COMMUNICATIONS PIONEERS: Elisha Gray

The person who invented the telephone. Was it Alexander Graham Bell? Maybe. Bell gets the credit, largely due to clever legal maneuvering and light traffic on the way to the patent office. In the late 19th century, the largest technology war in history was underway. The telephone was inevitable; it was just a matter of who would put it all together first.

Alexander Graham Bell and his legal team were very aware of the work being done by Mr. Gray. Gray had already received a patent for sending musical tones over a telegraph line and was very close to developing the transmitter and receiver combination required for voices to be heard.

In fact, Bell’s people intentionally added wording to their patent, which came to the office just hours before Gray’s, to try to invalidate Gray’s patent. To this day it’s impossible to tell who actually had a working telephone first; Gray may have had the first working prototype but Bell had better lawyers, meaning the patent application was written faster. According to several sources, Bell himself wasn’t even involved in the patent filing, being out of town on the day it was filed.

The birth of the telephone was the fraught with controversy. There were charges of theft and espionage, and the trials lasted until 1888, twelve years after the initial patent filing.The legal maneuvering makes the recent Apple/Samsung trial seem like an episode of Law and Order. In the end, Bell’s patent was upheld and Gray was known only to history.

However, dig into the technology mentioned in both patents, and look at the history of the telephone in the early 20th century, and you’ll find it’s Gray’s design that really took off and formed the basis of the telephone network we take for granted. His technology was more sound and telephones didn’t really take off until the Bell Telephone Company (later AT&T) bought all of Gray’s patents and used them rather than the original Bell patents.

We salute Elisha Gray for his contributions to global telecommunication, for without the telephone, there would be no smartphone, no internet, no cell phones, and the world as we know it would be quite different. Sure, the telephone was inevitable but someone had to figure out how to make it work.