Disclaimer: This is rehashed from an article I wrote in April 2017 for GineersNow. Some parts are added or edited for clarity.
Who invented the telephone?
The first person that comes into mind, as taught by our science teachers when we studied inventors and scientists in grade school, is Alexander Graham Bell. But it appears that we were all wrong the entire time.
Bell being the inventor of the telephone has been debunked in 2002 when the US Congress casted a vote and ruled out that it was an impoverished, little-known mechanical genius Antonio Meucci who developed the first telephone rather than Bell.
In a resolution by the House of the Representatives, it stated, “It is the sense of the House of Representatives that the life and achievements of Antonio Meucci should be recognized, and his work in the invention of the telephone should be acknowledged.”
Historians and Italian-Americans fought this battle for the truth against the Scot who they painted as a fraud, saying that he found fortune and fame from another man’s work. While Bell was indeed a gifted technician, he should never be attributed as the inventor of the telephone because it was not his device, but of Meucci’s.
Meucci called the first telephone as the ‘electrophone’. He began testing primitive telephones while working in Florence as a theater technician.
But due to circumstances revolving around politics, he and his wife Ester were arrested and expelled by the Tuscan State, forcing them to move in Cuba and later in the US.
With sheer bad luck for having his savings going to fraudulent debtors, Meucci had to work with whatever little he had to work on making voice communication across vast distances possible.
In 1871, which is five years before Bell applied for a telephone patent, Meucci filed a one-year renewable notice of an impending patent on his ‘talking telegraph’. This is different from the full patent which costs US$250, which is an amount he could not afford. Three years later, he could not even pay for the $10 to renew the patent caveat.
His series of unfortunate events did not end there. Months after he filed the impending patent, he got into an accident while aboard the Staten Island Ferry. A boiler exploded causing 125 casualties and hundreds more with injuries. Meucci, while recovering from his burns, found that his wife had sold the content of his lab, including the telephone, for only US$6 to spend for medications.
Determined about his dream, Meucci took to his notebooks containing his experiments and made a prototype of a telephone. He sent the device and some notes to the Western Union telegraph company, which executives were friends and colleagues of Bell.
Meucci was supposed to meet with Western Union but failed, and later claimed that the company has lost the items he had given them. Only two years later that, Bell filed the patent and set up a company with Western Union.
The telephone inventor found out about it and chased after Bell in court by suing him. For a while, the case filed by the Italian immigrant gathered public sympathy but the judge ruled in favor of Bell, perhaps because of Bell’s power as a skilled businessman and partly of social injustice.
Unfortunately for Meucci, he died in 1889 without being able to appeal.
It was only in 2002 that Meucci got the justice he deserved, thanks to historians and Italian-Americans who continued his legal battle. The US Congress found in 2002 that Meucci had indeed tested a telephone in 1860 and that Bell had had access to his material.