Did Bell Steal the Idea for the Phone? (Book Review)

Is it time to let the Americans have him after all? Canadians have always jealously guarded Alexander Graham BELL, inventor of the TELEPHONE, as our very own icon.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 4, 2008

Is it time to let the Americans have him after all? Canadians have always jealously guarded Alexander Graham BELL, inventor of the TELEPHONE, as our very own icon.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 4, 2008

Did Bell Steal the Idea for the Phone? (Book Review)

Is it time to let the Americans have him after all? Canadians have always jealously guarded Alexander Graham BELL, inventor of the TELEPHONE, as our very own icon. We admit the Scottish-born immigrant conducted the first telephone conversation in Boston; we'll even acknowledge, more quietly, that his gravestone reads Teacher - Inventor - Citizen of the U.S.A. But we're proud that his burial plot is in Cape Breton, N.S., where Bell spent his summers and performed many of his later experiments, and that the first long-distance telephone call (Brantford to Paris, Ont.) occurred in Canada. Clearly we have always found Bell Canadian enough, and more than important enough: the phone alone, not to mention early work in aviation, gives him a place in the pantheon of inventive geniuses that is shared only with Thomas Edison. But now there's a new question in the air: was Bell honest enough? In The Telephone Gambit (Penguin), U.S. writer Seth Shulman argues that the Canadian hero stole the phone's key technological breakthrough from American inventor Elisha Gray.

The canonical story of the telephone's invention is well-known. On March 10, 1876, struggling with a mechanism for transmitting voice, Bell was in his Boston lab when he spilled battery acid on himself and yelled for his assistant in the next room: "Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you." To his amazement, Tom Watson heard the cry, not directly from Bell's room, but via the apparatus they had been experimenting with. The two young men, according to Charlotte Gray's bestselling 2006 account, Reluctant Genius: The Passionate Life and Inventive Mind of Alexander Graham Bell, "exploded with excitement." They switched places so Bell could hear Watson, and laughed and tested through the night until Bell concluded the world's first telephone conversation with "God save the Queen!" and launched into an impromptu Mohawk war dance. (That final exclamation should settle the nationality question for all time: in Boston, epicentre of the American Revolution, in 1876, the year of the U.S. centennial, a man who achieves his life's goal cries "God save the Queen"? He might as well have yelled "I am Canadian!") All the rest - from the birth of Ma Bell and what was once the ultimate widows-and-orphans stock, all the way down to those two annoying beavers - is generally reckoned history.

Not quite, though. Shulman's claim is hardly the first made against Bell. The inventor and his fledgling telephone company had to fight off some 600 lawsuits over the following two decades, including five that reached the U.S. Supreme Court. But what soon became the world's largest monopoly won them all, and nobody seriously disputed Bell's claims for another century. In 2002, the U.S. House of Representatives finally responded to pressure from Italian-Americans and recognized the pioneering role of Antonio Meucci with a carefully worded resolution "that his work in the invention of the telephone should be acknowledged." That in turn prompted a tit-for-tat from Parliament in Ottawa: "This House affirms that Alexander Graham Bell of Brantford, Ont., and Baddeck, N.S., is the inventor of the telephone."

This sort of jingoistic competition is fairly common in the history of science, where there is often a distinction to be drawn between who first had the ingenious theoretical insight and who first came up with a viable economic possibility. Whatever work Meucci did, it was Bell who acquired the patent and invented the phone company. What Shulman charges, however, is orders of magnitude beyond sharp business practices, and more like fraud.

In 2006, Shulman was a writer-in-residence at MIT and reading Bell's 1876 notebooks when he had a eureka moment of his own. Bell was in Boston, experimenting slowly in the early part of the year, making incremental changes, trying batteries of differing strengths, magnets in different combinations - and getting nowhere. (Even so, Bell's attorneys, knowing others were getting close, filed for patent in Washington, adding to the pressure on Bell.) His daily logs cease on Feb. 24, with no entries until a single line on March 7: "Returned from Washington." The very next day, the notebooks record that Bell was on to something completely unlike his previous approaches, adding a dish of water with sulphuric acid and a new contraption, a diaphragm with a needle going into that water, to complete his electrical circuit. The first phone call was only two days away. What had happened in Washington to make Bell think of that, Shulman wondered.

