The Telephone Cases
ON the 19th of March, 1888, the Supreme Court of the United States reassembled in Washington, after the usual spring vacation. It was generally expected that the long-deferred decision the telephone suits would then be made, and the court-room was filled with inventors, lawyers, and shareholders who had taken part in the protracted and bitter contest over Mr. Bell’s patent, and whose fortune in some cases, whose fame in others, depended upon the result. The audience, on this occasion, were not disappointed, for the Chief Justice announced that the court was prepared to render its judgment in the six causes known as the Telephone Suits. " But,” he added, “ as the opinion is rather long, and my voice is weak and not under control, I have asked Judge Blatchford to read it.” These were his last words in the Supreme Court, for he was then suffering from the disease which ended in his death, a few days afterward; and the opinion which he had prepared, and which was read for him in the deep and somewhat tense silence of the court-room, proved to be the final act of his public career. That opinion, as everybody knows, decided — and doubtless the decision will be accepted by history — that Mr. Alexander Graham Bell was the first inventor of the telephone, and that neither Reis, the German professor, nor anybody else succeeded in transmitting human speech by the aid of electricity until Mr. Bell had shown the world how it could be done. Three judges dissented from the opinion, holding that Daniel Drawbaugh, an intelligent mechanic of Eberly’s Mills, Pennsylvania, had invented and used a complete telephone, much better than any that Bell ever devised, years before the latter made his discovery. The dissenting judges did not deny that Mr. Bell also was an original inventor of the telephone, and that it was he who introduced it to public use. “ We have nothing to say,” Mr. Justice Bradley remarked, “ depreciatory of Mr. Bell at all, for he has real merits; but we think that this obscure mechanic did do the thing, and that he is entitled to the merit of being the first inventor.”
Whatever Daniel Drawbaugh had done or attempted in this line (and I shall glance at his history in a subsequent article), it is well known that about the year 1875 the transmission of speech by electricity was a problem with which many able inventors were struggling, and there was a general feeling that it would be solved before long. A word or two as to the manner in which speech is produced wall show what the problem was, and enable the reader to understand how much or how little had already been accomplished.
When one speaks, what he does is to set in vibration the particles of air with which he is surrounded. Motion is communicated from one particle to another in the air, just as it is communicated from one particle to another in water, when the wind springs up and waves are formed. In each case, the particles move only in a restricted space, but the character of the motion is communicated to the adjoining particles, and the same character is preserved just so far as the movement extends. It would be erroneous, however, to conceive that the vibrations of the air take the shape of waves, like those of the sea; they are not curved, but move in a straight line, and they cover a very small space,— usually about one one - hundred - thousandth of an inch. The particles of air, when words are spoken, are first crowded together, and then, when the pressure is removed, their elasticity comes into play, and causes them to resume their former place. Waves require a surface, but the air is all about us ; we are below it as well as above it. The movement of air particles during speech has been illustrated as follows : —
“ If you are in a tightly packed and excited crowd, you are pressed on all sides ; but as the people in the crowd sway a little, you are sometimes jammed more tightly, and again, presently, have a little more elbow-room. You and each of your neighbors touch each other all the time ; but if the people in the part where you are move closer together, in their efforts to see something, you are pressed a little more ; if some of them are attracted to turn and move a little away from you, you are pressed less. These movements of greater or less pressure are due to a slight to-andfro movement of the different individuals composing the crowd.
“Such is the case with the air particles. Under the influence of the voice or some sounding body, those immediately near it are first, perhaps, pressed together; presently, by virtue of their elasticity, they spring apart a little more widely than they were before, and thus zones of condensation or rarefaction are produced. These zones of disturbance are propagated onward at the rate of about 1120 feet a second, very much as sea waves are propagated onward, without any traveling motion of the air or water itself, and are called ‘ sound waves ’ or ' sonorous undulations.’ But as these zones are produced by and correspond to the slight vibratory motions of the air particles, it is found more convenient to study the motions of the particles themselves.”
