The Telephone, A Brief History and Who Invented It

The Telephone, A Brief History and Who Invented It

Trevor L. Cass


Alexander Graham Bell is widely credited with the invention of the telephone but is this really the case. Prior to 1876 only the Telegraph existed, Bell was working on a possible means of sending multiple Telegraph messages along one wire. Other inventors had attempted a talking telegraph (Telephone) with limited success, but no one person had achieved a reliable working model. Bell's ambition was to succeed and in 1876 he obtained his first patent, this resulted in some inventors contesting that their telephone system preceded this patent. Since 1876 the Bell Company has fought over six hundred patent lawsuits and never lost a case.

Replica of Bell's Gallows Phone

Replica of Bell's Gallows Phone

Applying for a patent does not prove that the idea was first conceived or even demonstrated by the holder of that patent. Once a claim has been filed it is for a patent examiner to determine if other claimants can prove prior knowledge. At the very least, a 'caveat' (an idea not yet proved) should have been filed legally elsewhere or witness affidavits produced, as in the case of some of the people mentioned later who contested Bell's patent after it had been filed.

Before we look at prior inventions and the claimants in detail, here is a history of Bell's work.

Alexander Graham Bell, 1847-1922

In the 1870's telegraphy was the only means of long-range communication. Telegaph cable had circumnavigated the world and was developing on a large scale. Telegraphy, using Morse code, transmitted using one or two wires was unidirectional, i.e. it could only go one way at a time. It was envisaged that this might be improved by either transmitting both ways at the same time, or even multiple messages simultaneously over the same wires (cabling was expensive). Bell had already decided that speech over these same wires might be a better option, but with only ambition to help him he needed backing.

Butterstamp Telephone

Butterstamp Telephone

Born in Edinburgh, Bell spent one year at a private school, two years at Edinburgh's Royal High school, (from which he graduated at 14) and attended a few lectures at university in Edinburgh and London, but he was largely self-taught. In 1874 Bell received financial help from Gardiner Hubbard and Thomas Saunders, two wealthy men, who thought Bell was trying to find a system to achieve multiple telegraphy transmissions.

Bell's ability to engineer his ideas was limited, he was never adept with his hands, but a chance meeting with Thomas A Watson, a bookkeeper and carpenter, then working in a machine shop, was to provide a solution. Whilst working on his multiple telegraphy system Bell noticed that a relay made a twanging noise and its similarity to speech, developing this observation he attached a parchment diaphragm to the armature of the relay. Together, in 1875, they worked on their 2nd membrane phone known as the Gallows Phone, which used the vibrating diaphragm for both transmitting and receiving. It never transmitted speech, but the sounds it made enabled Bell and Watson on March 7th 1876 to obtain their first Telephone patent based on this idea. On March 10th the first words spoken on the telephone were famously made during an experiment by Bell using a liquid transmitter, this idea was never pursued commercially and exists on paper only.

Bell founded his Bell Telephone Company reverting back to his electromagnetic (Gallows Phone) idea for transmitting and receiving culminating in the first commercial telephone, the Butterstamp Telephone.


There were many inventors who might have or did dispute Bell’s patents; ten of them are discussed here. Some built devices before Bell's and some contested his patent after the event.


Innocenzo Manzetti

First mentioned the idea, but did not use the word telephone


Charles Bourseul

First practical device


Philip Reiss

Make and break contact device. In 1947 STC tested his device & reported it could produce sound


Amos Dolbear

First receiver?


Daniel Drowbough

The Jack of all trades


Antonio Muecci

Italy's claim to the invention. The 'Telettrofono'


James W McDonough

Make and break contact device like Reiss


Elisha Gray

Liquid Transmitter


Alexander Graham Bell

Gallows Phone


Thomas Alva Edison

Carbon button microphone, took 15 years to obtain a patent

Innocenzo Vincenzo Bartolomeo Luigi Carlo Manzetti, 1826-1877 (never contested Bell)

An Italian. In 1844 he suggested the idea of a speaking telegraph. In 1850 he made a working model, which followed his construction of a mechanical speaking doll (automaton) . No patent was applied for and how he constructed the doll  is not known. The doll amazed the scientific world by moving about and also playing the flute.

Emile Quetand wrote about this speaking machine in Le Petit Journal of Paris in 1865 and the news spread around the world. Antonio Muecci wrote about him and, on hearing about his speaking doll, Bell's father and grandfather visited him. Even Bell himself had seen Manzetti's laboratory long before his key patent.

Charles Bourseul, 1829-1921 (never contested Bell)

Bourseul was a civil engineer for a telegraph company in France. In 1854 he wrote an article for L'Illustration Paris about a device for conveying speech by vibrating a diaphragm that makes and breaks a contact, via a battery, to a similar device which reproduced the sound. He explained that he had made experiments in this direction and the results were promising. No patent was applied for and the word telephone was not used.

