray

1869: Elisha Gray and Enos Barton founded Gray and Barton Manufacturing which becomes Western Electric Manufacturing Company, acquired by AT&T in 1881.

1874: Gray transmits musical tones over 2400 mile long wire. Gray calls the device a "telephone." July 10 New York Times reports on Gray's innovations [Wolff 43]

"Elisha Gray, a professor at Oberlin College, applied for a caveat of the telephone on the same day Bell applied for his patent of the telephone. In Historical First Patents: The First United States Patent for Many Everyday Things (Scarecrow Press, 1994), Travis Brown, reports that Bell got to the patent office first. The date was February 14, 1876. He was the fifth entry of that day, while Gray was 39th. Therefore, the U.S. Patent Office awarded Bell with the first patent for a telephone, US Patent Number 174,465 rather than honor Gray's caveat. " [LOC]

  • for Tim's reading list about the early telephone system., Tech Liberation Front 1/24/2008
  • Sorry, Wrong Inventor (Elisha Gray of Oberlin invented the telephone), CSM 1/10/2008
  • Elisha Gray's caveat described the principle of variable resistance:

    Be it known that I, Elisha Gray, have invented a new Art of Transmitting Vocal Sounds Telegraphically. It is the object of my invention to transmit tones of the human voice through telegraphic circuit and reproduce them at the receiving end of the line so that actual conversations can be carried on by persons at long distances apart. . . The obvious practical application of my improvement will be to enable persons at a distance to converse with each other through a telegraphic circuit just as they do in each other's presence or through a speaking tube. [Coon 50]

    Note that like Bell, Gray perceived the work that he was undertaking was an improvement to telegraphy, as opposed to something radically different. The telephone was perceived as a technological evolution of network communications, substituting a new innovation for a legacy technology, providing the same fundamental service - the transmitting of end-user content to the destination of the end-user's choosing. The title's of Gray's patents reflect the work that he was undertaking:

    Bell's patent application, entitle "Improvement in Telegraphy," also mentioned voice telephony but curiously only in language scrawed into the patent application in the margin, as if an after thought.

    "The method of and apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically or by causing electrical undulations similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sounds, substantially as set forth."

    It was argued that Bell had been permitted to see Gray's application and wrote these notes into the margin after both applications had been filed.

    The Overland Company and the People's Company further contended that certain evidence cited by their counsel, and which is contained or referred to in the report of the argument of their counsel infra justified the inference that the Gray caveat was filed in the Department of the Interior prior to the filing of Bell's application, specification, and claims of 1876; that information of this caveat was surreptitiously furnished to Bell's solicitors; that Bell's specifications and claims as originally filed varied from his specifications and claims as stated in the patent in several important respects; that these changes were made within four days after the filing of Gray's caveat, and that after they had been made, the altered copy was placed in the files of the Department as the original. The following copy of these specifications, known as the Bell George Brown specification, is from the record in the People's case, and is referred to in argument in this connection, and other evidence in this respect on which counsel on one side or the other relied is also referred to in the arguments.

    The Telephone Cases, 126 US 1, 87 (1888).

    According to Horace Coon:

    "Gray knew, and those who studied the case knew, that the transmitter into which Bell spoke on March 10, 1876, the historic words to Thomas A Watson, the first words ever spoken and heard over a telephone, was a very different kind of instrument from that described and illustrated in his patent. Furthermore, the transmitter which Bell had constructed for the occassion had previously been described by Gray in his caveat. Did Bell in some way obtain knowledge of the contents of Gray's caveat? Before Gray died in 1901 he became convinced that Bell had access to what was suppose to be a confidential document in the files of the Patent Office." [Coon 52]

    1877, Feb. 16: Chicago Tribune refers to local man Gray as "the real inventor of the telephone." [Brooks p 63] [Bruce p 220] [Coon 48] [MacKenzie 164]

    Many Eastern newspapers are favoring their readers with sketches of Prof. A M Bell, 'the inventor of the telephone.' Meanwhile the real inventor of the telephone - Mr. Elisha Gray, of Chicago - minds his own business and apparently concerns himself not at all about the spurious claims of Professor Bell. . . . Mr. Gray's claims . . . are officially approved in the Patent Office at Washington, and they have already brought in large returns in money as well as in reputation to the inventor. Talking by telegraph and other sport of the description Mr. Gray has not paid much attention to as yet.