This to-and-fro, or vibratory, motion of the air, being started by the speaker, and communicating itself gradually but speedily to all the air particles that lie between him and the listener, finally impinges upon the drum of the listener’s ear. The drum is a diaphragm, which is alternately pushed and pulled forward and backward as the vibrating particles strike against it or recede from it, according to their condensation or rarefaction. The motions of the drum are communicated to the interior parts of the ear, which in turn act upon the auditory nerves, conveying through them to the brain, in some unexplained manner, the impression of sound.
If each vibration occupied the same length of time, the matter would be a very simple one; but the duration of each condensation (which forms the first half of the vibration), as well as the duration of each rarefaction (which forms the second half), differs, or may differ, widely from that of the others. Moreover, — and here lies the chief difficulty, — the character of each vibration, which will be explained presently, continually varies. Shortly before Mr. Bell’s invention of an electric telephone, the string or mechanical telephone was much in vogue, and was sold on the streets. It was thought by most people to be a new affair ; but in reality it is a very old invention, dating back almost, if not quite, two hundred years. The “ string telephone ” is easily constructed by taking a small cylindrical tin box, knocking out the bottom, and affixing in its place a diaphragm of bladder or parchment. The diaphragms of two such devices are connected by a string, or, better yet, by a wire. When one of the boxes is spoken into, the diaphragm vibrates in accordance with the air particles thus set in motion; the vibrations are taken up by the string or wire, and thus communicated to the other diaphragm, which in turn sets the air particles in its vicinity vibrating, and thus the sound is repeated. By using a wire supported by poles, the mechanical telephone can be made to transmit speech about a quarter of a mile.
The problem, then, in 1875, was to substitute electricity for the string or wire in the mechanical telephone, and to make an electric current the conveyer of those sound vibrations in which human speech consists. This problem, for reasons now to be explained (although they may be perfectly familiar to the reader), was much more difficult than it appeared to uninstructed persons; and in fact, the more a man knew about acoustics and electricity, the more likely he would be to despair of a successful solution. The air vibrations or sound waves have been described already in a general way; but the differences between them, which constitute the differences between one word and another, have not yet been indicated. There are three respects in which one sound varies from another, the most obvious of these being loudness. The next is that of pitch; sounds may differ in loudness while they are the same in pitch, and they may differ in pitch although they are the same in loudness. But a note of a certain pitch sounded with a certain loudness on a violin is distinguishable from a note of the same pitch sung with the same loudness by the human voice. These differences in the character of sound, which are neither loudness nor pitch, are known technically as differences of timbre or “quality.” Quality, then, embraces all the differences which distinguish words from other sounds and from each other. In order to transmit words, therefore, it is necessary to reproduce the quality of the sound, a reproduction of the pitch, merely, being of no avail.
Such being the differences in sound, what are the mechanical differences in the air vibrations which correspond to them ? The particles of air, when set in motion by the human organs of speech, vibrate, as has been said, or move to and fro over a very small space, usually rather less than that which would be measured by one one-liundredthousandth of an inch. The pitch of a sound is determined by the time which it takes the air particle to perform this complete vibratory movement to and fro. Ordinarily, it moves over its path and back again in one one-hundredth of a second; it may do so in half that time, in which case the pitch will be an octave higher than it was in the former instance.
But the length of the path, although always very small, varies in accordance with the violence of the impetus given to the air particle; and this length, or “amplitude,” as it is called, determines the loudness of the sound. If the air particle which has been supposed in the preceding paragraph vibrates through an increased range, but in the same time, by moving at a faster rate, then the pitch will remain the same, and the loudness will be greater. But we have not yet arrived at those differences in sound which distinguish one word from another, and are summed up by the terms “ character,” “ timbre,” or “ quality.” Given the length of the path over which the air particle vibrates (which is loudness), and given the time allowed for its vibration (which is pitch), it is obvious that it may perform this journey in countless different ways. It may pass at a uniform rate, and stop ; it may go fast at first, then slower, then fast again, and so on ; it may go part of the way at a certain speed, then return on itself at a different speed, then go forward again at still another rate, and yet reach its goal at the appointed time. It is these eccentricities of travel, so to say, irrespective of the length of the journey or of the time occupied in performing it, which determine the quality of sound and distinguish one word from another.
