INVENTION MYSTERIES:
The Little-Known True Stories Behind Well-Known Inventions


Here’s why you’ve never heard of the OTHER 
person who invented the telephone

We all know that Alexander Graham Bell is credited with inventing the telephone, but did you know that there was another person who tried to patent a different version of the telephone on the very same day as Bell in 1876?

Born in Ohio in 1835, he was a physics professor at nearby Oberlein College, and was a renowned inventor due to the musical telegraph that he invented. Little is known about him because, in what has to be one of the worst cases of being "a day late and a dollar short," he arrived at the patent office two hours after Bell arrived to apply for a patent for his version of the telephone.

His name is Elisha Gray and, as a result of arriving two hours after Bell arrived, most of the world has never heard of him.

What happened?

U.S. patent law states that the first one to invent a new product is the rightful owner of the product, regardless of who applies for a patent first. Adequate records are necessary whenever there is a dispute. Since Bell applied for his patent first, he was initially awarded the patent.

Gray did prevent the issuance of Bell’s patent temporarily, however, pending a legal hearing. Since he did not keep adequate records of his design, however, he lost any possible rights as Bell's right to the patent was later sustained by the U.S. Supreme Court and the rest, as they say, is history.

The basis of Gray’s legal action against Bell was that Bell had filed for his patent before he had a working model of his telephone, according to Inventors’ Digest magazine. But the Supreme Court ruled that a person can prove that his invention is complete and ready for patenting even before a working model has been produced, a ruling that later served as a precedent on a similar type of lawsuit years later.

Gray was not the only other person to stake a claim to inventing the telephone. Daniel Drawbaugh, who was born near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, claimed to have invented the telephone long before Bell filed a patent application in 1875. Drawbaugh didn't have any papers or records to prove his claim, though, and the Supreme Court rejected his claims by four votes to three. Alexander Graham Bell, on the other hand, had kept excellent records.

Elisha Gray did go on to invent other products, such as the facsimile telegraph system that he patented in 1888. Bell, who was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1847, became a U.S. citizen in 1882. He went on to become one of the co-founders of the National Geographic Society, and he served as its president from 1896 to 1904.

Elisha Gray, however, has been forgotten by much of the world.

Was Bell's telephone greeted with enthusiasm by everyone at the time?

As is the case with many new inventions, there were those who rejected the telephone for one reason or another. Even President Rutherford B. Hayes was skeptical of the new device when Bell demonstrated it to him at the White House in 1876.

There was also a well-known "investor" who had an opportunity to invest in the telephone directly with Bell, but he rejected the opportunity. According to his writings, he was a big fan of new inventions, but since he had previously invested in several that had failed, he turned down a chance to invest in the telephone. Who was he?

Mark Twain, who patented two of his own inventions.

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Newspaper Connection for Students:  Search through your newspaper over the past week to find stories about other people who were "a day late and a dollar short." Write a 1-page paper explaining what Elisha Gray could have done to get his patent to the patent office before Bell arrived with his patent application. Review the past 5 issues of your newspaper to find at least 3 stories about patents, and write the names of the products that those patents apply to. In your opinion, how would Elisha Gray's life have turned out differently if he would have been granted the patent for the telephone? 

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INVENTION MYSTERIES

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Paul Niemann
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