Say it ain’t so, not that iconic name. But this is indeed what Seth Shulman convincingly argues in The Telephone Gambit, his essential foray into exactly how Bell (whose multitudinous papers only became publicly available in 1999) came to be the acknowledged inventor of the telephone.

  • How was it that Bell, one of whose wealthy sponsors was also the father of his fiance, went from apparently not grasping the breakthrough “variable resistance” insight – complete with using acidic water to complete the electrical transmission circuit between speaker and receiver – to suddenly having it after an early 1876 trip to Washington?
  • How was it that Bell nevertheless filed for his patent during this Washington trip, and that it was accepted just hours before the filing of Elisha Gray, who was the one who really had come up with the concept?
  • Why did Bell, neither during his lifetime nor in his writings, ever describe the legendary “eureka moment” that apparently occurred within 48 hours of his return to Boston? (“Watson, come here”, et al only first surfaced in Watson’s own memoirs, published four years after AGB’s 1922 death.)
  • Why has the work of Philipp Reis, who came up with a cruder but functioning telephonic machine in Europe more than 10 years before, been largely forgotten?
  • Why have the 1877 findings of, respectively, Emile Berliner and Thomas Edison (the latter using a carbon-button, rather than acidic liquid transmitter) that truly made the telephone commercially-viable also not been properly acknowledged
  • And while there were disputes and challenges related to the telephone patent in those days before legal-discovery, how is it that Bell has retained such a sterling, humanitarian reputation (even as he at one point even flirted with eugenics)?
  • Indeed, was it shame that moved Bell to never engage in any further telephone-related research (though he did conduct useful investigations in other areas), never play a substantive role in the Bell Telephone Company (though unlike Gray, he immediately understood the revolutionary import of the new contraption), give almost all his stock in same to his wife, build his estate on remote Cape Breton Island, and prefer being remembered as a teacher of the deaf?

The answers aren’t pretty, but the book is an entrancing, quick read. Take this tale of plagiarized liquid transmission along to your next NEMA meeting; it’s sure to stir up some interesting discussions


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