Johann Philip Reiss, 1834-1874

Johann Reiss's Telephone

Johann Reiss's Telephone

A self taught German scientist and inventor. Like Bell, Reiss had studied the human ear and was convinced that sound could be transmitted by electricity. In 1860 he constructed his device calling it a 'Telephon'. It worked up to a hundred metres and was based on the knowledge learned from Bourseul and others. His ideas had previously been described in a paper and presented to Professor Peggendorf to be included in a well-known periodical and had been rejected. On achieving a working model in 1862 he tried again and was again dismissed; creating interest for his device was evading him. Also in 1862 he presented the 'Telephon' to Wilhelm von Legat inspector of the Royal Prussian Telegraph Corps. It aroused more interest when Professor Vanderwyde demonstrated it in New York in 1872.

The problem with his device is that the principle of an electric contact trying to emulate the human voice must fail, as sound undulates and cannot be mimicked by a contact opening and closing. Later, in the course of the 'Dolbear' lawsuit, brought about by the Bell Telephone Company, his machine was presented to the court where it was able to 'squeak and not speak'. In spite of the many experts trying to make it produce intelligent speech it failed, it was said to have been built on the 'wrong lines'. The judge said 'to follow Reiss was to fail, to follow Bell was to succeed'. In other words, the Reiss device was not linear, Bell's was.

Around 1947 the Reiss device was tested by the British Company STC, the results confirmed that it could produce faint speech. At the time STC was bidding for a contract with Bell's Telephone Company and the results were suppressed by Chairman Frank Gill to maintain Bell's reputation. Nonetheless Reiss is still admired for his contribution to telephony.

Amos Dolbear, 1837-1910

An American physicist considered in history as important for his work on not only the telephone, but also wireless communications before Marconi. A brilliant scientist and inventor but did not file legal claims. In 1865 he invented the first telephone receiver using a permanent magnet and a diaphragm made of 'Tintype'. When Bell filed his first patent Dolbear issued a lawsuit against him and in 1881 in Dolbear v. American Bell Telephone Company he lost because he was unable to prove his claim having not realised the importance of a filed patent. To his credit in 1876 Dolbear patented a magneto electric telephone and in 1879 he patented an electrostatic telephone.

Daniel Drawbaugh, 1837-1911

Termed an American 'Jack of all Trades' he was very poor and was hounded by his wife and family to stop wasting his time with these 'worthless inventions'. His wife smashed his photographic equipment to stop him tinkering, and he had to take in lodgers to make ends meet.

Having invented a telephone (date uncertain) and  in 1866/7 formed The Peoples Telephone Company. His invention was an instrument that included a flexible membrane over a teacup which he had connected by a piece of wire to a receiver powered by an electromagnet.

Nobody encouraged him to protect his invention and he did not file a patent, but enough evidence was found to promote a 'Peoples Defence' in court over his claim that he had invented the telephone. Neighbours testified that they had heard a muffled transmission of words from the floor above. However in court he damaged his case by saying that in 1876 he had seen Bell's invention at Philadelphia's Centennial Exposition but had made no mention of his invention earlier. Not admitting defeat The Bell Telephone Company offered him a settlement to end his litigation.

Antonio Meucci, 1808-1889

The following promotes a common saying 'If you are an Italian Muecci invented the telephone. If you are an American Bell did'.

An Italian living in America, he studied chemistry and engineering. He developed a device communicating between the basement and first floor of his apartment where his wife suffering from Rheumatoid Arthritis was bedridden. He submitted a caveat for the device in 1871, which he did not renew, and in 1874 his application expired. The wording of this document is all that remains of his invention, in it there is no mention of electromagnetic devices, the means by which Bell's system worked.

When Bell filed his patent in 1876 Meucci claimed to have invented a similar device first. Unfortunately all evidence, apart from his caveat of 1871 was lost, even newspaper articles he claimed to have written could not be found. He presented notes at his court case describing an electromagnetic device and showed they had been written in 1857. The evidence was challenged as retrospective since it was not in any way similar to his caveat of 1871, which doesnot mention coils, magnets, battery or diaphragm, only wires, insulation and utensils for mouth and ear. It has been said that his invention was merely a 'Lovers Telegraph'(insult) two tins and a piece of wire.

In 1848 Meucci had developed a method of using electric shocks to treat Rheumatism, his telephone theories were based on an incident that happened whilst treating a patient. The patient was in one room receiving his treatment, he was in another when he heard a scream, (he said through the wires connecting the batteries to the patient) he explained it as the leaves of an electroscope flapping and said 'the wires were talking'. In order to continue his experiments he covered the wires with paper to avoid harming the patient, he called the device the 'Talking Telegraph'.

No evidence or proof that he had invented a telephone type device before Bell has been found. In 1870 he claimed he had perfected his device calling it 'Telettrofono' the case against Bell was dropped upon Meucci's death.

James W McDonough

An American living in Chicago, he invented a telephone receiver in 1875, before Bell. It consisted of an iron disc motivated by an electromagnet. In 1876 he applied for a patent calling it the 'Telelogue'. Included in his application was a transmitter similar to Philip Reiss's pattern, using a circuit breaker.

