The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell's Secret
By Seth Shulman W.W. Norton, 256 pp., $24.95
History is often a collection of agreed-upon myths. The historian's role is to ask tough questions and doggedly follow the evidence. Seth Shulman provides a stellar example of historical investigation at its probing best. As a scholar at MIT's Dibner Institute, Shulman challenged one of the greatest "eureka" moments of scientific history.
Alexander Graham Bell supposedly invented the telephone on March 10, 1876, in Boston, where he spoke into the device and asked his assistant Watson to "come here." Bell patented his revolutionary invention and became wealthy. Shulman discovers a far different story, one filled with cut-throat competition, corruption, drama, and historical cover-up. "I marveled that the truth seemed so at odds with received history," he says.
Bell's rival Elisha Gray had made a critical breakthrough about transmitting voices over a wire. Gray found that immersing the wire in water allowed sound to transmit more easily. Before February 1876, Bell had never even considered this, notes Shulman. Bell and Gray had made their patent filings on the same day (Feb. 14, 1876), but only Gray's patent involved an immersed wire.
Shulman meticulously examined Bell's lab notebook. Just two days before Bell's March 10 "eureka" moment, Bell had sketched Gray's "wire immersed in water" design into his own notebook, adopting the radical new idea for the first time. Shocked, Shulman traveled to the US Patent Office and found that Bell's new design was amazingly similar to Gray's Feb. 14 patent filing. Moreover, Shulman discovered that Bell had earlier visited the US Patent Office, where Gray's filing was supposedly kept confidential. Had Bell somehow stolen Gray's idea?
"Unless I was somehow mistaken," writes Shulman, "Bell must have returned to his lab . . . dropped his prior line of inquiry, and drawn an almost perfect replica of his competitor's invention." Shulman was initially hesitant to challenge convention: "How could a journalist hope to set straight such a high-profile historical record?" Yet Shulman kept digging, consulting with his MIT colleagues and chasing down every lead.
Shulman finds a motive. Bell had fallen in love with his business partner's daughter. Bell's partner, Gardiner Hubbard, was a leading patent attorney who lived lavishly on Cambridge's Brattle Street. When Bell described his scientific research to Hubbard, the patent attorney was transfixed and soon put all his resources behind Bell's work. It was Hubbard who arranged the filing of Bell's patent, and Hubbard who helped make sure the US Patent Office gave every advantage to Bell. Shulman's research leads him to conclude that Hubbard was tipped off about Gray's plans, and that he had Bell's patent filing "fast-tracked."
Shulman describes Bell's Feb. 14 patent filing as "brazen in its irregularity." Although Gray had likely filed earlier in the day, Hubbard ensured that patent officials considered Bell's filing first. Shulman also shows evidence, including a letter from Bell to Gray, that Bell had knowledge of the contents of Gray's patent filing before Bell's March 10 breakthrough. After tireless archival research, Shulman then discovers what he calls a "smoking gun": an 1886 sworn affidavit from a patent examiner who admits that he violated US Patent Office rules by showing Gray's patent filing to Bell on Feb. 26. One of Bell's patent attorneys, Shulman explains, had served in the Civil War with this patent examiner and knew him well.
For years, notes Shulman, historians have wondered why Bell stepped back from making "his" new invention commercially viable. Bell even moved to a remote part of Canada to escape lingering legal questions about his patent. To Shulman, Bell's subsequent reclusiveness makes perfect sense. "[I]f I learned anything," writes Shulman of his fascinating detective work, "it is that history needs to be constantly challenged and interrogated."
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.