Science Talk

Whose Phone Is It, Anyway: Did Bell Steal The Invention?

In this episode, journalist and author Seth Shulman talks about his new book, The Telephone Gambit, in which he produces compelling evidence that Alexander Graham Bell plagiarized a key element of the telephone. Plus we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include:

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting January 9th, 2008. I'm Steve Mirsky. Last week, we took a quick look at an 1883 Scientific American article that doubted whether the telephone would ever replace the telegraph. The question was on the table because on March 10th, the 1876, Alexander Graham Bell, made the first telephone call to his assistant, Thomas Watson. But how exactly, did Bell invent the phone? Journalist and author Seth Shulman has written a new book, The Telephone Gambit,in which he puts forth some compelling evidence that Bell stole the idea for one of the basic elements of the telephone. We'll hear about that, plus we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Seth Shulman specializes in science and technology. He's written for the Smithsonian, Tech Review, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone and other publications. The Telephone Gambit is his fifth book. I called him at his home in North Hampton, Massachusetts.

Steve: Hi Seth! How are you today?

Shulman: Good, thanks! How are you Steve?

Steve: Pretty good. Good to talk to you. So, The Telephone Gambit, chasing Alexander Graham Bell's secret. You know, as we turn over all the cards, what's the secret?

Shulman: What happened to me is that I was researching as a fellow at MIT and I was reading Bell's laboratory notebook; and I stumbled on a picture in there that raised alarm bells for me, and it turns out to have been copied almost exactly from a patent filing made by Bell's main rival Elisha Gray and this started me on a whole search to find out, how in the world a picture like that could have gotten into Bell's notebook. Of course, this happened two days before his famous line calling to Watson. So, the secret is it looks like Bell plagiarized the successful design for a telephone from his rival Elisha Gray; and I go to great lengths to unravel what turns out to be quite a twisted tale about how that might have happened.

Steve: Now, there've been rumors floating about this pretty much since the late 19th century? Is that right?

Shulman: Absolutely! In fact, Bell's claim to the telephone was controversial right from the start. And so, you know, part of the question in my mind was, you know, first of all how could no one have noticed this in the notebook? Because once you put the pieces together, it's quite a startling thing. How could Elisha Gray have let Bell get away with this, you know, and why do we remember the history the way we do? These are some of the questions that nagged at me and I decided to switch what I was doing and really tried to get to the bottom of it.

Steve: So, why do we remember the history in a certain way? Does whoever writes the first account, sort of, set the template and then everything else is just a riff off of that?

Shulman: Well, I think, you know, I think that's certainly a part of it. The history is written by the winners and there is no question that these guys were the winners. Of course, the Bell telephone monopoly became one of the largest monopolies we've ever had and this particular [one]—the patent that we call the telephone patent—the oldest patent is still considered to be probably the most lucrative patent ever granted in the United States. So, the stakes of this are very high. I think a part of it is also that, you know, we love these lone inventor stories and Bell does in many ways fit the bill of that iconic inventor. I mean, he was an amazing guy; even if he did plagiarize the telephone, he also did a lot of amazing things and was a real visionary and really got the idea of the telephone right from the start.

Steve: You know, you make me think with this story, a little bit about James Watson, and the famous tale about him sort of cribbing some of the key data for DNA from Rosalyn Franklin's papers there.

Shulman: Right, right! Well there are a lot of similarities and you know, I think whenever the stakes are high at the beginning of a new and exciting technology, you are going to find a lot of this kind of stuff. In this case, it turns out to be just a really amazing involved story with a love story at the heart of it and a corrupt patent official and all sorts of things that I was able to dig that out of the primary document.

Steve: So, tell us a little about the love story—his wife was the daughter of somebody important.

Shulman: Right. The woman that he was to marry was the daughter of his financial backer, a guy named Gardner Green Hubbard, who was an amazing entrepreneur and patent lawyer in Boston, from a very wealthy family. And Hubbard's daughter, Mable Hubbard, was deaf and was actually a student of Bell's and was some 10 years younger than him and fell right at around the key time when the telephone was being developed. Bell just fell head over heels in love with this young woman, and it greatly complicated his relationship with his financial backer, who in my estimation was, turns out to be, seem like a relatively unscrupulous guy; and that, you know, so not only was Bell getting his money from him for his research, but now he really didn't want to cross him because he really hoped to win the hand of this wealthy guy's daughter. And of course Bell was not a wealthy man himself and so it put him in a very difficult position, and I think it has a lot to do with how the story ultimately turns out.