Unlike Bell who could get a patent issued in two or three weeks, McDonough waited for eight years, by which time the Bell Telephone Company was well established. His application failed for the same reasons as Philip Reiss's device, but his receiver device is now claimed to precede Bell's version.

Elisha Gray, 1835-1901

Comprison of Bell and Grey's Liquid Transmitters

Comparison of Bell and Gray's claims

Gray was an American electrical engineer who co-founded the Western Electric Company. A dentist, Dr Samuel S White of Philadelphia, who had made a fortune in porcelain teeth, financed him. Dr White wanted Gray to concentrate on the acoustic telegraph for multiple telegraphy and not on the telephone. Because of this Gray did not tell anyone of his invention, the 'Liquid Transmitter', until February 1876 when he filed a caveat, the same morning that Bell submitted his first telephone patent application.

A caveat was like a provisional patent application with drawings and descriptions but without claims. It seems that Bell's lawyer found out about Gray's caveat and requested that Bell's claim be expedited after making some changes to Bell's wording describing variable resistance and liquid transmitter, seven sentences in all were added. See page 2, right coloumn, here. Five days later the patent examiner for both applications noticed the similarity in the devices to wit 'variable resistance'. He declared 'Interference' and delayed Bell's application until Bell could prove his claim under the first to invent rules.

Bell visited his solicitor and the examiner; Bell was questioned on the validity of his liquid transmitter (Bell had never made a prototype). Bell said the liquid was mercury, which, at the time, was used in circuit breakers. He was awarded the patent, even though a mercury liquid transmitter could never have worked. Bell went back to his laboratory and constructed Gray's liquid transmitter using a water and acid based liquid, not mercury. This device enabled Bell to make the famous remark 'Watson come here I want to see you', shouting to Watson in another room after having spilled some acid. Evidence of the liquid transmitter only exists on paper no working model has been proved to survive.

Although it could be said that Bell had stolen the liquid transmitter from Gray, it was a scientific experiment not a commercially viable product.  Gray was too slow to take action until others had proved his Liquid Transmitter's ability to turn speech into variable electric current. This had deprived him of the right to his name in history as the 'Father of the Telephone'.

Bell never used the liquid transmitter in any of his demonstrations, falling back on improved versions of Bell and Watson's Electromagnetic Transmitter, culminating in the first commercial telephone, the Butterstamp Telephone (their shape resembled this object).

Thomas Alva Edison, 1837-1941

Edison, the well-known inventor; it is assumed knew the failings of Bell's Electromagnetic Transmitter, (it was far too insensitive). By now Bell was marketing these as 'Butterstamp Phones' (as there shape resembled this object). Edison wanted to improve on the Liquid Transmitter idea of variable resistance rather than a varying magnetic field.

In 1877 Edison developed the 'Carbon Button Microphone', David Hughes later revived the term 'Microphone' and made improvements to it. In the button microphone a voltage excited the carbon powder and the current varied with the pressure of vibrations from the diaphragm, which altered the resistance of the carbon powder. Because of patent litigation with Emile Berliner, who had made a device with an iron diaphragm touching a steel ball, Edison had to wait fifteen years to obtain a patent, finally achieving this in 1892. Berliner obtained his patent in 1891. Later Hughes and Francis Blake greatly improved this (the Edison) design.

Edison wanted to manufacturer his own telephone system but was thwarted by Bell's patents on the liquid transmitter. He invented his own contraption called a 'Motograph' or chalk receiver which was powered by turning a handle moving a drum inside; it was said to have enough volume to fill a small hall. First used in 1879, its days were limited by operators having to turn the handle to make it work.

Blake's improved carbon transmitter patent was acquired by Bell and used in America although its legality was suspect owing to its similarity with Edison's design. This never came to court as in 1880 Bell and Edison merged to form the United Telephone Company. The combination of Edison's Carbon Button Transmitter and Bell's electromagnetic receiver formed the standard telephone for the next one hundred years.

Telephone Bells

Thomas Augustus Watson (1854-1934), Bell's assistant, later invented the telephone bell. Previously all manner of devices were used, hammers tapping the transmitter diaphragm, whistles attached to the mouthpiece and balls jumping up and down on the diaphragm together with a whistle. When Watson's bell was introduced phones were modified with a switch to change over from speech to calling. As this was often forgotten after the end of a call the telephone hook switch was introduced, hence the term 'off hook'. Watson also adapted a magneto generator for providing a high alternating current to ring a distant bell; a contact on the handle would disconnect the phone when turned. Early switchboards could not tell if an extension had hung up so it was customary to turn the generator after finishing a call, a term called 'ringing off'.


Carbon microphone

Carbon Microphone

1827 - Charles Wheatstone arranged two rods to convey mechanical vibrations to the ears and called it a 'Microphone'

1877 - Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner both filed claims for the invention of the Carbon microphone at roughly the same time. Berliners version was bought by the Bell Telephone Company for $50,000 but in a later court case Edison was granted the rights to the invention

1878 - Edward Hughes made improvements to Edison’s design and revived the use of the word 'Microphone', he also made a device using just three wire nails which is now in the Science Museum London.

More Telephones from the Museum of Technology

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