    1877, Feb. 21: Gray requested permission from Bell to demonstrate Bell's telephone during a lecture. [MacKenzie 165] Bell "hotly" replied granting permission conditioned on Gray refuting the Tribune article. [Brooks p 63] [Bruce p 220]

    "If you refute in your lecture, and in the Chicago Tribune, the libel upon me published in that paper February sixteenth, I shall nave no objection. Please Answer. A Graham Bell." [MacKenzie 166]

    1877, Feb. 24, Elisha Gray responded to Bell:

    I do not know what article you refer to. I have seen one or two articles lately which venture to assume that you are not the only man in the world who had contributed to the development of the telephone . . . So far as I know the libels are mostly on the other side, if assertions of originality etc. may be so constructed. The papers have been full of articles, of late, copied from Boston papers, claiming the whole development of the telephone for you. It would not be strange if some one, knowing the facts, should speak and in doing so may have done you injustice.

    "You seem to assume that I am responsible for all the newspaper articles that are not in your favor. Now if we are going into the refutation business I suggest that it be mutual. So far as I know, there is quite as much need from your side as from mine. If we undertake to follow up the newspapers we shall have our hands full." [Coon 48] [MacKenzie 166]

    1877, Mar. 2, Bell Responded

    "I was somewhat hasty, I must confess, in sending my telegram to you, for of course you are not responsible for all the ill natured remarks that may appear in the newspapers concerning me. I have generally alluded to your name in connection with the invention of the Electronic 'Telephone' for we seem to attach different significations to the word. I apply the term only to to an apparatus for transmitting the voice (which meaning is strictly in accordance with the derivation of the word) whereas you seem to use the term as expressive of any apparatus for transmission of musical tones by electric current.

    "I have no knowledge of any apparatus constructed by you for the purpose of transmitting vocal sounds, and I trust that I have not been doing you an injustice. It is my sincere desire to give you all the credit that I feel justly belongs to you. I do not know the nature of the application for a caveat, to which you referred, excepting that it had something to do with the vibration of a wire in water and therefore conflicted with my patent. My specification had been prepared months before it was filed and a copy taken to England by a friend. I delayed the filing of the American patent until I could hear from him. At last the protests of all those interested in my invention deprecating further delay, had their effect, and I filed my application without waiting for a conclusion of negotiations in England. It was certainly a most striking coincidence that our applications should have been filed on the same day." [Coon 49] [MacKenzie 167]

    1877, Mar. 5: Gray wrote Bell disclaiming the invention of the telephone, and responsibility for the article which he says he had not seen. [Brooks p 64]

    "I have just received yours of the 2nd instant, and I freely forgive you for any feeling your telegram aroused. I found the article I suppose you referred to in the personal column of the Tribune, and am free to say it does you injustice.

    I gave you full credit for the talking feature of the telephone as you may have seen in the Associated press dispatch that was sent to all the papers in the country - in my lecture in McCormick Hall, Feb. 27th. . . . Of course you have had no means of knowing what I had done in the matter of transmitting vocal sounds. When, however, you see the specification, you will see that the fundamental principles are contained therein. I do not, however, claim even the credit of inventing it, as I do not believe a mere description of an idea that has never been reduced to practice - in the strict sense of that phrase - should be dignified with the name invention.

    "Yours very truly Elisha Gray " [Coon 48] [MacKenzie 169]

    Bell's patent would be challenged by Western Union based on Gray's caveat; the legal challenge would be settled out of court.

    1884: First prank phone call?  Someone in Rhode Island falsely called the undertaker asking that a coffin be delivered for the recently deceased, who were alive and surprised to find a pine box with their name on it at their door. [Lit Detective Twitpic]

    1885: Congressional hearings investigated who invented the telephone.

    1886: The Washington Post reports that Zenas Wilbur, a patent officer, stated in an affidavit that he had been bribed by Alexander Graham Bell "to award the patent to Bell over a rival inventor, Elisha Gray." Wilbur indicated that he took $100 and gave Bell complete details of Gray's invention. In previous affidavits, Wilbur swore the opposite. [Wash Post 022008] It is reported that Wilbur owed money to one of Bell's attorneys. [Roth] Another book reports that Wilbur was an alcoholic who had had several run ins with the law. [Coe p 70] [See also Brooks p 77] [See also Coon 52]

  • Elisha Gray, Oberlin College
  • Elisha Gray, The American Experience PBS
  • Elisha Gray Collection, 1871-1938. Smithsonian Institute
  • Who Is Credited with Inventing the Telephone? Library of Congress Everyday Mysteries.
  • Elisha Gray, inventor of the variable resistance micriphone, Fierce Telecom
  • World War I: Nationalization of the Network

    How to Dial a Rotary Phone
    1928 Cell Phone use Charlie Chaplin Movie

    Post War

    1919: Southern Bell bought out The Atlantic Telephone Company. [Atlanta]

    1930: Cincinnati Bell initiates migration to dial service. Migration is completed after WWII. [Cincinnati Bell History]