It is plain that in 1875 the apparent difficulty of transmitting sound vibrations by electricity must have been very great indeed. These vibrations, to repeat, measure in space less than one onehundred-thousandth of an inch, and in time they measure one one-hundredth of a second at the most; yet the vibration itself may be reproduced accurately, so far as its length and time are concerned, without reproducing speech: it is the peculiarities of the vibration, so minute that they take place within these excessively small limits of time and space, and so complex that they correspond to all possible words, which must be copied by the electric current. It is no wonder, then, that the persons who knew most about the subject were, as a rule, the least inclined to believe that a telephone was possible.
This knowledge, however, — that is, knowledge of the wonderfully minute and complex movements of the air particles by winch the quality of spoken words is produced, — was not common, even among men of science, until the year 1862, when Helmholtz published his famous work upon the subject. Before that time, it was usually supposed (though Helmholtz, and others, perhaps, had gained a more correct notion) that “ the endless variety of tones depends entirely upon the rapidity and amplitude of the sound waves.” The “ rapidity and amplitude of the sound waves ” do determine, as we have seen, the pitch and loudness of the sound; but they have nothing to do with the “ endless variety of tones.” The quotation just made is taken from a magazine published at Frankfort-on-the-Main in 1854. The writer was an ingenious Frenchman, named Bourseul, from whom Philipp Reis is supposed to have derived much inspiration ; and in this article Bourseul predicted that speech would some day be transmitted by electricity, not knowing the difficulty of the achievement. He said : —
“ Suppose that a man speaks near a movable disc, sufficiently flexible to lose none of the vibrations of the voice ; that this disc alternately makes and breaks the currents from a battery. You may have at a distance another disc, which will simultaneously execute the same vibrations. ... It is certain that in a more or less distant future speech will be transmitted by electricity. I have made some experiments in this direction. They are delicate, and demand time and patience; but the approximations obtained promise a favorable result.”
It will be noticed that Bourseul speaks of his disc or diaphragm as alternately making and breaking the current ; and this alternate make and break of the current, in obedience to the movements of the diaphragm spoken against, was an essential feature in the apparatus which Philipp Reis constructed a few years later. Reis used a wooden box, with a membrane of thin sausage-skin stretched across an opening on one side of the box. (So far he copied the mechanical or string telephone.) A light piece of metal or two pieces joined together, so that the whole was shaped like the two equal sides of a triangle, projected over the membrane, the two ends of the piece being provided with short legs, which were fastened to the framework about the membrane or diaphragm. The angle of this metal piece was thus held above the centre of the diaphragm. To this angle was attached a little foot of platinum, which, in turn, rested upon another small piece of platinum affixed to the centre of the diaphragm. Such electrical connections were made that a current passed into the metal piece at one of its open ends, and so through the platinum foot, through the platinum piece attached to the diaphragm, and off over a wire to the receiver. The receiver consisted simply of a coil of wire, inside of which was a knitting-needle, the whole being placed upon a soundingboard. The operation of this apparatus was as follows: When musical sounds were produced in the transmitter, the vibrating air particles thus set in motion beat against the membrane, and caused it to move upward, so that the platinum foot of the steel piece or hopper resting on the membrane was thrown up at each vibration, as a boy is tossed in a blanket. The effect of this was of course to break the current, by momentary severing of the contact, and the current being broken at each vibration, the pitch (or time of vibration) was copied by the current passing over the wire. The needle in the middle of the coil at the end of the wire was alternately magnetized and demagnetized, as the current was made and broken, and this operation had the effect of changing its size correspondingly, though in the slightest degree. These slight and imperceptible changes in the needle were, however, sufficient to move the air particles in its vicinity, causing them to vibrate in exact accordance with the broken electric current; and the air vibrations thus caused being the same in duration as those originally started at the transmitter, the pitch of the sound there made was reproduced.
