Hang on a minute

Is it possible the inventor of the telephone was a cheater? Author Shulman makes such a case.

Email|Print| Text size + By David Mehegan
Globe Staff / January 2, 2008

CAMBRIDGE - "Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you!" That's the most famous telephone call in history, made in Boston on March 10, 1876, by Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. At least, that's the story. But what if it didn't happen that way? What if Bell was at least partly a fraud?

That question dogged Seth Shulman, a Northampton-based science journalist. While researching the relationship between Bell and Thomas A. Edison, Shulman stumbled on a drawing in Bell's notebooks that led him to the startling thesis at the heart of his new book, "The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell's Secret." If Shulman is right, Bell stole a key schematic drawing from a competitor and covered his own tracks for the rest of his life.

"It was so at odds with accepted history," Shulman said in an interview, "that I didn't know what to do about it. I thought, 'I must be wrong.' "

In the legendary story, Bell and his trusty assistant, Thomas Watson, are working on the telephone at 5 Exeter Place (the site, off Chauncy Street, is marked by a bronze plaque on a building). Watson is in another room, at the end of the experimental line, when Bell accidentally spills sulphuric acid on his trousers and says, "Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you." Watson rushes in excitedly to tell Bell that he heard his words clearly through the receiver at the other end.

In reading Bell's notebooks during a 2004 fellowship at MIT, Shulman noticed that Bell had been working on various designs, with magnets and batteries, through February 1876. He went to Washington Feb. 26, returned March 7, and the next day started a new approach involving a platinum needle and dilute solution of sulphuric acid in a cup. Two days later the contraption worked.

Shulman wondered: Why did Bell suddenly drop his previous approaches after his Washington trip? He had gone to Washington to deal with a challenge to his patent for the telephone, which had been granted, despite lacking final design details, on Feb. 19. The challenge was in a confidential "caveat," a filing with the patent office, by the electrical engineer Elisha Gray that sketched Gray's own idea for a telephone. Bell's patent application and Gray's caveat (essentially a warning to other inventors that one is following a line of research) had been filed the same day, Feb. 14.

Bell's high-powered patent lawyer, hired by the inventor's wealthy Cambridge backer, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, contested Gray's caveat. The patent office ruled that Bell's application had reached the office first, hence the caveat was disallowed. That much has long been known. What struck Shulman after looking at Gray's caveat, and Bell's March 8 notebook entry, is that Bell's drawing of his proposed design, with needle and cup of acid, was almost exactly like Gray's, including the disembodied head speaking into the receiver. Though Shulman never found a true smoking gun, it appeared to him, after further digging, that Bell's lawyer had induced a patent clerk either to show him Gray's confidential document or describe it, and then the lawyer passed the information to Bell, who returned to Boston and put the purloined design to the test.

Armed with his evidence, it seemed to Shulman that other things made sense. For example, Bell never spoke or wrote publicly about exactly how he made his discovery. The story of the spilled acid was first told after Bell's death, by Watson in his 1926 autobiography, "Exploring Life," and Bell's notebook, with the incriminating drawing, was restricted by the Bell family until it was donated to the Library of Congress in 1976. Bell had almost nothing to do with the fast-growing company that bore his name and made him fabulously wealthy, and was always reluctant to testify in court during the patent challenges that followed in later years.

Means, opportunity. . .
Seth Shulman, 48, did not set out to drop a dime on Alexander Graham Bell. Born in New York, he grew up in Cambridge and graduated from Harvard in 1981, with a senior thesis in architecture. After a 1985 Knight science journalism fellowship at MIT, he became a full-time science journalist, contributing to the British journal Nature, Time, and many other magazines. He has written four previous books on science, including "Unlocking the Sky: Glenn Hammond Curtiss and the Race to Invent the Airplane."

In 2004, he won a fellowship at MIT's now-defunct Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology. When he discovered Bell's apparent act of plagiarism, he shrank from pursuing it at first, and encountered skepticism from some of the other fellows. Part of his hesitation came, he said, from his awareness of being the sole journalist "in with all these well-connected historians, graybeards, and emeritus professors, quite a group even for one who had been around scientists." Besides, he said, "most of what I knew about Bell I admired. The idea of knocking him down a peg was not something I wanted to do."

Shulman noticed that many of the other Dibner fellows were fans of mystery fiction, which got him thinking about history as a kind of detection. In the mysteries of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, it is always the towering intellect of Sherlock Holmes that solves the case. But as Shulman pursued the Bell story, he began to think of himself more in the American tradition of the detective as an ordinary person who becomes obsessed with a problem, goes down various blind alleys, feels constantly confused, wonders whether he or she is up to the task, but is too dogged to quit.

"I was like Columbo," he said. "I stumbled on this thing that was intriguing, and didn't really know what to do with it. I had my horse sense as a reporter, so I knew something was fishy. But there were a lot of things I had to do that I had never done before: the archival research, being very scrupulous with documents - it's very painstaking." Some of the other Dibner fellows helped and encouraged him.

In a sharp departure from his previous writings, Shulman is a character in his own book, revealing his nagging self-doubts and uncertainties as he pursues the facts. One such doubt was the question of motive.

. . . and motive
"I couldn't understand why Bell had done it," Shulman said. "He is always written about as this upstanding guy, an absolute paragon." As he studied the record, Shulman could see the enormous pressures Bell was under. He was a 29-year-old immigrant trying to make a name for himself as a teacher of speech to the deaf. He fell madly in love with the 16-year-old Mabel Hubbard, the deaf daughter of his rich investor, to whom he was giving speech lessons, and he needed desperately to succeed with his invention (and to thwart competitors) in order to secure fame, fantastic wealth, and the hand of the lovely Mabel. In the end, it all worked out.

"He was really a scrappy social climber," Shulman said. "He didn't have a lot of [scientific] training, was not really mechanically inclined, didn't know much about electricity. He knew about acoustics, but that was pretty sketchy knowledge. He had the experience of meeting [Mabel's] family, seeing how they lived. Once he gets to know them, they exert an enormous influence on him."

Angela von der Lippe, Shulman's editor at W.W. Norton, who has edited many science books, said she found the story "absolutely fascinating." "It's a technology story," she said, "but it also manages to probe the human underpinnings and motivations of science, how discoveries are made."

Shulman is on tenterhooks about reaction to his book from historians and scientists but has already received encouraging words from early readers.

"I thought it was very well done," said Leonard C. Bruno, manuscript specialist for science and technology in the Library of Congress, which has 147,000 Bell documents, many of them online. "He marshals an impressive amount of circumstantial evidence. He wanted to let the truth lead him wherever it would, which is what scholarship is all about."

David Mehegan can be reached at

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