“Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.”
Long an icon of American initiative and the inventive spirit, and along with Thomas Edison and a mere handful of others a paradigm of the American Inventor, Alexander Graham Bell was, to almost universal testimony, a brilliant, kind and decent man. But . . .
Inspired by the serendipitous discovery of strikingly similar illustrations in competitor Elisha Gray’s almost simultaneously submitted patent application and an entry in Alexander Graham Bell’s notebooks dated after his own patent application had been filed, author Seth Shulman has written an excellent little book exploring the intriguing question whether certain crucial features of the telephone were in fact stolen.
The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret doesn’t prove that Alexander Graham Bell (or someone close to him) stole the invention of the telephone from Elisha Gray. But in 216 pages of text that at times read like a detective story, Shulman does make a very strong prima facie case that it may have happened. He raises an array of powerful, compelling and well-documented arguments that an enormous and successful fraud was perpetrated. But . .
While Shulman’s book is an effective and absorbing indictment – and a very quick read, one which I strongly recommend – it isn’t final proof.
What’s the case for the defense?
If you’re interested in the history of the telephone or technology, curious about Alexander Graham Bell and his times, an aficionado of 19th century science and society or business and economics, or even a fan of historical whodunits, you’ll almost certainly enjoy this book.
(For those who are interested in further exploration, the Library of Congress retains a massive collection of the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers. The online version alone includes “4,695 items (totaling about 51,500 images). This presentation contains correspondence, scientific notebooks, journals, blueprints, articles, and photographs documenting Bell’s invention of the telephone and his involvement in the first telephone company, his family life, his interest in the education of the deaf, and his aeronautical and other scientific research.”
Also likely to be of interest is the Public Broadcasting System’s The Telephone, with a rich array of resources relating to one of history’s most significant inventions.)
Alexander Graham Bell, 1902 (Library of Congress)