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Who Really Invented the Telephone

This article was prepared by Richard Wymer for the Australian Historic Telephone Society (Inc.) Victoria.
It is reproduced here to provide an answer to a question that has been asked many times.
Richard has referenced "How Bell Invented The Telephone" by Thomas A. Watson and "The Untold Story of the Telephone" by Lloyd W. Taylor to perhaps highlight some early history of the humble beginnings of the telephone

The impossibility of sharing credit within the framework of patent law creates a prolific source of distortion of historical fact. The identification of Alexander Graham Bell with the birth of the telephone to the exclusion of all others is one example of this tendency. As in many other instances the Bell tradition greatly oversimplifies the actual circumstances. It had its birth in a skillful combination of truth and silence out of which has grown the mighty myth that Bell was primarily responsible for the invention of the telephone.

Pick up any publication on the invention of the telephone and it is very apparent that the credit belongs wholly and solely to Alexander Graham Bell with virtually no one else contributing to any significant degree. It is also apparent that confusion exists in the various publications as to what Bell's first telephone was; some refer to Bell's Gallows telephone of 1875 as the first. Other publications refer to Bell's liquid transmitter of May 1876 as the first. I can recall for many years a model of the liquid transmitter in the foyer of the Museum of Victoria with a description and labelled the first telephone of 1876. And finally the famous Centennial telephone that Bell exhibited at the Philadelphia Exhibition in June 1876 to prove he could transmit speech successfully over a wire. One of these original instruments being held in the Museum of Victoria donated by a descendant of one of Bell's relatives, Story is in issue 97 of July 1985.

One significant point that may be missed by the casual reader is that apart from having a totally different appearance, the principal of operation of the liquid transmitter is of the variable resistance or microphone type whereas the Gallows and Centennial are of the magneto type, which is a totally different principle. Bell first communicated with a variable resistance microphone after many months of trying unsuccessfully a magneto type, but preferred to develop and promote the magneto type which was of an inferior basic principle and for many years did not discuss in any detail the instrument he used when he said, "Mr. Watson come here, I want you". This is also supported by Bell's assistant Thomas Watson who had his recollections published in 1915 and had a Vitaphone moving picture with sound on disc made in 1926 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the invention of the telephone. In this film Watson has models of Bell's instruments but there is no sign or mention of the liquid microphone. Before dealing with what Watson has to say it is important to clarify the two principles of transmission.

Magneto type

This consists of a permanent bar magnet with a wire coil around one end and a thin metal diaphragm across the pole face.

Soundwaves hit the diaphragm and cause it to vibrate. The vibrating diaphragm causes fluctuations in the magnetic field around the magnet. The fluctuating magnetic field will induce a varying current which will vary in sympathy with the sound waves. If a DC battery is inserted into the circuit the current induced will be varying DC. The varying current is converted back to soundwaves by a reverse of the process. This principle was used successfully in telephone receivers up to very recent times however it was not very successful as a transmitter, and apart from various improvements by Bell who preferred this type it was ultimately superseded by the variable resistance or microphone transmitter.

Before describing the microphone type it is important to note that the actual basic transmitting instrument that Bell was using was not as sophisticated as the abovementioned magneto instrument as described in its ultimate form. He was using one of his harmonic telegraph receivers. These instruments varied from the above in that they had a soft iron core instead of a permanent magnet and required a battery to provide a current to actuate the electro magnet. Also, the diaphragm was a steel reed attached to one pole of the electro magnet and became magnetised and acted as an armature in much the same way as an electric motor. It would also act as a crude receiver when pressed against the ear. The edge of the ear damping the loose end of the reed causing it to vibrate like a diaphragm.

While Watson claims to have heard Bell and was able to recognise his voice, Watson also states that Bell could not hear Watson due to the latter not having a strong enough voice. The failure of this instrument was probably due to the fluctuating magnetic field of the thin reed being too weak to induce a varying current in the coil. Throughout Watson's commentary there is no metion of the liquid transmitter and Watson goes as far as to state that experiments continued until on March 10th, 1876 when he heard Bell say "Mr. Watson come here, I want you", while actually holding the Gallows instrument. It is now accepted that Bell spilt acid on himself while adjusting the liquid transmitter which was why he said, "Mr. Watson come here, I want you". In the film Watson makes no mention of this incident which one would agree is quite significant.

After talking at length on the state of communications at the present time (1926), Watson concluded by making a point of holding and discussing the piece of original wire used in the first transmission and makes no further reference to the telephone instrument itself which could be considered strange as the transmitting instrument would be of a far greater significance than the wire used as the medium and would have made a far greater impact for the conclusion of his talk.

The talk by Watson in the Vitaphone film is essentially a condensed version of a talk he gave at the annual meeting of electrical engineers in New York on May 18th 1915. In a copy of that talk Watson again made no mention of the liquid transmitter; he did however in his autobiography, late in his life describe the construction and operation of the liquid transmitter. It is quite apparent that Watson's early accounts constituted only part of the story. There are some aspects of the story now almost forgotten which place it in an entirely different light than that which is customarily presented.

For the entire story to have come to light at the time would have been a catastrophe from Bell's point of view. Hence it may be that the delay in telling it arose from the necessity for waiting for the selection of certain portions and the discarding of others could be made with less danger of challenge.

Variable resistance microphone type

This was first built as a liquid transmitter. It consisted of a metal cup c, a conducting liquid such as acidulated water with a metal diaphragm d across the top and a wire r attached to the diaphragm and suspended in the liquid. A circuit was completed with a wire from the battery to the diaphragm and a wire from the metal cup returning to the battery. Also shown below is the mouth-piece m and the frame f.

