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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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What's the Difference Between a Trademark, a Copyright and a Patent?

There are three types of intellectual property that most people know about: Trademarks, copyrights and patents. The fourth one, trade secrets, can be just as important but, like a well-kept secret, very few people know about this one. We will dissect each of the four in this column. 

A trademark is a word, phrase or symbol which identifies the source of the product and distinguishes it from others. Trademarked product names or company names are shown with the TM symbol, usually written in a smaller font. 

EXAMPLE: Invention Mysteries TM

Sometimes you'll see the ® symbol after a brand name, which indicates that the trademark has been registered with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office (U.S. PTO).

Trademark rights arise from either using the mark in public OR from filing an application to register it with the PTO. The first one to use or file the trademark has the rights to it. The unauthorized use of another’s patent, trademark or copyright is called "infringement." When this happens, result is usually litigation through the courts. 

A service mark is the same as a trademark except that it identifies the source of a service rather than a product, and the service mark distinguishes it from other services. The symbol for a service mark is SM which, like a trademark, is also written in a smaller font.

EXAMPLE: GE’s We Bring Good Things To Life SM

A registered trademark is a trademark or service mark that has been registered with the USPTO. The symbol for a registered trademark is ®.

Certain items are not eligible for a trademark, such as: letters, numbers, slogans, colors (Owens-Corning’s pink for insulation). The filing fee for a trademark is $245.

EXAMPLE: Pepsi ®

A copyright protects an original artistic or literary work; length is life of the author plus 70 years. Copyrights are filed with the Library of Congress.  A copyright is automatically created when the work is published with the copyright symbol © and the year next to it. The copyright holder usually places his name as part of the copyright notice. 

EXAMPLE: Warner Brothers © 2001 or Copyright © Warner Brothers 2001.

The filing fee is $20 to the US Copyright Office; no filing is necessary in order to claim a copyright, but filing does help resolve disputes over ownership.

Copyrights protect the following:

  • Literary works, such as books, plays, articles or poems
  • Songs (without a copyright, there would be no royalty payments 
  • Movies, including a movie soundtrack
  • Pictures and paintings
  • Architectural works
  • Pantomimes

What is not eligible for copyright protection? Works that consist entirely of common knowledge information and contains no original work, such as calendars, rulers, height & weight charts, tape measures. Example: E = mc2 is not eligible for copyright protection.

Worth noting is the fact that the terms "Bad hair day" by ABC’s Jane Pauley and "Three-peat" by NBA Coach Pat Riley after his Laker team won two consecutive championships – both resulted in unsuccessful attempts to trademark (TM) these terms.

A patent protects an invention for 20 years from the date the patent application is filed with the PTO. There are 3 types of patents: utility, design and plant. The patent application and fees for a small business or individual inventor typically run between $4,000 – $6,000, while they are usually twice that amount for a large corporation. 

The patent number gives you an indication of when the patent issued. Currently, we’re up to 6,400,000. Approximately 350,000 new patents issue each year; 20% of them go to individuals and 80% go to corporations, yet more than 2/3 of the major new product breakthroughs in the 20th century came from individual inventors, not corporations.

The term "patent pending" means that a patent has been applied for but not yet issued. Patent pending status gives the patent applicant some protection; if the patent later issues, then the patent holder is protected for twenty years from the date of his application.

While many people assume that a patent usually leads to great wealth for the inventor, in reality, fewer than 2% of all patents ever produce a profit for the inventor. 

The fourth and final types of intellectual property is the trade secret. Probably the best-known trade secret of all time is the formula for Coca-Cola ®. Trade secrets are not patented because patents for two reasons. First, patents become common knowledge once they're issued and, even though offer legal protection in the case of infringement, patent attorneys and product engineers can "design around them." Secondly, patents expire after twenty years. In some cases, a firm will try to reverse engineer a product to find out what ingredients it contains and how it is made. Some companies mix disguising agents into their products in order to prevent competitors from being able to successfully reverse engineer a product.

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Which U.S. Presidents were the most successful inventors?

Since my hometown of Quincy, IL is named after a U.S. President -- John Quincy Adams, our 6th President -- I decided to use this week's column to focus on Presidents who toiled as inventors. By the way, there are 12 states that contain a Quincy: CA, FL, IL, IN, KS, KY, MA, MI, MO, OH, PA and WA.

While Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s 3rd President, was the most accomplished inventor among all the U.S. Presidents, he did not hold a patent on any of his inventions. Only one President ever received a patent, and only one received a trademark. Who were they? Read on; the answers are at the end of the column. 

Among Thomas Jefferson’s inventions were such devices as a macaroni machine that he invented in 1787, the swivel chair, the spherical sundial, the moldboard plow and the cipher wheel, which was an ingenious way to allow people to code and decode messages. Jefferson’s cipher wheel was used until 1802, and then it was "reinvented" just prior to World War I and used by the US army and other military services to send messages back and forth. Jefferson served as American minister to France in the 1780's and, as a result of his travels throughout Europe, was able to adapt some of the things he saw in Europe to benefit Americans as well.

Jefferson felt that all people should have access to new technology and, since he didn’t want others to be deprived of the benefits that new inventions bring, he never applied for a patent on any of his inventions. He considered patents to be an unfair monopoly.

Several of Thomas Jefferson's inventions are still in use today; they deal mainly with agricultural and mechanical products. He also was responsible for introducing French fries into the United States.

One of Jefferson’s most notable achievements was the founding of the University of Virginia, and this was one of only three achievements that he had listed on his tombstone.

Jefferson’s impact on the United States patent system can be seen today in the fact that each new patent application must meet three criteria before being issued a patent. A patent must be: New, not obvious, and useful. While Jefferson was the most prolific of any presidential inventor, he wasn’t the only President to have some success at inventing. 

In two separate boating incidents, one as a teenager on the Mississippi River and one on the Great Lakes, President Lincoln got his boats stuck in shallow waters, known as "shoals." These two experiences inspired Lincoln to invent a solution to help him navigate his boat through shallow waters.

A wooden model of this invention, which Lincoln made himself, is in the Smithsonian Institution. The invention was never sold to the public, though. 

In 1858, Lincoln called the introduction of patent laws one of the three most important developments "in the world's history," along with the discovery of America and the perfection of printing.

During the Civil War, he took a personal interest in the development of new types of weapons: iron ships, the observation balloon, the breech-loading rifle and the machine gun.

President Washington was also a successful inventor, and in 1772 he received a trademark for his brand of flour. 

Since there haven't been very many Presidents who were considered inventors, I guess you could fish for additional Presidential inventions by insisting that President Nixon invented impeachment, and that President Clinton holds the current patent on it.

While Thomas Jefferson invented the most new products of all the Presidents, only one U.S. President has ever received a patent, and it wasn’t Jefferson. Do you know which President received a patent? 

A.    George Washington
B.    Abraham Lincoln
C.    Teddy Roosevelt
D.    Harry Truman

ANSWER:  President Lincoln was issued Patent # 6,469 for "A Device for Buoying Vessels Over Shoals" on May 22, 1849 while still a Congressman in Illinois. If you guessed George Washington, you were close; he is the only President to receive a trademark, which he received in 1772 for his flour. 

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