Steve: So, take us through the actual couple of days there when the patents are being filed; and what you think that Bell actually did?

Shulman: Well, you know, one of the prime things about this book is that I write it as a kind of nonfiction detective story, where I recount absolutely, you know, scrupulously, honestly what happened to me over the course of the year researching the subject. So, I am a little reluctant to give too many of the twist[s] and turns away and it's quite involved. that[But] the bottom-line is this: That we know, for a lot of reasons, first of all, there was this picture in Bell's notebook. He must have seen a picture of Gray's filing. What had happened is that Gray had filed what at that time they called a caveat at the patent office—and this has since been discontinued—at this time, the patent office required, everyone who wanted to patent something to require a working model of their invention; and if you file for a caveat, what you could do is sort of reserve the spot. You have a year to file the model and finish the patent, but during that time, the caveat would have all the same powers as the patent, so you basically stake out some turf; and Gray's caveat was for a device to transmit voice over telegraph wire. At the time, for everyone, the holy grail of the moment, what people were really looking for in was not a telephone, but actually a telegraph that could send multiple messages at the same time. This is what Bell was working on; this is what Gray was actually working on; Thomas Edison was working on it.

Steve: They wanted to increase the bandwidth of their day.

Shulman: Exactly! They had a bandwidth problem and the telegraph was becoming popular and wires were needing, you know, they were turning to string, sometimes you see these pictures of telephone poles with tons of wires on them from the late 1800s; so the person that could come up with a means, at this time, of course you could only send one message at a time; one telegram at a time. So, the person that could figure out a way to send multiple messages would really have something that would be quite a lucrative invention. So, this is was what everyone was racing for; but meanwhile Gray had come in with a caveat on this very novel idea to send voice over the telegraph wire. Bell had been called down to Washington on a patent that he had filed for a multiple-messaging telegraph and it had raised interference with other patents that had been filed around the same time, including one from Elisha Gray. We know from Bell's notebook and from his letters of the time that he went down to Washington to try and sort this out with his patent attorneys; and what I was also able to turn off[up]—and this comes later in the book—is that, before he died, the patent examiner who was involved in this actually filed an affidavit, in which he admits that he showed Bell Gray's confidential filing and he did so because he was an alcoholic and he owed money to one of the partners in Bell's law firm, who he had served with in the military and he felt indebted to him. And so he did this. So, basically, you know, through this and many other sayings, I was able to really piece together exactly what happened and I think, you know, because it's based on letters and the primary documents of the time, I think, people will probably find it convincing.

Steve: Really fascinating. Talk about the psychological effect on you when you realized that you are about to, you know, throw a spear into a myth here?

Shulman: (laughs) Well, if you want the honest truth, yes, the initial reaction was really one of a kind of dismay and fear. I mean—I talk about this in the book—I thought I must be wrong, basically. And so, when I first found that picture in the notebook, I just shied away from doing anything about it. I mean, it might sound a little hard to believe, especially for someone who has been a reporter for a long time, but the fact is I really liked Alexander Graham Bell, and one of the reasons I was there at M.I.T. for the fellowship year is I was doing a project that had me looking into some of his stuff, because I admire him. And so it was kind of like, news that I really just didn't want to know about; and I didn't want to be the one, you know—who am I to go up against more than a 100 years of history, and these kinds of historical myths are powerful. So initially, you know, I guess, I just sort of shied away from it. I read a lot of secondary sources, tried to figure out how what other people had said about this or if anyone had noticed it, and it only made things worse for me, it made it more confusing. In fact, one of the main biographers—a guy who actually won a Pulitzer Prize—Robert Bruce wrote a big, fat biography of Bell. He actually cast the version that Gray might have cribbed his ideas from Bell. You know, then I am thinking that, well, see maybe I've got it backwards. But the more I looked into it, I didn't have a backward thought, and I'm able to kind of sort that out, and once I found a few more sort of clues on the trail, I really got hooked in. It was so at odds with the history that I had learned as a kid and that everyone knows, I thought, you know what, I'm just going to really try and get to the bottom of this thing; and it turned out that even though I'm something of a novice at this kind of archival research, I was there at M.I.T. with a lot of really eminent historians of science and technology who helped me out quite a bit and I was able to go to a lot of archives and really find an unbelievable wealth of information about this.