Pitch merely, not quality, was transmitted by this instrument, because it was a circuit - breaker. Pitch, as we have seen, corresponds to and varies with the time consumed by the vibration of the air particles. Pitch, in other words, is the measure, in time, of vibration ; and inasmuch as in Reis’s apparatus the circuit was made and broken at every vibration, it did reproduce pitch. It did not reproduce words, because many vibrations must take place in the creation of a single word, and the sound of the word depends on the form of these vibrations ; but if the current breaks at each vibration, the word is chopped in pieces, and cannot, of course, be repeated. For the same reason, this contrivance did not, except very imperfectly, transmit the loudness of the sound, or, in other words, the amplitude of vibration, the break in the current being made in accordance with the time (pitch) occupied by the vibration, and not in accordance with the length or amplitude (loudness) of the vibration.
The instruments of Reis were made in various forms early in the sixties, and although Helmholtz’s full exposition of quality or timbre was published in 1862, neither Reis nor anybody else profited by his discoveries until the time of Bell.
The apparatus of Reis, though not practically useful, was a great invention, and it attracted much notice from scientific men. It was sold extensively in Europe and in England as a curiosity, and Professor Henry procured a Reis telephone for the Smithsonian Institution at Washington. Perhaps, indeed, the conception that the electric current might be made to repeat and transmit sound vibrations, and the imperfect means to that end which Reis devised, constituted as great an advance, intellectually speaking, as the subsequent discovery made by Mr. Bell. However this may be, Reis was, as we have seen, on the wrong track ; his theory, though right so far as the transmission of pitch goes, was essentially wrong so far as the transmission of quality is concerned. It is true, therefore, as Judge Lowell said, in the first suit upon Mr. Bell’s patent, — and it would be difficult to overestimate the value to the Bell Company of his remark : “ A century of Reis would never have produced a speaking telephone by mere improvement in construction.”
But the peculiar and the striking fact about the Reis apparatus is that by the very slightest change it can he converted into a practical telephone. It is necessary only so to adjust the metal piece or armature that the platinum foot in which it ends shall always be in contact with the membrane, instead of parting from it at each vibration, and the thing is done. In that case, and provided that one speaks gently into the transmitter, the diaphragm is always in circuit with the hopping-piece, the contact is never broken, the vibrations of the diaphragm are copied exactly by variations or undulations in the electric current which is constantly flowing from the battery. These variations magnetize and demagnetize the knitting-needle in the coil which constitutes the receiver, and the air particle in the vicinity of the receiver being attracted and repelled accordingly, the sounds spoken into the transmitter are reproduced. In this way it is perhaps possible to transmit speech even with the Reis receiver, though very imperfectly ; and if a Bell receiver is used with the Reis transmitter the apparatus is a practical one. If Reis had known the reason for this slight mechanical change, he could have effected it in the twinkling of an eye ; but he did not know ; on the contrary, he thought that the value of his apparatus consisted in the very feature which, as we have seen, was its radical defect, namely, the break of contact at each vibration. Reis and those who used his contrivance could not account satisfactorily for its failure to transmit speech, but they were convinced that the principle upon which it operated was correct.