The soundwaves hit the diaphragm and caused it to vibrate, the vibrating diaphragm caused the length of wire suspended in the liquid to vary its depth which varied the resistance of the circuit. With the application of Ohm's law the electric current being inversely proportional to resistance the current will vary in sympathy with the soundwaves. Although this instrument was totally impractical for commercial use the principle of varying the resistance was superior to the magneto type but was not developed or promoted by Bell. The probable reason for that becomes evident later.

During the film of Watson recounting his work with Bell, he stands behind a table which displays models of Bell's harmonic telegraphic transmitter and receiver whose experiments led directly to his experiments on the speaking telephone. Also on display is the Gallows telephone of 1875, a commercial model of the Centennial telephone and a length of wire used in the first experiments. After talking at length on the harmonic telegraphhe describes the moment in June 1875 when the operation of one magnetised reed could actuate another reed without a battery in the circuit. Bell then instructed Watson to make two instruments. In each instrument a magnetised reed attached to a membrane diaphragm. The reed acting as an armature to an electromagnet. This was the first speaking telephone or Gallows.

There are four main points in the invention of the telephone that do not appear in Watson's story - Three deal with the transmitter and one with the receiver.

The first point - the transmitter into which Bell spoke on March 10th 1876 was a very different kind of instrument from that described and illustrated in his earlier patent. Bell built his first transmitter in June 1875 and tested it unsuccessfully up until Bell's patent application was filed on February 14th 1876 preceding his famous exploit of March 10th that year.

Second point - the transmitter he constructed for the occasion had previously been described by a man named Elisha Gray in a confidential document about the contents of which Bell subsequently acknowledged having received information. On the same day Bell filed his patent application on February 14th 1876 his chief competitor in the inventive field, Elisha Gray, filed a document at the same patent office describing a telephone. Although Gray's description was as fully explicit as Bell's, it was not technically a patent. It was what was known as a caveat which was a formal notice of intention to perfect and file a patent application. The legal technicalities of the two documents acted in later court proceedings to give Bell an enormous advantage. If both men submitted the same type of document the later court cases would have been fought on their merits instead of on the basis of legal fiction. If Bell had submitted a caveat and Gray a patent then in all probability the result would have been the Gray telephone company in place of the Bell telephone company. Late in February Bell was notified by the patent examiner that his document came into conflict with another issued on the same day. Bell visited the patent office and was shown his conflict which was a few lines which mentioned the possibility of a liquid transmitter; Bell admitted this in court proceedings and the examiner never appeared in court to deny it nor did he make any denial outside the court. Also statements were made and evidence submitted in the form of an affidavit that the examiner allowed Bell an extended examination of Gray's caveat which showed the liquid transmitter in great detail. The allegation seems not to be proven, but the result of all this was that Bell recalled Watson whom he had previously laid off and through feverish activity succeeded in making and successfully using a liquid transmitter in less than two weeks from the time he received information through the patent examiner. It is obvious that without this information the first use of the telephone would have been considerably delayed.

Third point - It was not until four years later that Bell made any claim to the type of transmitter used on the historic occasion. Bell's predicament was that he could speak over a length of wire but could not publicise or demonstate how he did it unless he could do it with an instrument of his own design. This he set about doing by modifying the receiver type transmitter described in his patent which he managed to do within three or four weeks.

Having so altered the telephone of his patent he was now in a position to make public announcements of his accomplishment. This he did in two important public lectures on May 10th and May 25th. On these occasions as well as the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of June 25th, no mention was made of the liquid transmitter. In one of the numerous court cases when the claims of Bell and Gray come into conflict, Bell spent nine days on the stand and at no time did Bell even mention the first transmission or the instrument used.

In Bell's patent of January 30th 1877 improvement to electric telegraphy, Bell reiterates his reference to the receiver type but refers very guardedly to the possibility of other types of transmitters being described and exhibited but not to inventing them.

It seems clear that during the first four years of the telephone, Bell did not feel justified in claiming the liquid transmitter. Bell's skill as a tactician reaped its full reward. During the crucial period of the struggle for supremacy Gray and his advisers were completely misled.

Fourth point - Elisha Gray had made and publicly used several types of receivers many months before Bell constructed his first one. Apart from Bell's use of a harmonic telegraph as a makeshift receiver, Bell's first receiver was in June 1875 and the diaphragm was parchment not metal. His first receiver with a metal diaphragm was the centennial transmitter/receiver in June 1876. Elisha Gray had constructed and publicly demonstrated as early as 1874 and before February 1875 no fewer than four receivers all of which had a thin metal diaphragm therefore more closely anticipating the design of Bell's instrument of June 1875. After Gray's death a scrap of paper was found among his belongings on which he had written in his quaint scrawl, during some moment of profound discouragement, the following epitaph on the telephone contest:

"The history of the telephone will never be fully written. It is partly hidden away in twenty or thirty thousand pages of testimony and partly lying on the hearts and consciences of a few whose lips are sealed, some in death and others by a golden clasp whose grip is even tighter"


There can be no doubt that the credit for being the first to speak over a telephone belongs to Alexander Graham Bell. Also, Bell was first to realise that an electro magnetic receiver could be used as a transmitter.

To Elisha Gray goes the credit of designing the liquid microphone and to making the electro magnetic receiver.

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