Steve: I remember seeing the movie about Bell with Don Ameche.

Shulman: Right.

Steve: And there's no movie about Elisha Gray.

Shulman: No, there is not, there is not. And you know, that's a fun part of the book too, because it was much harder to find out. Bell wrote down everything and one of the great things that—there is a lot of fun for people, if they do read the book, [in reading Bell's papers—and most of the really key primary documents that I use in the book are available online from the Library of Congress, in high resolution digital form, which is a fabulous resource. It was fabulous for me and could be a lot of fun for people who get involved in the story themselves, because you can actually pull up the copies of the letters in Bell's own hand from the, you know, straight from the Web, and it really helps to bring the history alive.

Steve: And you can do that over your DSL line.

Shulman: Yes, you can, right, which is of course a descendant of the technology that Bell himself pioneered. So, that's fun. Now meanwhile, Elisha Gray, you got to go into, you know, look at musty papers for the most part, and one of the great things about this story is that this question of, you know, how is [it] that Gray, when Bell introduced the telephone, how is that Gray didn't recognize it as his own invention, and why didn't he raise a stink about it?

Or did he? And what he did he do about it? And there's a great moment, one of the very first times, when Bell is introducing the telephone to the world and said this at [the] Philadelphia [Exhibition] Expedition of 1876, which is this World's Fair, [this in]credible event, and there the [is a] panel of judges that's going to decide the most amazing invention of the event, and there are actually a lot. This was of course the golden age of invention; there are all sorts of things happening. But who's on the panel? But None other than Elisha Gray. So you have a situation where Gray is actually passing judgment. Bell has to demonstrate his device to a panel that includes the guy who he plagiarized the whole transmitter idea from. And so there's a lot a tension there, and it's there in Bell's letters, the trepidation that he felt before that, and it's pretty amazing how he was able to get away with it; and that's, sort of, part of the interesting thing—another one of the parts that I was able to unravel a bit.

Steve: Well, we'll make people actually read the book to find out how he got away with it.

Shulman: Okay, good.

Steve: Let me ask you about, let's say, a couple of good things about Bell. He was a really gifted inventor and a real scientist and kind of, a visionary, in a lot of ways. You talk in the book about how later in his life, he got involved in biological experiments with sheep breeding; and also he was worried about the greenhouse effect more than a century ago.

Shulman: That's right. Now he had an incredible life: you know, one of the founders of Science Magazine, the head of National Geographic for a while, also invented all sorts of things, played an incredibly key role in the invention of the airplane. He was crazy for flight, and this is one of the first ways that I had known about him because I wrote a previous book about early aviation in America, called Unlocking the Sky. And Bell played an incredible role, because he was that much older, but he amassed a team of young people, who actually won the Scientific American prize for the first public flight in America, beating out the Wright Brothers, who had invented the plane, but had yet to publicly demonstrate it. So, it was Bell's team that actually took that prize.

Steve: So this was, Scientific American, sort of, had the X PRIZE of the day.

Shulman: Yes, they did.

Steve: When was this? In the 19 odds?

Shulman: Yes, 1908, and yeah, you know, Scientific American quietly wrote to the Wright Brothers and said, "You know, we've got this team—Bell's team—wanting to come in and demonstrate a plane, and we've heard that you have a, you know, that you are working on something, you want to do it and demonstrate; there's a prize on[for] that", and the Wright Brothers at that time were, well, they were an odd set of brothers, and they basically were very worried about regaining control of the airplanes. So they weren't ready to show it to anybody; they already had a strong patent on the airplane but they were in negotiation trying to sell rights to government. The U.S. wasn't really buying but, you know, so they were tied up with their own idea of how to bring this technology out, and it [had] gone on for years, and they still had not demonstrated it. And meanwhile, Bell's team, which included a guy named Glenn Curtiss, came up with an airplane that had many of the modern features that we take into account today, including tricycle landing gear, and it had a more modern form of control on the wings and ended up with top honors from Scientific American. They sent out a team to upstate New York and witnessed the fly[flight]; you had to fly for more than a kilometer, and they did it.

