Telephone patent controversy rings a bell

Quick — Who invented the telephone? Alexander Graham Bell, right? It might surprise many to learn this could actually be wrong.

In Seth Shulman’s “The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret,” readers will find a story of intrigue worthy of James Patterson.

Every grade-schooler knows that Bell invented the telephone, and so too believed Shulman as he began a year-long sabbatical as a science writer in residence at MIT.

Shulman, a science and technology journalist, began working on a project about Bell and Thomas Alva Edison and their remarkable and sometimes similar lives, but quickly found himself on the trail of a far more compelling story.

While poring over Bell’s meticulously kept laboratory notebooks, Shulman read the entry relating to what we know as the famous “Watson — come here!” event. The page contained a schematic of a transmitting device containing a paper diaphragm with a needle poking through it into a small reservoir of acid to complete an electrical circuit.

This detail might not have seemed all that noteworthy, given the momentous conclusion of the events, except that Bell appeared to have pulled this line of thinking for his invention out of thin air.

Indeed, Bell wasn’t even really working on a device to transmit voice, but an upgrade in the telegraph that would be capable of sending and receiving messages simultaneously.

Bell’s notes were excruciatingly detailed and methodical, writes Shulman, and nowhere prior to the entry on March 8, 1876, did Bell make any reference to any liquid transmitter.

Shulman thought it odd and decided to look into it further.

Elisha Gray, an electrical researcher and one-day head of Western Electric, had filed what was then known as a caveat with the U.S. patent office for the telephone on the same day Bell filed for his patent — Feb. 14, 1876.

A caveat was sort of a temporary patent allowing an inventor one year to create a working example of his invention, effectively blocking any other filing for the same device or concept.

If you noticed something interesting about the dates of the famous “first telephone call” and the filing, you’re not the only one.

Shulman unearthed Gray’s caveat from MIT’s Dibner Institute — and lo and behold! — there was a drawing of virtually the same schematic that had appeared in Bell’s notebook, only Gray’s was weeks earlier.

“I was dumbfounded,” writes Shulman. “Could Bell have committed such a blatant act of plagiarism?”

Shulman crosses the globe teasing apart layers of assumptions and history — including possible coercion, lies, deceit and long court battles — to find out exactly what happened with what has been called the most lucrative patent in history.

While Shulman’s evidence is largely circumstantial, it is frightfully compelling nonetheless.

Today’s patenting process is under intense scrutiny for almost the very same reason as the Bell/Gray telephone patent — granting patents to the first to file as opposed to the first to invent — making “The Telephone Gambit” exceedingly relevant. And since much of the book recounts events that took place literally just down the road from New Hampshire in Boston, its setting couldn’t be more impactful.

“History is messy,” said Shulman, “and delving deeper doesn’t necessarily make it come much clearer.”

So did Bell steal Gray’s idea, perpetrating the biggest infringement in history? Like many fundamentally perplexing questions, you’ll have to read the book and decide for yourself.

But when you do, “Can you hear me now?” takes on a whole new meaning when one wonders just who “me” was.