(Wikipedia) By 1874, Bell’s initial work on the harmonic telegraph had entered a formative stage, with progress made both at his new Boston “laboratory” (a rented facility) and at his family home in Canada a big success. While working that summer in Brantford, Bell experimented with a “phonautograph“, a pen-like machine that could draw shapes of sound waves on smoked glass by tracing their vibrations. Bell thought it might be possible to generate undulating electrical currents that corresponded to sound waves. Bell also thought that multiple metal reeds tuned to different frequencies like a harp would be able to convert the undulating currents back into sound. But he had no working model to demonstrate the feasibility of these ideas.
In 1874, telegraph message traffic was rapidly expanding and in the words of Western Union President William Orton, had become “the nervous system of commerce”. Antonio Meucci sent a telephone model and technical details to the Western Union telegraph company but failed to win a meeting with executives. When he asked for his materials to be returned, in 1874, he was told they had been lost. Two years later Bell, who shared a laboratory with Meucci, filed a patent for a telephone, became a celebrity and made a lucrative deal with Western Union. Meucci sued and was nearing victory – the supreme court agreed to hear the case and fraud charges were initiated against Bell – when the Florentine died in 1889. The legal action died with him. Orton had contracted with inventors Thomas Edison and Elisha Gray to find a way to send multiple telegraph messages on each telegraph line to avoid the great cost of constructing new lines. When Bell mentioned to Gardiner Hubbard and Thomas Sanders that he was working on a method of sending multiple tones on a telegraph wire using a multi-reed device, the two wealthy patrons began to financially support Bell’s experiments. Patent matters would be handled by Hubbard’s patent attorney, Anthony Pollok.
In March 1875, Bell and Pollok visited the scientist Joseph Henry, who was then director of the Smithsonian Institution, and asked Henry’s advice on the electrical multi-reed apparatus that Bell hoped would transmit the human voice by telegraph. Henry replied that Bell had “the germ of a great invention”. When Bell said that he did not have the necessary knowledge, Henry replied, “Get it!” That declaration greatly encouraged Bell to keep trying, even though he did not have the equipment needed to continue his experiments, nor the ability to create a working model of his ideas. However, a chance meeting in 1874 between Bell and Thomas A. Watson, an experienced electrical designer and mechanic at the electrical machine shop of Charles Williams, changed all that.
With financial support from Sanders and Hubbard, Bell hired Thomas Watson as his assistant, and the two of them experimented with acoustic telegraphy. On June 2, 1875, Watson accidentally plucked one of the reeds and Bell, at the receiving end of the wire, heard the overtones of the reed; overtones that would be necessary for transmitting speech. That demonstrated to Bell that only one reed or armature was necessary, not multiple reeds. This led to the “gallows” sound-powered telephone, which could transmit indistinct, voice-like sounds, but not clear speech.
The race to the patent office
In 1875, Bell developed an acoustic telegraph and drew up a patent application for it. Since he had agreed to share U.S. profits with his investors Gardiner Hubbard and Thomas Sanders, Bell requested that an associate in Ontario, George Brown, attempt to patent it in Britain, instructing his lawyers to apply for a patent in the U.S. only after they received word from Britain (Britain would issue patents only for discoveries not previously patented elsewhere).
Meanwhile, Elisha Gray was also experimenting with acoustic telegraphy and thought of a way to transmit speech using a water transmitter. On February 14, 1876, Gray filed a caveat with the U.S. Patent Office for a telephone design that used a water transmitter. That same morning, Bell’s lawyer filed Bell’s application with the patent office. There is considerable debate about who arrived first and Gray later challenged the primacy of Bell’s patent. Bell was in Boston on February 14 and did not arrive in Washington until February 26.
Bell’s patent 174,465, was issued to Bell on March 7, 1876, by the U.S. Patent Office. Bell’s patent covered “the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically … by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sound” Bell returned to Boston the same day and the next day resumed work, drawing in his notebook a diagram similar to that in Gray’s patent caveat.
On March 10, 1876, three days after his patent was issued, Bell succeeded in getting his telephone to work, using a liquid transmitter similar to Gray’s design. Vibration of the diaphragm caused a needle to vibrate in the water, varying the electrical resistance in the circuit. When Bell spoke the sentence “Mr. Watson—Come here—I want to see you” into the liquid transmitter, Watson, listening at the receiving end in an adjoining room, heard the words clearly.
