It was at this time, 1876–1877, that a new invention called the telephone emerged. It is not easy to determine who the inventor was. Both Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray submitted independent patent applications concerning telephones to the patent office in Washington on February 14, 1876. Bell, in Boston at the time, was represented by his lawyers and had no idea that the application had been submitted. Gray’s application arrived at the patent office a few hours before Bell’s, but Bell’s lawyers insisted on paying the application fee immediately; as a result, the heavily burdened office registered Bell’s application first.

Bell’s patent was approved and officially registered on March 7, and three days later the famous call is said to have been made when Bell’s summons to his assistant (“Mr Watson, come here. I want to see you.”) confirmed that the invention worked.

Alexander Graham Bell, one year younger than Lars Magnus Ericsson, had been born in Edinburgh. Bell’s interest in telephony came through his mother, who was deaf, and his father, Alexander Melville Bell, who was a teacher of elocution, famous for the phonetic transcription system he had developed to help the deaf learn to speak (and which he described in a book entitled Visible Speech). The Bell family migrated to Canada in 1870; two years later Alexander Melville Bell was offered a teaching post at a school for the deaf in Boston in the United States, but he successfully recommended his son for the post instead. Father and son were at this time working together to try to discover whether sound could be made visible for the deaf with the help of telegraphy.

But many others had already been pursuing the idea of telephony for years. A resolution of the US House of Representatives in June 2002 claimed that Bell had nefariously acquired and exploited an apparatus, the “teletrophono”, invented by Antonio Meucci long before Bell and Gray.

One damaging piece of evidence for Bell was that Meucci’s material had disappeared without trace from the very laboratory at which Bell was carrying out his experiments. In the 1880s, proceedings initiated by the American government charged Bell with “fraudulent and dishonest conduct” and claimed that his patent should be revoked. These proceeding were discontinued after Meucci’s death in 1889 and the expiry of Bell’s patent in 1893.

A later investigation, published by A. Edward Evenson in 2000, claims that Bell’s attorneys acquired technical details from Gray’s attorneys (both had lawyers acting as their agents) that are said to have been added to Bell’s patent after it had been submitted. The whole saga has elements reminiscent of a thriller.

One salient fact was that Bell saw no need to take out patents for the telephone in the Nordic countries. This meant that anyone anywhere there was free to manufacture and sell telephones.

Bell presented the telephone before a large audience for the first time at the World Exhibition in Philadelphia in June 1876. In the audience was the physicist William Thomson (later known as Lord Kelvin), who in August that year presented Bell’s telephone to the British Association in Glasgow. In Sweden, on September 30 that year, Dagens Nyheter became the first newspaper to refer to “the speaking telegraph”, an apparatus that “plainly and clearly conveyed the words uttered at one end of the telegraph line to the other”.

The first version of Bell’s telephone, as it was described in the patent application, was not suitable for practical purposes. Only after “a relatively thorough reconstruction”, to quote Hemming Johansson, could a telephone be designed for large-scale production. The Bell Telephone Company began operating on July 11, 1877. In the same month, the first useable Bell telephone arrived in Europe to be presented in Plymouth to the British Association by the chief engineer of the General Post Office, William H. Preece, in the presence of Bell himself.

Author: Svenolof Karlsson & Anders Lugn

© Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson and Centre for Business History

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