The more he studied those crucial missing days, the more puzzled Shulman became. Bell's Feb. 14 patent application was granted March 7 - astonishing speed for the understaffed U.S. Patent Office, eye-poppingly so considering the office informed Bell on Feb. 19 that there was a conflicting submission from another applicant, also submitted on Feb. 14. Yet Bell's patent was approved - three days before the crucial technological achievement that actually made his phone work - despite the counterclaim. And who was that other guy? When Shulman looked at Elisha Gray's filing, and saw a sketch he calls "virtually identical" to the one in Bell's notebook, he no longer wondered where Bell had found his new idea.

There's much more to Shulman's case. He identifies motive: Bell was desperate to marry his beloved Mabel Hubbard, the daughter of his main backer (and attorney), who wouldn't permit the match until Bell perfected his invention. He identifies means: a corrupt bureaucrat who let Bell's legal team know when Gray filed and who later revealed the contents of Gray's application to Bell himself. In 1886, patent examiner Zenas Wilber, a self-confessed alcoholic - and liar - who owed money to one of Bell's lawyers swore an affidavit affirming he had shown Gray's papers to Bell, who personally handed him $100 for it. (Wilber's manifest character defects meant his affidavit had little legal impact.) Shulman provides explanations for formerly puzzling facts about the race to patent the phone: why Hubbard, Bell's attorney, filed for patent (with no sketch of a means of transmission) on Feb. 14; why Bell once wrote to Gray that he knew nothing of the latter's application except that it transmitted speech via water (how could he have known even that much?). And Shulman crafts a plausible psychological portrait of a post-telephone Bell (who had another 46 years to live) often stricken with guilt.

But at the heart of Shulman's case is his almost immediate conclusion, on seeing Gray's drawing, that Bell's own was based on it, and that only plagiarism could explain how that could have happened. That's precisely what Bell biographer Charlotte Gray centres on. "I've read other books by Shulman, including the one where he went to bat for Glenn Curtiss and his role in the invention of the airplane: he has his shtick. He's a wonderful writer, but he always has a hammer in his hand and everything looks like a nail to him. He's crafted a seductive and well-framed storyline, but I think it's rubbish."

Gray couldn't disagree more with Shulman's reading of Bell's post-telephone writings. She spent so long immersed "in 60 years of Alec's correspondence with Mabel that I felt like a third partner in their marriage." Every time Shulman cited a passage as an indirect admission of guilt, Gray would think, "Wow, I read that in an entirely different way." The idea that Bell fled, as often as possible, to Cape Breton in order to be as far as possible from the scene of the crime particularly incenses her. "Shulman can't have read the same letters as me - Bell loved Cape Breton because it reminded him of Scotland."

This stark disagreement is emblematic of Shulman's finest achievement. He caps his true-crime story with a sustained meditation on crafting history - how the past is remembered and reconstructed through the eyes of the present - that even Gray is happy to call "fascinating, brilliant." If a historian comes to the conclusion that Bell can only have made his breakthrough by theft, suggestive indications will start to surface everywhere; if such a thought never crosses the researcher's mind, she will never see remorse in a family letter. ("There's reading between the lines," Gray snaps, "and then there's charging in with your mind made up.")

Shulman, who admires Bell (still) and was at first reluctant to "dive into this can of worms," doesn't think his mind was any more closed than Bell's defenders'. But he's aware that his is the uphill struggle. The story of the phone's discovery, repeated in books and films, is vivid in our collective memory, in a way the 600 court cases and the uncertainty among Bell's contemporaries are not.

Of course, that creation story comes from Tom Watson's memoirs, written a half-century after the fact, four years after Bell's death in 1922. (Bell himself never said anything about the momentous discovery.) Toss that out as unreliable, and the sheer murkiness, rife with claim and counter-claim, of the telephone's origins is undeniable. Shulman does not want to see Watson's account be replaced by another tale, equally vivid and equally mythic, even if he created it himself: the story of a frustrated inventor, a good man who took a fateful chance to cheat, and thereby gained wife, riches and fame. "My goal is not to replace one historical myth with another," says Shulman, "but to show that there's rarely just one inventor, that things arise out of a ferment and a milieu." And that the past changes every time we look at it.

Maclean's February 4, 2008