The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret

Telephone%20gambitby Seth Shulman

I thank Dennis Crouch for letting me tell Patently-O readers directly about my latest book, The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret out this week from W.W. Norton.

The book recounts my experience, while working for a year as a fellow at MIT’s Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology, of stumbling upon evidence that reveals a twisted mystery surrounding Alexander Graham Bell’s role in the invention of the telephone. Working from Bell’s laboratory notebooks and his voluminous correspondence, I soon found myself caught up in the surprising story behind the invention of the telephone: a tale of romance, unchecked ambition—and corruption at the U.S. Patent Office.

In the book, I try to capture the feel of the rich and exciting time in which Bell lived at the second half of the 1800s. This was, after all, one of the true golden ages of invention. As Thomas Hughes notes in his classic historical work American Genesis, the number of U.S. patents issued each year during this period rose astronomically. Consider, for instance, that the U.S. Patent office issued 688 patents in 1846 but, by 1890 was issuing more than 26,000 annually. Talk about dramatic technological change!

The rapid technological change emerging in a Victorian, horse-and-carriage era serves as the backdrop for my tale, but the focus of the book is tight: I wrote it as a kind of a nonfiction detective story, recounting my own story of becoming relatively obsessed with chasing down clues about Bell’s life and times in rare archives and artifact collections around the world to unravel the surprising and long-hidden truth about him.

In the course of my research, I unearth a “smoking gun” that leaves little doubt that Bell furtively—and illegally—plagiarized his initial telephone design from his major competitor, Elisha Gray in his quest to secure what would become the most valuable U.S. patent ever issued. It is shown below. The sketch circled at the right appears in Alexander Graham Bell’s notebook on March 8, 1876, two days before his famous success calling to Watson in the next room. The circled inset on the left is a confidential patent filing (then called a caveat) rival inventor Elisha Gray had made at the U.S. Patent Office three weeks earlier.

Bell.Smoking.Gun

This is not the denouement of the story, but rather its start. When I discovered this connection, I decided to go back to all the primary documents to learn what I could about how Gray’s elegant and successful liquid transmitter design for the telephone could have ended up in Bell’s laboratory notebook. I wanted to know whether it could possibly be true that Bell plagiarized the telephone, how he could have gotten away with it, why Gray wouldn’t have contested his claim, and why we remember history the way we do. I shed light on all these questions as the story unfolds.

Reviews are just starting to come in and they mostly very gratifying. Barnes & Noble Review just wrote “It’ll be stacked in the science shelves, but The Telephone Gambit might be an early contender for best thriller of the year…Shulman pulls it off, producing a book that’s rigorous, provocative, and, like any thriller worth its salt, a blast to read.” I hope the many readers of this site with expertise in patenting will give the book a look and feel free to share their perspective about the story with me via my website www.sethshulman.com.  

19 thoughts on “The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret

  1. Unlike the bulk of the posters above, I’ve actually read Mr. Shulman’s book and found it both engrossing and convincing. His research is well documented and he has reached logical conclusions based on his findings. Most importantly, the book does not castigate Bell as an evil captain of industry; quite the contrary. It simply gives us a clearer picture of an earnest, intelligent and visionary young man caught up in circumstances that made doing the wrong thing an all too attractive option.

  2. DC Lawyer,

    Are you saying that you believe Bell was the first inventor before Gray? This wasn’t news when Seth posted it. I thought his thesis was generally accepted today.

  3. For anyone interested, this book was reviewed by another Bell biographer and a physicist who has written about old phones, and they relate how Mr. Shulman’s central thesis is based on obviously fraudulent documents that were rejected by courts nearly 100 years ago. See the Spring/Summer issue of American Heritage magazine.

  4. I would just like to say, as a person well read on Mr. Bell and his legacy, who just read Mr. Shulmans book, I was impressed with his ability to create such fiction from grasping at straws. Yes there was controversy surrounding the patent, 600 + lawsuits all won by Bell and his associates prove that and without building a time machine we will likely never know beyond a reasonable doubt who filed the claim first. My problem with the novel is that the author put little research into Mr. Bell himself or so it would appear. Did he visit either of the sites dedicated to Bell in Canada which clearly portray Bell’s legacy? Did he research his theory that Bell lived a life of gulit and shame? This seems ludacris to me, every other book, interviews with his closest family, friends and colleagues indicate otherwise. Also his theory that Mr. Bell went into seculsion in Cape Breton is quite farfetched. Mr. Bell fell in love with the island which reminded him of his childhood in Scotland. He spent a great deal of time there because it allowed him to experiment in peace without the constant media pressure he saw in Washington. None of Mr. Bell’s experimenting was secretive, he did it all in plain sight, how exactly does that constitute hiding out? The final point I will contradict (there are many others but I feel I am getting too long-winded) is that the author all but states that Mr. Bell’s love of and dedication to working with the deaf was a convienient coverup for having stolen Grays idea. Where did you ever get this idea? Mr. Bell worked with the deaf for years before he invented the telephone, it was a personal cause as both his mother and wife were afflicted. His father and grandfather were teachers of the deaf and he grew up wanting to help advance deaf socialization. That is afterall how he came to create the telephone. He was first and foremost a teacher of the deaf. The business world was not his fortay. He was an inventor on the side, when he saw a problem he searched for a solution. Many inventors work on things simultaneously, and that is what occured here. You are reading too much into facts and are only writing about what suits your opinion. Based on your novel you appear to have made your mind up on the controversy long before writing the story.