Although Bell was, and still is, accused of stealing the telephone from Gray, Bell used Gray’s water transmitter design only after Bell’s patent had been granted, and only as a proof of concept scientific experiment, to prove to his own satisfaction that intelligible “articulate speech” (Bell’s words) could be electrically transmitted.After March 1876, Bell focused on improving the electromagnetic telephone and never used Gray’s liquid transmitter in public demonstrations or commercial use.
The question of priority for the variable resistance feature of the telephone was raised by the examiner before he approved Bell’s patent application. He told Bell that his claim for the variable resistance feature was also described in Gray’s caveat. Bell pointed to a variable resistance device in Bell’s previous application in which Bell described a cup of mercury, not water. Bell had filed the mercury application at the patent office a year earlier on February 25, 1875, long before Elisha Gray described the water device. In addition, Gray abandoned his caveat, and because he did not contest Bell’s priority, the examiner approved Bell’s patent on March 3, 1876. Gray had reinvented the variable resistance telephone, but Bell was the first to write down the idea and the first to test it in a telephone.
The patent examiner, Zenas Fisk Wilber, later stated in an affidavit that he was an alcoholic who was much in debt to Bell’s lawyer, Marcellus Bailey, with whom he had served in the Civil War. He claimed he showed Gray’s patent caveat to Bailey. Wilber also claimed (after Bell arrived in Washington D.C. from Boston) that he showed Gray’s caveat to Bell and that Bell paid him $100. Bell claimed they discussed the patent only in general terms, although in a letter to Gray, Bell admitted that he learned some of the technical details. Bell denied in an affidavit that he ever gave Wilber any money.
Continuing his experiments in Brantford, Bell brought home a working model of his telephone. On August 3, 1876, from the telegraph office in Mount Pleasant five miles (eight km) away from Brantford, Bell sent a tentative telegram indicating that he was ready. With curious onlookers packed into the office as witnesses, faint voices were heard replying. The following night, he amazed guests as well as his family when a message was received at the Bell home from Brantford, four miles (six km) distant, along an improvised wire strung up along telegraph lines and fences, and laid through a tunnel. This time, guests at the household distinctly heard people in Brantford reading and singing. These experiments clearly proved that the telephone could work over long distances.
Bell and his partners, Hubbard and Sanders, offered to sell the patent outright to Western Union for $100,000. The president of Western Union balked, countering that the telephone was nothing but a toy. Two years later, he told colleagues that if he could get the patent for $25 million he would consider it a bargain. By then, the Bell company no longer wanted to sell the patent. Bell’s investors would become millionaires while he fared well from residuals and at one point had assets of nearly one million dollars.
Bell began a series of public demonstrations and lectures to introduce the new invention to the scientific community as well as the general public. A short time later, his demonstration of an early telephone prototype at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia brought the telephone to international attention. Influential visitors to the exhibition included Emperor Pedro II of Brazil. Later, Bell had the opportunity to demonstrate the invention personally to Sir William Thomson (later, Lord Kelvin), a renowned Scottish scientist, as well as to Queen Victoria, who had requested a private audience at Osborne House, her Isle of Wight home. She called the demonstration “most extraordinary”. The enthusiasm surrounding Bell’s public displays laid the groundwork for universal acceptance of the revolutionary device.
The Bell Telephone Company was created in 1877, and by 1886, more than 150,000 people in the U.S. owned telephones. Bell Company engineers made numerous other improvements to the telephone, which emerged as one of the most successful products ever. In 1879, the Bell company acquired Edison’s patents for the carbon microphone from Western Union. This made the telephone practical for longer distances, and it was no longer necessary to shout to be heard at the receiving telephone.
Emperor Pedro II of Brazil was the first person to buy stock in Bell’s company, the Bell Telephone Company. One of the first telephones in a private residence was installed in his palace in Petrópolis, his summer retreat forty miles from Rio de Janeiro.
In January 1915, Bell made the first ceremonial transcontinental telephone call. Calling from the AT&T head office at 15 Dey Street in New York City, Bell was heard by Thomas Watson at 333 Grant Avenue in San Francisco. The New York Times reported:
On October 9, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Watson talked by telephone to each other over a two-mile wire stretched between Cambridge and Boston. It was the first wire conversation ever held. Yesterday afternoon [on January 25, 1915], the same two men talked by telephone to each other over a 3,400-mile wire between New York and San Francisco. Dr. Bell, the veteran inventor of the telephone, was in New York, and Mr. Watson, his former associate, was on the other side of the continent.
Main article: Elisha Gray and Alexander Bell telephone controversy