2/20/13 - alexander graham bell, the telephone, and lawsuits

In today's selection -- like Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, the Wright brothers, the inventors of the airplane, and countless inventors before and since, Alexander Graham Bell faced the nightmare of a lifetime of lawsuits and patent disputes after inventing the telephone. Bell would face over six hundred such suits, including five that reached the U.S. Supreme Court:

"Requests for public demonstrations [of the telephone] poured in, and [Alexander Graham] Bell's audiences never failed to be amazed and delighted by what they heard. One night, while giving a presentation in Salem, Mas­sachusetts, Bell directed his audience's attention to the strange, wooden box before them. Suddenly, they heard the voice of Bell's assistant Thomas Watson coming from the box -- thin and tinny but unmistakable and, incredibly, speaking directly to them. 'Ladies and gentlemen,' Watson said, 'it gives me great pleasure to be able to address you this evening, although I am in Boston, and you in Salem!' The crowd erupted in laughter and applause.

"Bell would quickly learn, however, that a successful inven­tion, especially one that held as much financial promise as the telephone, attracts not only admirers but bitter competitors. Had Samuel Morse been alive to witness the birth of the telephone, he could have warned Bell of the legal nightmare that awaited him. After Morse developed his telegraph in 1837, more than sixty other people claimed to have invented it first. Morse, whose long life was marked by a series of painful disappointments, spent nearly a quarter of a century fighting dozens of lawsuits.

"As harassed as Morse had been, his troubles paled in com­parison to what Bell would endure. The challenges to Bell's pat­ent began almost immediately, although few of his accusers had anything to support their claims beyond their own fantasies. One man filed suit not only against Bell for the telephone, but against Thomas Edison for the transmitter and David Edward Hughes for the microphone. Another man eagerly hauled his invention into court to prove his claim against Bell. When it simply sat there, silent, his frustrated and humiliated lawyer exclaimed, 'It can speak, but it won't!'

"Although Bell deeply resented these accusations and the time and thought the lawsuits demanded, three years after his patent was issued, he entered a courtroom for the first time as a plaintiff rather than a defendant. In late 1876, he had offered to sell his patents to Western Union for $100,000, but had been soundly rejected. Just a few months later, the powerful company, worth an estimated $41 million, realized it had made a disastrous mis­take. Instead of approaching Bell, however, and striking a deal, it decided to become his direct competitor. After establishing the American Speaking Telephone Company, Western Union bought the patents of three leading inventors in telephony, one of whom was Thomas Edison.

"Bell had little hope of competing with this behemoth. Not only did it have seemingly limitless financial resources to fund experiments and improvements, but it had an existing network of wires that stretched across the country. To add insult to injury, Edison, who was partially deaf, developed a telephone transmitter for Western Union that was better -- both louder and clearer -- than Bell's.

"In a court of law, however, Bell had two things that West­ern Union did not: irrefutable evidence that he had developed the first working telephone and, more important, a patent. When the company began to attack Bell personally, suggesting in the press that not only did he not have the skill necessary for such an inven­tion but had stolen the idea, he set aside his hatred of lawsuits and fought back. The legal battle lasted less than a year, begin­ning in the spring of 1879 and ending in the fall, with Western Union admitting defeat and agreeing to shut down the American Speaking Telephone Company. In the end, it would hand over to Bell everything from its lines and telephones to its patent rights, receiving in return only 20 percent of the telephone rental receipts for just seventeen years.

"With Western Union's defeat, stock in the Bell Telephone Company skyrocketed from $50 a share to nearly $1,000. The fighting, however, continued. In the end, Bell would face more than six hundred lawsuits, ten times as many as Morse. Five of them would reach the U.S. Supreme Court. One rival in particu­lar, a brilliant inventor named Elisha Gray, would insist to his dying day that the telephone had been his invention. Years later, Gray's own partner would sigh, 'Of all the men who didn't invent the telephone, Gray was the nearest.' "


Candice Millard


Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President


Vintage Anchor


Copyright 2011 by Candice Millard


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