  5. I would just like to say, as a person well read on Mr. Bell and his legacy, who just read Mr. Shulmans book, I was impressed with his ability to create such fiction from grasping at straws. Yes there was controversy surrounding the patent, 600 + lawsuits all won by Bell and his associates prove that and without building a time machine we will likely never know beyond a reasonable doubt who filed the claim first. My problem with the novel is that the author put little research into Mr. Bell himself or so it would appear. Did he visit either of the sites dedicated to Bell in Canada which clearly portray Bell’s legacy? Did he research his theory that Bell lived a life of gulit and shame? This seems ludacris to me, every other book, interviews with his closest family, friends and colleagues indicate otherwise. Also his theory that Mr. Bell went into seculsion in Cape Breton is quite farfetched. Mr. Bell fell in love with the island which reminded him of his childhood in Scotland. He spent a great deal of time there because it allowed him to experiment in peace without the constant media pressure he saw in Washington. None of Mr. Bell’s experimenting was secretive, he did it all in plain sight, how exactly does that constitute hiding out? The final point I will contradict (there are many others but I feel I am getting too long-winded) is that the author all but states that Mr. Bell’s love of and dedication to working with the deaf was a convienient coverup for having stolen Grays idea. Where did you ever get this idea? Mr. Bell worked with the deaf for years before he invented the telephone, it was a personal cause as both his mother and wife were afflicted. His father and grandfather were teachers of the deaf and he grew up wanting to help advance deaf socialization. That is afterall how he came to create the telephone. He was first and foremost a teacher of the deaf. The business world was not his fortay. He was an inventor on the side, when he saw a problem he searched for a solution. Many inventors work on things simultaneously, and that is what occured here. You are reading too much into facts and are only writing about what suits your opinion. Based on your novel you appear to have made your mind up on the controversy long before writing the story.

  6. Doubtless there’s more to the argument than the diagrams reproduced here, but I for one don’t see any smoking gun. Yeah, both have boxes you talk into and wires leading out from them — hardly surprising in a telephone — but that’s about it for similarities in the diagrams.

  7. I also have not read Mr. Schulman’s book. But whenever someone reports something controversial (be it the Kennedy assassination, anthropogenic climate change, or how broken the patent system is), just consider that the authors can never really be considered to be unbiased. Only by there being a controversy do such authors have anything to write about (or get funding for).

    Finding out that Bell DID invent the telephone would hardly be worth a book deal.

  8. The patent system is not broken, and those who thinks it is need to get a dose of reality. It is true that submarine patent practice was allowed to go on too long, and in the current fast moving innovation environment patent terms may be too long, but there is no over-arching problem with the system.

  9. Regardless of the quality of the book (I probably won’t read it, for lack of time), let’s remember that Seth Shulman was one of the most vocal advocates of the “the patent system is broken, because I say so — and it’s your fault” drivel a few years ago.

  10. Here’s another good invention/industrial story:
    “Empires of Light”
    link to amazon.com

    Perhaps some of the law students around here should bone up on a little industrial/invention history before swallowing the valley’s the “sky is falling” – the patent system is broken PR spin.

  11. Mr. Schulman’s book sounds very interesting. The Bell patent, however, is no stranger to controversy. There was/is quite a bit of controversy concerning the Bell patent and prior developments made by Antonio Meucii. I wonder if Mr. Schulman addresses the Meucii controversy in his book.

  12. Slippery slope, Dennis. Given the content of this blog and its readership, I’d be surprised if anyone here _doesn’t_ know of the murky surroundings of Bell’s patent. Next thing you know, you’ll let Malcolm advertise his memoirs here… ;-)

  13. see also

    ‘The Telephone Patent Conspiracy’, by American academic A Edward Evenson, suggests the story is somewhat murkier than was once thought.

  14. In a quick response to the first commenter, let me say this: my admiration for Bell (evident in my earlier book Unlocking the Sky) is what led me to do this research in the first place and this new book tries to present both Bell’s genius as a visionary as well offering an unvarnished portrayal of what he actually accomplished in his telephone research. It is also true that Bell’s claim to the telephone has been controversial almost from the start. I’m not the first to raise questions, but I think readers will find quite a few blanks may be filled in based on my research. As for the Wright Brothers, my beef is with the unfortunate way they handled their broad patent on the airplane in aviation’s first decade–a piece of their story that is not often told. But perhaps that’s a conversation for another day.

  15. And even now, years later, the D. Delaware issues a Markman ruling interpreting the claim term “telephone call.” In Nice Sys. v. Witness Sys., (D.Del. 12/7/2007), the terms were ruled to mean “the entire conversation between a business entity and a caller to that entity, including transfers and conferences.”

  16. Not to dismiss Mr. Shulman’s “scoop”, but I am quite certain that I heard the story about the PTO leak before, and this on a Discovery Channel documentary…

    BTW, this revelation stands somewhat in conflict with the angelic portrait of Bell that Mr. Shulman made in “Unlocking the Skies”, a book that was moreover profoundly unfair with the Wright Brothers, and dismissive of their achievements, which Mr. Shulman clearly did not understand from a technical standpoint.

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