After an American named C. G. Page discovered the principle of electronic sound transmission in 1837. dozens of scientists, electricians, and people in general became intrigued with its theoretical applications. If sounds could be carried by manipulations of a magnet over a wire, then why not intelligible sounds? Telegraph wires could carry Morse code by 1844; why could they not carry musical notes or speech?
ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL
Bell’s lifelong interest in communications was inspired by his father, a speech authority and teacher in Edinburgh, Scotland. The father’s specialty was acoustics and the problems of teaching speech to the deaf. When the son travelled to America in 1871, he knew much about the human voice and ear but hardly anything about wires and magnets.
Neither a mechanical technician nor an electronics expert, he concentrated upon perfecting the sign-language technique developed by his father. He soon began to search for applications of electricity to sound production. His harmonic telegraph, patented in 1875, carried a range of sounds by means of tuned reeds, and he believed that successful voice transmission could be achieved by adaptation and perfection of this instrument.
What proved to be the most valuable patent ever issued—in 1876—was actually a concise description of Bell’s “Improvement in Telegraphy,” a six-page list of ways to transmit an undulating electric current by means of his harmonic telegraph. His claims that the transmitter could also be activated “by the human voice” and that “a similar sound to that uttered” could be received came almost as a postscript. Only the last of his seven drawings pictured his design for the telephone, a device “for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically.”
And not until three days after his patent was granted did the fragile device actually work. The first telephone message —”Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.”— was also the first emergency call, uttered when Bell spilled battery acid on his trousers. Three months later. Bell gave a successful public demonstration of the instrument in Philadelphia.
JOHANN PHILIPP REIS
A professor at the University of Frankfurt, Reis publicly demonstrated his telephone before scientists of the Physical Society of Frankfurt in 1861. Reis tried to copy the design of the human ear, using items that almost constituted German national stereotypes. A hollowed cork from a beer barrel served as mouthpiece; the diaphragm was a sausage skin stretched over the cork; and the resonator was a violin case. A wired knitting needle and an acid-cell battery to provide an intermittent electrical current completed the apparatus, which could receive and transmit sounds at either the diaphragm or the violin end.
Over a 100-metre line between the demonstration room and a hospital, listeners Heard verses of songs and claimed to recognize the melodies, though they couldn’t get the words. Yet the objects successfully transmitted sound pitch, if not quality. Also, Reis’s sausage skin was the first electrically activated diaphragm. Thus he was widely credited in Europe and elsewhere as the inventor of the telephone.
Through modesty or physical and financial inability, however, he never commercialized or upheld his priority. He died at 40, two years before Bell’s 1876 patent. At about the same time as Bell’s first transmission, however, The New York Times expressed the general European consensus by crediting the “remarkable instrument” called “the Telephone” to Johann Philipp Reis.
The basic dispute over the priority of invention involved a matter of definition. Was the telephone merely an instrument for sending and receiving sound? Or, as Bell maintained, was it for sending and receiving the particular, inteligible sound of the human voice?
The Bell company met more than 600 lawsuits for patent infringement between 1876 and 1893, and successfully resisted them all.
An impoverished Italian-born candlemaker and brewer. Meucci claimed that he had invented a telephone as early as 1857, consisting of “a vibrating diaphragm and an electrified magnet attachment attached to a coil. Vibration of the diaphragm alters the current in the magnet and these alterations in current are transmitted along a wire, causing analogous vibrations in the receiving diaphragm at the other end of the wire and so reproducing the message.”
With his device, he said, he had talked with his invalid wife from the basement to the third floor of his house in Havana. Cuba. He managed to file a provisional patent in 1871 but never publicly demonstrated his telephone. His description indicates that it may have been capable of transmitting articulate, though distorted, speech.
After close inspection of Meucci’s telephone, the courts ruled that the candlemaker, as one of Bell’s numerous challengers, had achieved no practical results. But the Encyclopedia Italiana listed him as “inventor of the telephone.”
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