Steve: And later on you find the engineering from Curtiss, right?

Shulman: Well, that's right, and the Wright brothers' bankrupted twice, and you know there was the long patent battle, but ultimately at the very end, Curtiss was able to buy them out. He just made a better airplane from the start, and again Alexander Graham Bell played a key role in bankrolling that research and also serving as the, you know, as a sort of guiding light. So he was certainly a talented guy and a visionary. And there is the other thing to remember about this telephone story is that it at all happened when Bell was still in his 20s; the telephone was invented when he was 29 years old. So he was a very young man at this time; and then an interesting thing about the story I think is that it shed the whole different light on a lot of the things that happened to him afterwards, I believe. You know one thing is that all the biographers know that he never had anything to do with the business side of the telephone company that bore his name; and people usually say, "Oh, well, you know he did not have a head for business," but I think there is a lot more to it. A really interesting thing that has never been explored quite so much is that, in a very unusual move for the time, he ended up giving all his shares of the telephone company—he is the [third]3rd owner of the company with his financial backers—and after all this transpires and he marries his young wife, and he gives all the proceeds of the telephone rights come over to her name, which is just about never done in that period. He just washes his hands off the telephone company. So, I think there is a very interesting tension, because so much of his fame and status in the scientific and technological community of his day was due to the invention of the telephone, and he certainly profited from that, and really liked it, demonstrating the telephone to the Queen and winning prizes and honorary degrees, but I am sure they[there] must have been some guilt and remorse in there too, and I think it shows up in a lot of things that transpired in his later life.

Steve: It is really interesting detective story and a sort of psychological evaluation both of him and of yourself, in the course of unraveling this. The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell's Secret by Seth Shulman; Seth good to talk to you today; thanks.

Shulman: Well, thank you Steve.

For more on The Telephone Gambit and Seth's other books, go to his Web site:

Now it is time to play TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: A NASA spacecraft will come within about 200 kilometers of the planet Mercury this week.

Story number 2: A new study finds that violent crimes increase after a new violent movie comes out.

Story number 3: The cognitive impairment associated with sleep deprivation was completely corrected in monkeys with a nasal spray of a brain chemical involved in sleep regulation.

And story number 4: 45 percent of doctors in a survey admitted that they sometimes prescribe placebos to patients.

Time is up.

Story number 1 is true. The Messenger spacecraft is flying by Mercury this week. A course correction scheduled for January 10th isn't even necessary. The flyby will capture images of Mercury never before seen. The flyby also will provide the gravity assist necessary to put Messenger in orbit around Mercury in March of 2011.

Story number 4 is true. Forty-five percent of 231 internists surveyed said they knowingly on occasion prescribe placebos figuring that since there is a placebo effect maybe it can be taken advantage of. For more, check out the January 4th episode of the daily SciAm podcast, 60-Second Science.

And story number 3 is true. Sleep-deprived monkeys given a peptide called orexin A had their cognitive skills improved to normal even after staying awake for up to 36 hours. Military personnel, on-call physicians and, of course, cramming undergraduates are potential beneficiaries of the research, which was published in The Journal of Neuroscience.

All of which means that Story number 2, about a study showing that violent crimes increase when a new violent movie comes out is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Because a study presented last week at a meeting of the American Economic Association found that violent movies seem to actually decrease crime rates, probably because those prone to violence are sitting in a movie theater enjoying depictions of violence rather than contributing to mayhem.

Well that's it for this edition of the weekly SciAm podcast. You can write to us at and check out numerous features at the new Web site, including the top stories, the Hot Topics section and the fascinating features: Strange but True. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

Long long distance love affair/I can't find you anywhere/
I call you on the telephone/but you're never home/
I gotta get a message to you/
I wanna tell you what I am going through...

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