    1968: Cincinnati Bell migrates to electronic switching. [Cincinnati Bell History]

    Telephone Unions

    In 1891 the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers was established and would make the first attempts to unionize communications works. The IBEW would not admit women as members until 1912 when it accepted telephone operators as members. "In 1919, IBEW's telephone department claimed 200 telephone locals with 20,000 members." [CWA History] [IBE History] The Boston IBEW pressed in 1913 for "the abolition of the double shift, an eight-hour-day (a nine to ten-hour day was the norm), the establishment of a board of adjustment and a pay raise. They won on all counts..." [IBE History]

    1911: The International Federation of Posts, Telegraphs and Telephones established. [Labor History]

    1918: Commercial Telegraphers' Union calls for a strike on April 9, during World War I, leading to pressure to nationalize the telephone and telegraph service. The strike was twice postponed. [Washington Plea Prevents Strike on Western Union, N.Y. TIMES, July 8, 1919, at 1]

    WWI: Julia O'Connor of the IBEW "served as labor's only representative to the national board, presided over by Postmaster General Albert Burleson, which set telephone worker's wages and supervised their working conditions." [IBEW History] The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers striked in 1919 to protest the lack of progress in improving wages and working conditions. "The strike shut down phone service in the East for almost a week." The strike was considered a success and the Postmaster General acknowledged their right to organize. [CWA History] In Sept. 1919 the IBEW formed a Telephone Operator's Division.

    1919: Cincinnati Bell Employees form the Telephone Employees Association [Reference for Business]

    1920: Postal, Telegraph and Telephone International founded (replacing the International Federation of Posts, Telegraphs and Telephones). [Labor History]

    1920s: Reportedly disturbed by the IBEW's success during WWI, AT&T encourages employees to join company unions and not the IBEW; "By 1934, IBEW had been ousted in every location except Montana and the Chicago Plant." [CWA History]

    1935: Congress passes the National Labor Relations Act and declares company unions (such as those at AT&T) illegal. [CWA History]

    1938: Union organizers establish the National Federation of Telephone Workers. [CWA History]

    "The average real wage of a telephone worker dropped from 83 cents an hour in 1939 to 70 cents an hour in 1943." [CWA History] Complaints were brought before the National Wartime Labor Board but a backlog of complaints grew.

    1944: National Federation of Telephone Workers strike based on declining wages and failure of the NWLB to hear their cases. Outcome was the establishment of the National Telephone Panel, later renamed as the National Telephone Commission, to hear communications labor complaints. [CWA History] [See Archives for NTC records]

    1946: AT&T and the National Federation of Telephone Workers sign the Beirne-Craig memorandum, averting a strike. [CWA History]

    1947: In 1946, AT&T was not prepared for the NFTW strike; in 1947 AT&T was prepared. NFTW would strike and the union would splinter, and be reorganized as the Communications Workers of America. [CWA History] The CWA would become affiliated with the CIO in 1948.

    1950: US Senate holds hearings concerning AT&T's poor labor relations. [CWA History]

    1955: CWA strike 72 days against Southern Bell. CWA considers the strike a success, resulting in increased wages, arbitration, and the recognized right to strike. [CWA History]

    1963: CWA strike against General Telephone in California. [CWA History]

    1968: CWA strike against AT&T lasts 18 days and results in wage and benefits increases. [CWA History][Reference for Business (strike against Cincinnati Bell)]

    1970: EEOC charges AT&T with discrimination. Charges are settled in 1973. "The settlement included $5 million in back pay to 13,000 women and minority men, and an estimated $30 million in wage adjustments for women and minority workers." [CWA History] [See IALHI News Service: Woman & AT&T for a good summary] [The Impact of the AT&T-EEO Consent Decree. Labor Relations and Public Policy Series No. 20] [The Bellwomen: The Story of the Landmark AT&T Sex Discrimination CasePDF]

    1971: 400,000 CWA members go on strike for one week, responding to impact of inflation. Receive wage increases, COLA, better vacation time. [CWA History]

    1973: CWA members strike against General Telephone. Strike lasts months [CWA History]

    1975: CWA members strike against independent telcos in Rochester, Kentucky, and New Jersey. [CWA History]

    1983: 700,000 CWA members successfully strike for 22 days against AT&T for better wages and benefits. "This would be the last time CWA would be able to negotiate at one national table for all its Bell System members because divestiture was only a few months away." [CWA History] [The Line You Have Reached...DISCONNECT IT!, Processed World 1983 ("The 22 day nationwide strike by 700,000 telephone workers provided a window on the relative strength of capital and labor in the current era. In classic style, both management and unions are claiming victory, since neither side was able to push through its most aggressive bargaining goals.")]






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