The War of the Telephones

Is the name Elisha Gray familiar to you?  How about Alexander Graham Bell?  Here’s why…

Born August 2, 1835, Elisha Gray was an American electrical engineer.  He is credited with more than 70 patents, including one of the earliest electronic music keyboards.  He is also considered by many to be the true inventor of the telephone.

Gray had been working on a telegraph replacement since 1869, working in secret against the wishes of his employer.  In early 1876, he finally asked his lawyer to submit a “caveat” to the U.S. Patent Office.  (A caveat is a preliminary document that indicates one’s intention to file a patent, in order to protect the idea.)

Gray’s caveat was submitted on February 14, 1876.  That same morning, Alexander Graham Bell’s patent application was also submitted.  The Patent Office suspended both applications for 90 days to resolve the similarities.  Ultimately, the office claimed that Bell’s application was the fifth received that day, while Gray’s was the 39th.  The patent was awarded to Bell.

However, several points of controversy emerged when Gray challenged Bell’s patent:

  • The patent examiner admitted he was an alcoholic who owed money to Bell’s lawyer.
  • Bell admitted discussing Gray’s caveat with the examiner during the 90-day suspension… when it was still confidential.
  • Bell’s application was modified after submission to include information that was in Gray’s caveat.
  • The apparatus that Bell first used successfully two months later in March 1876 (featuring his memorable phrase, “Watson, come here!”) is not the same as the one described in his patent.  Some argue that it employs a “liquid transmitter” first described in Gray’s caveat, but the point is debatable.
  • Gray argued that his application was actually submitted first, but processed second.  Regardless, U.S. Patent law should have award the first invented, not the first filed.

After years of litigation, Bell was officially named the inventor of the telephone, and Gray’s company exited the telephone business.  But the controversy would follow Bell for the rest of his life.

After Gray’s death in 1901, he left a note saying, “The history of the telephone will never be fully written. It is partly hidden away in 20 or 30 thousand pages of testimony and partly lying on the hearts and consciences of a few whose lips are sealed, some in death and others by a golden clasp whose grip is even tighter.”

Today, telephones have evolved from hardwired appliances to wireless mobile devices, from simple voice transmitters to sophisticated handheld computers.  Telecommunications technologies are about to advance to 5G, the fifth generation of wireless communications standards.

Keysight Technologies (Agilent’s electronic measurement business) recently hosted a 5G test summit with FuTURE MOBILE COMMUNICATION FORUM, a nonprofit international organization.  Keysight is also collaborating with China Mobile, the world’s largest mobile network operator, on 5G wireless communication systems.


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