Italia: felice centocinquantesimo compleanno!
And to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the founding of the state of Italy, I here pay homage to the inventor of the telephone.
No, not Alexander Graham Bell. Antonio Meucci.
Meucci lost the battle of the lawyers in the American courts, but there is considerable evidence that he invented what he originally called the “lover’s telegraph” years before Bell said, “Watson, come here. I want to see you.” And there is further evidence that Bell had access to Meucci’s models and helped himself to them.
The truth is, I once dismissed Meucci’s claim, like any other red-blooded Canadian, thinking it was a bit like those old Soviet assertions that Russians invented just about everything.
Then I made the mistake of mocking a close friend in Italy on the phone yesterday, who was, and remains, adamant on the subject. And I soon realized that our blasé acceptance of the Bell claim—one that had to be shored up by a Parliamentary motion, for goodness sake—is no less unthinkingly parochial. So in the spirit of solidarità I offer the case for Meucci on this historic day.
Here is a resolution passed by no less an authority than the US House of Representatives in 2002:
¶ 1Whereas Antonio Meucci, the great Italian inventor, had a career that was both extraordinary and tragic;
¶ 2 Whereas, upon immigrating to New York, Meucci continued to work with ceaseless vigor on a project he had begun in Havana, Cuba, an invention he later called the ”teletrofono”, involving electronic communications;
¶ 3 Whereas Meucci set up a rudimentary communications link in his Staten Island home that connected the basement with the first floor, and later, when his wife began to suffer from crippling arthritis, he created a permanent link between his lab and his wife’s second floor bedroom;
¶ 4 Whereas, having exhausted most of his life’s savings in pursuing his work, Meucci was unable to commercialize his invention, though he demonstrated his invention in 1860 and had a description of it published in New York’s Italian language newspaper;
¶ 5 Whereas Meucci never learned English well enough to navigate the complex American business community;
¶ 6 Whereas Meucci was unable to raise sufficient funds to pay his way through the patent application process, and thus had to settle for a caveat, a one year renewable notice of an impending patent, which was first filed on December 28, 1871;
¶ 7 Whereas Meucci later learned that the Western Union affiliate laboratory reportedly lost his working models, and Meucci, who at this point was living on public assistance, was unable to renew the caveat after 1874;
¶ 8 Whereas in March 1876, Alexander Graham Bell, who conducted experiments in the same laboratory where Meucci’s materials had been stored, was granted a patent and was thereafter credited with inventing the telephone;
¶ 9 Whereas on January 13, 1887, the Government of the United States moved to annul the patent issued to Bell on the grounds of fraud and misrepresentation, a case that the Supreme Court found viable and remanded for trial;
¶ 10 Whereas Meucci died in October 1889, the Bell patent expired in January 1893, and the case was discontinued as moot without ever reaching the underlying issue of the true inventor of the telephone entitled to the patent; and
¶ 11 Whereas if Meucci had been able to pay the $10 fee to maintain the caveat after 1874, no patent could have been issued to Bell: Now, therefore, be it
¶ 12 Resolved, That 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.
In response, the House of Commons stamped its dainty foot and declared, petulantly:
This House affirms that Alexander Graham Bell of Brantford, Ontario and Baddeck, Nova Scotia is the inventor of the telephone.
Readers will observe at the last link the furious attempts by Bell’s defenders to discredit the well-articulated Congressional motion. But here are the incontrovertible facts:
As a supporter of Garibaldi, Meucci and his spouse fled to Cuba in 1835. In 1850, they immigrated to the US, where he established a candle factory, and went to work on his ideas.
He proceeded to get eaten alive.
In 1856, Meucci first built a working telephone in his own home, so that he could communicate from his basement laboratory to his ailing wife on the second floor. In his words:
It consists of a vibrating diaphragm and an electrified magnet from a wire that wraps around it in a spiral. The vibrating diaphragm alters the current of the magnet. These alterations of current are all transmitted to the other end of the wire, creating analogous vibrations to the receiving diaphragm and thus, reproduce the words.
For more than a decade afterward, Meucci developed thirty or so models of a telephone, working from that prototype.
But his candle factory failed, and he was unable to obtain the support needed to finance his on-going project. He tried to tap some wealthy Italian families, but at that point Garibaldi’s Risorgimento was in full swing, and the climate was not suitable for investment.
He demonstrated his invention, however, which he called the teletrofono, in New York in 1860. A newspaper account of his invention in 1861, in the Italian-language Eco d’Italia, could not subsequently be found. The newspaper archives from 1861-1863 were, in fact, destroyed in a fire, and no library possessed any copies. His models, in the laboratory of the American District Telegraph, mysteriously disappeared.
He was defrauded by debtors, reduced to bankruptcy, and forced to live on public relief and the charity of friends. But his work continued. By 1870, he was able to send voice to a distance of one mile through copper wire insulated with cotton, through a device that he now called a telettrofono (with the added “t”).
Then he was injured in an explosion, and his health became so precarious that his wife sold his models and drawings to raise money for medical expenses.
The rest is history. He was given bad advice, filed a patent caveat in 1871 that left out crucial details of his invention, and was subsequently chewed up by the legal system in two trials. He died a pauper in 1889.
Bell, incidentally, was also out-run by another Italian. In 1844, the brilliant Italian inventor Innocenzo Manzetti first conceived of a telephone, and built one in 1865, more than a decade before Bell. As reported at the time:
Manzetti transmits directly the word by means of the ordinary telegraphic wire, with an apparatus simpler than the one which is now used for dispatches. Now, two merchants will be able to discuss their business instantly from London to Calcutta, announce each other speculations, propose them, conclude them. Many experiments have been made already. They were successful enough to establish the practical possibility of this discovery. Music can already be perfectly transmitted; as for the words, the sonorous ones are heard distinctly.
But Bell would triumph, no matter what, and people who got in his way were ruthlessly trampled. He conspired against another claimant, Elisha Gray, and with a little bit of dirty dealing, filed his patent in 1876, leaving Gray out in the cold. To add insult to injury, he used Gray’s liquid transmitter to utter those famous words to Watson in the next room.
On this day, in honour of Italy’s 150th birthday, let us at least consider the possiblity that a grave injustice was done to a creative but star-crossed Italian inventor. I will be raising a glass, when the sun is over the yardarm, to the memory of Antonio Santi Giuseppe Meucci.