Who invented the telephone? Discover more about its controversial patent history

Alexander Graham Bell celebrated victory back in 1880, when a US judge recognised him as the inventor of the telephone. The controversial decision has been argued about ever since.

What is the one piece of technology you can’t live without? The television, electric lamp and washing machine would certainly get many people’s vote, but one item sure to garner support is the telephone.

Alexander Graham Bell won the patent battle on November 10, 1880, winning the right to a US monopoly on telephone tech that lasted for almost a century, but who were the other contenders for the rights to this revolutionary invention? Find out below.

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Alexander Graham Bell patent telephone

Who invented the telephone?

Some argue inventor Antonio Meucci should get the credit. Meucci filed a caveat in 1871 for a voice communication device, titled ‘Sound Telegraph’, but couldn’t afford to renew it. On 11th June, 2002, a resolution to recognise Meucci for “his work in the invention of the telephone” was introduced by US politician Vito Fossella and passed.

On February 14, 1876, Bell filed his patent, ‘Improvement in Telegraphy’. A few hours later a lawyer submitted a patent caveat on behalf of Elisha Gray, a teacher at Oberlin College, who was working on a similar device.

On May 22 that year, Zenas F. Wilber claimed (despite three affidavits to the contrary) that he’d been bribed by an attorney for Bell to award Bell the patent and had showed him Gray’s caveat - something denied by Bell. 

The debate still rages all these years later. In his 2008 book ‘The Telephone Gambit’, Seth Shulman claims Bell copied some of Gray’s invention, something disputed by Bell’s biographer and great-grandson Edwin Grosvenor.

Disputes aside - to date Bell’s patents have been defended over 600 times - the importance of Bell’s work and patent can’t be understated.

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Alexander Graham Bell

17 facts about Alexander Graham Bell and the birth of the telephone

Alexander Bell (he added the Graham when he was 11) was born in Scotland on March 3, 1847. His mother was hearing-impaired and used a hearing tube, while his father was a speech teacher.  The middle son of three, Bell started inventing at an early age, and one of his ambitions was to create a machine that could reproduce human speech. 

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The family moved to Canada. In 1871, when his father Alexander Melville Bell was invited to introduce his Visible Speech system to a school in Boston (check it out in the video below), Bell junior went instead. In 1872 he opened a school for the deaf, teaching his father’s system.

Bell continued with his experiments, funded by lawyer (and later father-in-law) Gardiner Hubbard and his partner Thomas Sanders, working with electrician Thomas Watson on the harmonic telegraph.

Bell was awarded his patent on March 7, 1876 - US patent number 174,465. It was described as: “The method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically, as herein described, by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sounds, substantially as set forth.”

During trials on March 10, Bell made the first successful speech telephone call to Watson with the words: “Mr Watson, come here - I want to see you.”  Writing in his diary he said: “I asked him to repeat the words. He answered, “You said, ‘Mr Watson, come here - I want to see you.’ We then changed places and I listened at S (speaker) while Mr Watson read a few passages from a book into the mouth piece.” The picture below is an early telephone.

Alexander Graham Bell early telephone

The invention wasn’t an instant success. In 1876 Western Union declined the offer to buy the rights to the telephone for £70,656 ($100,000), believing it wasn’t a rival to the telegraph - a decision the boss of Western Union would later regret (see below).

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In September 1876 Bell’s phone was exhibited in Glasgow at the ‘British Association for the Advancement of Science’ by Sir William Thompson (later Lord Kelvin), who dubbed it: "The greatest by far of all the marvels of the electric telegraph."

Bell was awarded his UK patent on December 9, 1876.

Advert for early telephone

Bell’s agent, Colonel Reynolds, brought the telephone over to sell in the UK in 1877. The picture above is a flyer advertising the invention: ‘Persons using it can converse miles apart, in precisely the same manner as though they were in the same room.’

On January 14, 1878, Queen Victoria was given a demonstration of the telephone by Bell at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. He made the UK’s first publically witnessed long-distance calls, calling London, Cowes and Southampton.  Queen Victoria liked the telephone so much she wanted to buy it.

Reynolds offered the rights to the Post Office to develop the telephone as part of the telegraph system. The Post Office declined, then quickly realised it had made a mistake, but it was too late.  Bell’s agent and others set up The Telephone Company Ltd in 1878, selling the UK’s first telephones.

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The location of one of the UK’s first telephone lines was across the Thames from London’s Hay’s Wharf to Hay’s Wharf Office on the north bank of the river.                                                                     

In 1878 the Post Office provided its first phones from Bell’s UK agent. They were rented to a firm in Manchester.

1950s telephone

In the US, seeing the success of the Bell Telephone Company, Western Union worked with Elisha Gray and Thomas Edison on its own version.  The Bell Company sued Western Union, the latter claiming in defence that Gray had invented the telephone. The judge sided with Bell and an agreement was reached on November 10, 1879 - Western Union agreed to withdraw from the telephone market.

In January 1880 the first phone book was released in the UK with details of three exchanges and 250 subscribers.

Until 1884 only subscribers could use telephones. In 1884 the Postmaster General allowed the first call boxes to be built - dubbed ‘public call offices’.

In the 1890s the private telephone companies including The Telephone Company became the National Telephone Company - which was taken over by the Post Office in 1912 - from which BT is descended.

Supporting information from BT Archives.

Read more about Bell in our article: 8 British inventions that changed the world

Find out more about tech history over at the BT Archive

Photo credit: Alexander Graham Bell - This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, catalogued under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 302052. See Commons: Licensing for more information. English 

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