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Marquette University Fast Facts
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Nov. 2, 2020
MILWAUKEE — Alexander Graham Bell actually did conceive of the first working telephone before Elisha Gray — Graham’s closest and most persistent competitor, reveals Dr. Benjamin Brown, professor emeritus of physics in the Klingler College of Arts and Sciences at Marquette University.
For decades controversy has overshadowed one of the most famous inventions of all time, with numerous books, TV shows and internet series supporting Gray’s claims. Using new sources and technical analysis, Brown put a definitive end to the controversy that swirled around the invention of the first working telephone since Bell and Gray each filed their similar patent ideas for a speaking telegraph, incredibly, on the same day, Feb. 14, 1876.
Brown details these findings in his paper, “The Bell Versus Gray Telephone Dispute: Resolving a 144-Year-Old Controversy,” which appeared in the November 2020 issue of the Proceedings of the IEEE, published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
“Suspicions about Bell stealing his telephone ideas from Gray have given rise to doubts about Bell’s character and the legitimacy of his famous telephone patent, one of the most valuable patents in history,” Brown said. “I believe that the seemingly never-ending 144-year-old controversy is now settled.”
Brown’s research utilized contemporaneous accounts, correspondence and schematics to pinpoint the development of Bell’s technology against the competing design by Gray. He also analyzed the methods and motivations of an effective disinformation campaign that cast doubt on Bell’s invention.
Many of the accusations of fraud against Bell assume a conspiracy between Bell, his associates, and officials at the U.S. Patent office. Below are Brown’s findings:
“Based on the engineering designs, there is no indication that a crime or act of plagiarism was committed by Bell or his attorneys. The same conclusion is reached using cognitive models,” Brown said. “It may be impossible to completely avoid the broader question: ‘Who invented the telephone?’—Bell cited more than 20 prior contributors—but his next-step contributions to the telephone include his unique vision of the utility of the telephone, the description of his theory based on undulatory currents, his reduction of the theory to practice, and his development of a practical telephone, bringing it into social use.”
Brown worked at AT&T Bell Laboratories for 12 years, ultimately as a member of the technical staff where he engaged in the research involving first-generation gravity wave detectors and laboratory astrophysics experiments with positrons. He is a member of the Society for the History of Technology, the American Physical Society, and the American Association of University Professors.
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