Federal Internet Law & Policy
An Educational Project
Elisha Gray &
Oberlin School of Telegraphy
Dont be a FOOL; The Law is Not DIY

Source: Wikicommons

Inventor Elisha Gray was a student at Oberlin College in 1860, a physics student. In 1876, he patented an improved telegraph relay. In 1876, he also invented the telephone, filing for patent protection a few hours behind Bell. Gray would found Western Electric and, in 1874, he returned to Oberlin as Honorary Professor of Dynamic Electricity. [Elisha Gray, Oberlin Alumni Magazine] [Robert Samuel Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College]


"Mr. Elisha Gray, the electrician of the Western Electric Manufacturing Company of Chicago, is of Quaker origin. He bears some distin guishing evidences of his descent in a certain placidity and directness of manner indicative of his temperament and character. He was born at Barnesville, Belmont county, Ohio, August 2, 1835. In early life he was a carpenter's apprentice, and was somewhat of a social nuisance because of his proclivity to acids and laboratory stuffs. At twenty - one he went to Oberlin College where he studied diligently for five years. His mental bent during this period was strongest in the study of natural philosophy. To this he devoted all his spare hours. It was not, however, until he reached his thirtieth year that his attention was first turned to electrical mechanism. This soon fascinated and largely monopolized his time and study." [Reid at 642]







"Mr. Gray's name is now connected with an invention more useful and wonderful than any to which his mind has, so far, been directed. During the years 1873 - 4 - 5 his attention was largely absorbed in devel oping a system of "Electro - Harmonic Telegraphy" for the transmission of sounds over the wires of the telegraph. The basis of this system is the discovery of a law of vibration, by which a sound produced in the presence of a magnet will cause a magnet of similar adjustment to respond to its tone. This is not all. It has been found that, over the same wire, another note, by another magnet, may be sent at the same time, and be received on a second magnet adjusted to the second note. Mr. Gray has already succeeded in sending over a wire of 500 miles in length, nine different messages at the same moment, each message hav ing a distinctive note. These several messages, also, can be taken off by any „ umber of intermediate offices by simply turning the relay to the key note on which each is transmitted ! Mr. Gray expects to be able to send in this way, simultaneously, fifteen or more messages Theoretically, these can be increased to as many notes and semi - tones as the range of the gamut will permit.

"Mr. Gray was led to these investigations by a domestic incident. In his paper on the “ Transmission of Musical Tones " before the Ameri can Electrical Society, Chicago, March 17, 1875, he says : “ My nephew was playing with a small induction coil " taking shocks ” for the amusement of the younger children. He had connected one end of the secondary coil to the zinc lining of the bath tub, which was dry. Holding the other end of the coil in his left hand he touched the lin ing of the tub with the right. In making contact, his hand would glide along the side for a short distance. At these times I noticed a sound proceeding from under his hand at the point of contact having the same pitch and quality of the vibrating electrome. I immediately took the electrode in my hand, and, repeating the operation, found, to my astonishment, that by rubbing hard and rapidly I could make a much louder sound than the electrome. I then changed the pitch of the vibration, and found that the pitch of the sound under my hand was also changed, agreeing with that of the vibration. ” Simple contact produced no sound. Rapid friction was necessary." [Reid at 644]


The Telegrapher, p. 420, August 19, 1871

Elisha Gray Telegraph Repeater patent #114938 1871. Smithsonian Museum National Museum of American History.

George Walker, President, American Speaking Telephone Co., Telephone Patents, Circular to the Public, Feb. 19, 1879, Library of Congress.


Railway service was established to Oberlin in about 1852 by the Toledo, Norwalk and Cleveland Railroad, and then by the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad. It's likely that the railroad service established the first telegraph service to the town. In 1914, LS&MSRR was acquired by New York Central Railroad. [Oberlin Station, Wikipedia]

In 1859, Edward Rosewater took job as a telegrapher in Oberlin, Ohio. During the Civil War, he was employed by Norvin Green's Southwestern Telegraph in Nashville. He was accused of being a Northern spy. In 1862, Union forces captured Nashville, and Rosewater joined the U.S. Telegraph Corps. He found his way to the White House telegraph corp, and in 1863 he was the operator that telegraphed Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. [Edward Rosewater, American Jewish Archives] [Kathryn Hellerstein, A Letter from Lincoln's Jewish Telegrapher, The Jewish Quarterly Review Vol. 94, No. 4, The Jewish Experience in America (Autumn, 2004), pp. 625-636]

Oberlin School of Telegraphy

Derived from Wilbur Phillip, The Oberlin Colony:

"An industry of an educational character which played an important part in the business life of Oberlin for about four decades, which was organized in 1862 by the Pond Brothers. One member of the firm was Reverend C. N. Pond, for years a resident of Oberlin." [J T White, The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, 161 (1916)] (indicating (Chauncey Pond and Elisha Gray were friends; reports are conflicting but suggest that Pond joined the U.S. Military Telegraph Service during the civil war)] [The Fremont weekly journal. [volume] (Fremont, Sandusky County, Ohio), 15 Feb. 1867. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. ("students have the use of an actual business line - the M.S. & N.I.R.R. Line, which is not true of any other telegraph school in the world")]

