More than three decades after the idea of a telephone was first considered by Innocenzo Manzetti, two Americans rushed to the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) on February 14, 1876 to claim credit for the world-changing invention. On this day, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patent application entitled “Improvement in Telegraphy” was filed at the USPTO by Bell’s attorney Marcellus Bailey; Elisha Gray’s attorney filed a caveat for a telephone just a few hours later entitled “Transmitting Vocal Sounds Telegraphically”. A patent caveat was a type of preliminary application for a patent that gave an inventor an additional ninety days grace to file a regular patent application. The caveat would prevent anyone else that filed an application on the same or similar invention from having their application processed for ninety days, while the caveat holder was given an opportunity to file a full patent application first.
Alexander Graham Bell was the fifth entry of that day, while Elisha Gray was 39th. On the basis of its earlier filing time — a mere few hours — and on the subtle distinctions between a caveat and an actual patent application, the U.S. Patent Office awarded Alexander Bell, not Elisha Gray, the patent for the telephone. In March 1877, Bell wrote to Gray that he had knowledge of the competing design. Filings at the USPTO were deemed confidential until testing was complete, meaning Bell must have secured his knowledge illegally. In 1878, lengthy patent litigation involving the Bell Telephone Company against Western Union Telegraph Company and Elisha Gray began. Year later, Bell said during a court proceeding he talked “in a general way” with a patent examiner about Gray’s design, which allowed him to learn it “had something to do with the vibration of a wire in water.”
Elisha Gray, though missed telephone patent, was granted over seventy patents for his inventions, including many important innovations in electricity. In 1872, Gray founded the Western Electric Manufacturing Company, the great-grandparent of todays Lucent Technologies.
Alexander Graham Bell was the son and grandson of authorities in elocution and the correction of speech. Educated to pursue a career in the same specialty, his knowledge of the nature of sound led him not only to teach the deaf, but also to invent the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell’s success with the telephone came as a direct result of his attempts to improve the telegraph. When Bell began experimenting with electrical signals, the telegraph had been an established means of communication for some 30 years. Although a highly successful system, the telegraph, with its dot-and-dash Morse code, was basically limited to receiving and sending one message at a time. Bell’s extensive knowledge of the nature of sound and his understanding of music enabled him to conjecture the possibility of transmitting multiple messages over the same wire at the same time. He and Thomas Watson, a young electrician whose services he had enlisted, were also exploring an idea that had occurred to him in 1874 – that of developing a device that would transmit speech electrically.
By June 1875 the goal of creating a device that would transmit speech electrically was about to be realized. They had proven that different tones would vary the strength of an electric current in a wire. To achieve success they therefore needed only to build a working transmitter with a membrane capable of varying electronic currents and a receiver that would reproduce these variations in audible frequencies. On June 2, 1875, Alexander Graham Bell while experimenting with his technique called “harmonic telegraph” discovered he could hear sound over a wire. The sound was that of a twanging clock spring.
Bell’s greatest success was achieved on March 10, 1876, marked not only the birth of the telephone but the death of the multiple telegraph as well. The communications potential contained in his demonstration of being able to “talk with electricity” far outweighed anything that simply increasing the capability of a dot-and-dash system could imply. Alexander Graham Bell’s notebook entry of 10 March 1876 describes his successful experiment with the telephone. Speaking through the instrument to his assistant, Thomas A. Watson, in the next room, Bell utters these famous first words, “Mr. Watson — come here — I want to see you.”