Controversy Who Really Invented the Telephone Part 4 Arguments

About the controversy over who really invented the telephone, arguments for Bell and Reis.

WHO REALLY INVENTED THE TELEPHONE?

THE CONTROVERSY

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, intelligible sound of the human voice? Until there was some mutual agreement on what the device was and what it should do, the question of priority could hardly be settled.

PRO BELL

So crowded was the field of claimants to priority that the Bell company met more than 600 lawsuits for patent infringement between 1876 and 1893--and successfully resisted them all. Bell's legal problems mainly resulted from that three-day gap between the grant of his patent and actual operation of the device. Yet, even as sketchy and tentative as his patent description was, it was enough to establish his clear legal priority.

"A century of Reis would never have produced a speaking telephone by mere improvement in construction," ruled Judge Lowell of the U.S. Circuit Court of Massachusetts in 1881. While Reis, according to the decision, was undoubtedly "a man of learning and ingenuity," his instrument's "deficiency was inherent in the principle of the machine . . . articulate speech could not be sent and received." A later courtroom demonstration of the Reis telephone succeeded only in producing squeaks. "It can speak, but it won't," insisted a thoroughly frustrated lawyer.

Reis himself had never claimed his own priority. Even most of his supporters were forced to concede, in the end, that he had only come as close as anyone could to inventing the telephone without actually doing so.

PRO REIS

"From a purely technical standpoint," wrote J. Edward Hyde in The Phone Book (1976), "the telephone was born at the instant Reis first threw the switch, for his apparatus was able to receive and transmit sound--which is all a telephone is able to do."

By some accounts, Bell knew of Reis's work and had credited the German inventor for some of his own ideas. Even as late as 1900, however, Bell was accused of stealing from Reis and cheating him out of his "claim." The U.S. government brought one lawsuit against Bell for "claiming the invention of something already widely known to exist in the form of the Reis 'telephone' and also with somehow concealing the existence of the latter from the Patent Office's expert examiner in that field."

More recently, Judge Lowell's 1881 conclusion about the potential of the Reis telephone has met with scientific disagreement. Bernard S. Finn, curator of the Division of Electricity at the Smithsonian Museum of History and Technology, experimented with Reis models and concluded that small changes--"the turn of a screw"--plus a correct description of the device would have given Reis the edge over Bell's patent. Modern tests on Reis telephones under controlled conditions indicated that they could indeed transmit articulate, though spasmodic, speech.

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