Sherman Telegraph Company: "In 1868 the school was purchased by C.A. Shearman and A.G. Shearman. A stock company was formed and the new ownership built and operated a commercial telegraph line in connection with their school. The school was located in rooms in the Carpenter block of West College Street opposite the campus." [The American Horticulturist: A National Journal of Horticulture, Volume 2, 1886 (Advertisement which read "Wanted Young Men and Ladies to Learn Telegraphy. Students practically educated for the business, and situations furnished when competent. Address Sherman Telegraph Co., Oberlin Ohio")] [Oberlin West College St Photograph, Ohio Memory Collection, Circa 1878 (showing the Sherman Telegraphy School)] [The Redwood gazette. [volume] (Redwood Falls, Minn.), 17 May 1877. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. (add for Sherman Telegraphy School)] "Shearman Brothers conducted the school until 1876 when it was bought by Messrs. Hyatt, Suter, and Peck. C.A. Sherman accompanied by J.A. Sheridan, moved in 1876 to San Francisco.

Oberlin Telegraph Company
Source: Flickr Public Domain

Oberlin Telegraph Company "The following year Mr. Sheridan returned to Oberlin and started an opposition school. Within one year's time he succeeded in getting control of the field and had the only school of the kind in the village. He built the attendance from sixty-five pupils to a peak of two hundred and seventy... Mr. Sheridan was recognized a half century ago as one of the best telegraph operators in the country. He built lines to Lorain, North and South Amherst, and Vermilion, having local business, with connections at Vermilion with a postal telegraph company. The school occupied a brick building, on South Main Street, the Old Pettis Hall, now Odd Fellows Hall, and the room now used as a club by the Oberlin Lodge of Masons." [The enterprise. [volume] (Wellington, Ohio), 28 Aug. 1895. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Column 2, near the bottom ("A new telegraph company was chartered last week, to be called the Postal Telegraph Company. The stock is owned in Oberlin, with the exception of that owned by F.P. Hill of Elyria. It will be extended throughout the state, and will be operated in conjunction with the Oberlin Telegraph school.")] [The Electrical World, Volume 27, p 541 1896 ("The Oberlin Telegraph Company has decided to run its wire between Oberlin, Elyria, Lorain, North Amherst, South Amherst, and Vermillion. Toll Stations Will be establsihed at the towns mentioned.") ] [Electrical Review: A Weekly Journal of Electric Light, Telephone, Telegraph and Scientific Progress, Volume 27 Delano and Company, 1895 ("The Postal Telegraph Company has changed its name to the Oberlin Telegraph Company") ] [Oberlin Review (Oberlin, Ohio), 1880-12-18 p. 15 (Oberlin Telegraph Company advertisement for students)] [The Wellington enterprise. (Wellington, Ohio), 15 Nov. 1882. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. ("The case of Fletcher against Peterson, the proprietor of the telegraph school at Oberlin, for refusing to admit Fletcher on account of color was decided Monday in favor of plaintiff. A judgement of $37.50 was brought against Peterson.")] [Oberlin Review (Oberlin, Ohio), 1881-10-15 page 15 (advertisement for Oberlin Telegraph Company)]

"The owner finally sold it to a stock company, controlled by Charles T. Beckwith, T.H. Rowland, and Albert Johnson. The School operated by the company for two years when it was sold to George Durand, who was later succeeded in the operation by George J. Peake." [Report of the Federal Security Agency: Office of Education, Volume 2 p. 2136 1906 (In 1904 the school is shown as having one instructor and 62 students; the executive officer was G. L. Durand.)]

The school went through numerous name changes including: Oberlin School of Telegraphy, Central Union Telegraph Co., Union Telegraph College, Sherman Telegraph Co., Oberlin Telegraph School, and National Correspondence School. [Oberlin Archive]. A business card read as follows:


Established 1862

Students fitted for both

:::: Railway and Commercial Service.

We have the BEST EQUIPPED SCHOOL in the United States for giving Thorough and Practical Instruction in Telegraphy and Typewriting.

Oberlin School of Telegraphy

Write for Catalogue. George J. Peake, Gen. Man., Oberlin Ohio

[Report of the Commissioner of Education Made to the Secretary of the Interior for the Year ending 1916 ... with Accompanying Papers, US GPO 1917 (Executive Officer, J A Sheridan, 10 students, one teacher)] [Brief History of Oberlin School of Commerce, Oberlin College ("The telegraphic school was later consolidated with the Commercial Institute and the whole was chartered as CALKIN, GRIFFIN & CO'S UNION BUSINESS INSTITUTE." "According to Fletcher, "In those early years the Commercial Business Institute bore about the same relationship to the College as did the Conservatory of Music. ")] [Harriet Taylor Upton, History of the Western Reserve, Volume 1, p. 244 1910 ("Although not included in Oberlin's public system of education, mention must be made of the Oberlin Business College and the Oberlin Telegraph school, as institutions which have brought great credit as their originators and to the community at large. They are both among the oldest and most successful institutions of this character in the Western Reserve, the school of telegraphy being one of the oldest of the kind in the United States.")]

1876: The Year of the Patent

"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]

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.

Bell's patent application, entitled "Improvement in Telegraphy," also mentioned voice telephony but curiously only in language scrawled 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: Western Union enters telephone market




1881: Jay Gould Takes Control of Western Union







1901: Elisha Gray dies



© Cybertelecom ::