Marquette professor settles 144-year controversy on invention of the telephone

Nov. 2, 2020

Dr. Ben BrownMILWAUKEE — 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:

  • Mabel Hubbard, Bell’s fiancé, wrote a timely love letter on Jan. 17, 1876, that confirms Bell’s testimony that he filled a hole, or gap, in his patent application with a liquid telephone transmitter idea 30 days before Gray conceived of his similar design. This evidence alone serves to end the controversy over who was first to design the first working telephone.
  • Notes made by Bell’s associate George Brown, a distinguished politician and publisher of the Toronto Globe, on Jan. 25, 1876, show that no telephone specification was conveyed to him then, as Gray’s attorney had claimed before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1887. This eliminates the only tangible evidence of Gray’s priority.
  • Bell created drawings of a head in profile speaking into a telephone more than 44 days before Gray’s similarly styled drawing, and thus, Bell did not copy Gray’s drawing style. Seth Shulman’s popular book, “The Telephone Gambit,” had claimed that these similar drawings were “smoking gun” evidence that Bell plagiarized Gray.
  • A disinformation campaign was created when the Bell Telephone Company went to court to enforce its patent rights against Gray and the giant Western Union telegraph monopoly. The latter regularly used their immense influence over the newspaper industry against competitors, and in this case, also sponsored an authoritative sounding book by James Prescott (1878) in support of Gray.
  • Accusations of wrongdoing by Patent Office officials were contradicted by primary sources. Patent examiner Zenas Wilber never mentions that Bell’s application was changed after submission in any of his several conflicting affidavits as Gray’s advocates have claimed. This again negates arguments presented before the Supreme Court.

“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.

About Kevin Conway

Kevin Conway

Kevin is the associate director for university communication in the Office of University Relations. Contact Kevin at (414) 288-4745 or