A Brief History
On June 11, 2002, the House of Representatives of the United States Congress officially recognized Italian American inventor Antonio Meucci as the inventor of the telephone. Well, sort of! Depending on exactly who is interpreting the resolution passed by the House of Representative the resolution either gives Meucci credit for the invention or merely gives him credit for taking part in the development of the research that enabled the invention of the telephone. The US Senate did not agree to pass a similar resolution, and of course, the US Patent Office awarded the patent for the telephone to Alexander Graham Bell, the guy that usually is acknowledged as the inventor of the device that has become indispensable to Americans and people world wide.
Meucci was born in Florence, Italy (Firenze to the Italians) in 1808, then part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. The son of a government clerk/police officer, Antonio became the youngest student admitted to the Florence Academy of Fine Arts, already showing signs of his brilliance. There he studied chemical and mechanical engineering, though his studies were cut short by a lack of money to pay for tuition after 2 years of study. Working various jobs, including as a theater stage hand, he designed an acoustic telephone for the theater along the lines of the voice tubes used on ships. In 1835, Tony and his wife moved to Havana, Cuba, where he worked for the Teatro Tacón theater, including building a water purification system and rebuilding the theater itself. By 1848, he branched off into work with electric shocks as a form of medical and psychological treatment, and began work on an electro-magnetic telephone device.
Meucci called his invention “telegrafo parlante,” and though the human voice could be heard while being transmitted, the audio quality was not good enough to understand the words being spoken. Still, Meucci had developed a certain level of fame as an inventor, and Samuel Morse, the inventor of the successful telegraph and Morse Code encouraged the Italian to work full time as an inventor. Meucci packed up his family and his modest fortune and moved to Staten Island, New York. Antonio worked on his inventions while also supporting the political movement to unify Italy as a single republic.
By 1856, Meucci had developed his version of the telephone enough to install a system in his own home to be able to speak to his now invalided wife from other rooms, notably from his laboratory to her bedroom. His papers dated from 1857 describe his invention that gives credibility to the claim that it was he who had invented the telephone first. For the next 13 years Meucci continued to develop the telephone, making numerous versions and improvements to his device. During this period Meucci suffered numerous financial setbacks and was obliged to file for bankruptcy in 1861. In 1870, Meucci’s telephone was able to transmit the human voice for the distance of 1 mile, a major accomplishment, but injuries he sustained when a boiler aboard a ferry boat exploded hindered his inventing and ability to make money. His wife was forced to sell his drawings and telephone devices to raise money just to survive.
In 1871, Meucci worked with the Italian Consulate in New York to create a company called Telettrofono Company. A patent application for a “Sound Telegraph” was submitted on December 28, 1871. Apparently some lack of clarity involved in the patent description leaves some room for debate as to whether or not Meucci’s device really deserves to be called an electro-magnetic telephone. Meucci’s original patent expired in 1874, though he patented other devices on and around that time frame. Alexander Graham Bell patented his device in 1876 and became known as the inventor of the telephone. Meucci had aligned himself with the Globe Telephone Company, and the battle over patents and the right to claim the telephone invention began between Bell and Globe. Other lawsuits over the telephone invention also occurred at the time, including a lawsuit by the US Government against Bell, instigated by the US Attorney General who had invested heavily in the Pan-Electric Telephone Company, meaning the Attorney General stood to make a fortune if the suit against Bell was successful.
The court cases continued for years, until finally the Supreme Court of the United States decided in favor of Bell in 1887. The various lawsuits continued all the way until 1897 when the Government gave up trying to drive Bell out of the telephone business. Meanwhile, Meucci had become frail in his old age and died in 1889 at the age of 81, never really able to capitalize on his inventions.
Spring forward in time to the 21st Century, and we find the issue of who invented the telephone to be largely unresolved. Italy recognizes Meucci as the real inventor, while Canada officially claims Alexander Graham Bell as the true inventor. In the United States, Bell is usually given credit for the invention, though of course there is the House resolution to the contrary. The Soviet Union claimed credit for numerous inventions by Soviets or Russians, including the radio and the telephone, and who knows? Perhaps there is some validity to at least some of the claims as many inventors and researchers were working on many devices simultaneously during the mid-to late 19th Century when electricity was being used for all sorts of ideas.
(Note: Some of Meucci’s other inventions include such diverse items as fireworks propellant, candle manufacturing techniques, beer making equipment, electro-therapy devices, food sauce, oil refining equipment, filters for brewing tea and coffee, milk testing equipment, new ways to produce postage stamps, barometers, hygrometers, electroplating and an incredible array of unrelated items and fields. Wow!)
Question for students (and subscribers): Who do you believe deserves credit for the invention of the telephone? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Hamen, Susan. Who Invented the Telephone?: Bell vs. Meucci. LernerClassroom, 2018.
Meucci, Sandra. Antonio and the Electric Scream–The Man Who Invented the Telephone. Branden Books, 2014.
The featured image in this article, a photograph of Meucci’s telephone from Catalogo collezioni (in Italian) at Museoscienza.org, the website of the Museo nazionale della scienza e della tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci, Milano, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.