Fifteen years later, in 1877, and thereafter, when Mr. Bell’s patent had been granted, and people were looking about for something which would serve to invalidate it, they lighted, naturally, upon the invention of Reis. It would be a difficult and a painful task to calculate the time, labor, and money that were thrown away in the effort to convince the courts that Reis first invented the telephone. The error was an excusable one on the part of laymen. Most people vaguely think that patents are granted for things, not for ideas ; and inasmuch as the thing which Reis made differs in construction only by a hair’s-breadth from a real telephone, is it not monstrous to hold that the prior invention of the one thing shall have no effect upon the later invention of the other ! The fact is, however, that patents are granted for ideas. The materials in which the invention is embodied amount to nothing; any mechanic can make your patented contrivance when you have told him how to do it. It is the intellectual conception, the image which the inventor sees in his mind’s eye, before he has shown it in a drawing, or described it on paper, or copied it in wood or iron, — it is this, the idea, for which a patent is granted, and which is protected by the courts. When, therefore, the infringers of the Bell patent pointed to the prior contrivance of Reis, the court said, Yes, but Reis had the wrong idea : his apparatus, though resembling a telephone in appearance, was constructed upon a principle essentially misleading.
It is not quite so easy to account for the confidence and the ardor with which lawyers of undoubted ability put forward the Reis defense. But perhaps it would be fair to say that they were ensnared by over-subtlety, and still more by ambition. The Bell patent stood out as a shining mark : great advocates were defending it, and great capitalists were backing it. Fame and fortune awaited the man who could destroy the monopoly ; and it is no wonder that acute counselors deceived themselves. “ The glory of it, Mr. — the glory of beating the Bell patent! ” was the characteristic remark made by a leading supporter of the Reis telephone. Moreover, there was slight evidence to the effect that Reis had transmitted words by means of his device; and there were experts in plenty who swore that it would transmit speech without any alteration whatever. A whole book was written and published in England to prove that Reis really made a telephone ; that he asserted it to be such, used it as such, and that the invention was generally recognized at the time. But the evidence to justify these statements was of the flimsiest character. The broad facts remained that Reis was working upon a wrong theory, that his apparatus was known and used extensively for fifteen years, and yet nobody ever discovered that it was a telephone until Mr. Bell’s patent had been issued and the infringement suits began.
The year 1874 found Mr. Bell settled in Boston as a teacher of deaf mutes. He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, his father being a professor of vocal physiology there. The son followed in his father’s steps, and before reaching the age of twenty-three years had made a profound study of articulate speech. He was familiar with the work of Helmholtz, and had some knowledge of electricity. In the fall of 1874, there were two things in his mind, — the harmonic telegraph, which he had already invented, and the telephone, which he hoped to invent. Some men of means, in whose families Mr. Bell had taught, agreed to advance the money for further experiments in the harmonic telegraph, and for taking out a patent upon it, but they had no faith in the telephone. Like most inventors, Mr. Bell was exceedingly poor ; and it was a question with him whether he should for a time abandon his teaching (the only means of support he had), and borrow a little money, upon which he might live until he had either failed or succeeded with his great project of the telephone. He decided to take this bold step, gave up his pupils, and staked his fortune on the success of the invention. Before the summer of 1874 was out, Mr. Bell had conceived the apparatus which he patented two years later, although — and this is another singular fact in the history of the telephone — he believed it to be defective, and never imagined that the thing would work until two years later, when he accidentally discovered that the supposed defect did not exist. Without attempting to analyze the different steps of the intellectual process by which Mr. Bell finally arrived at his invention, it will be sufficient to describe the apparatus which he first designed. This was very simple. It consisted, to begin with, like the string telephone, of a box or funnel, as a transmitter, over an opening in which was stretched a membrane. To this membrane a soft-iron armature was attached. Directly in front of the armature, but not quite in contact with it, was the core of a magnetized electro-magnet. It is well known that when a piece of iron or steel, like an armature, is moved toward and away from such a core, an electrical disturbance is produced in the coils surrounding the core. When the armature is moved toward the core, an electrical flow takes place through the coils in one direction ; when the armature is withdrawn again, an electrical flow in the other direction occurs. There is no current in the coil so long as the armature is kept still, but whenever the armature moves the current is started, and it moves in the same direction and with the same degree of violence as the armature. When words are spoken in the transmitter above described, the vibrations of the air particles thus caused are repeated in the diaphragm, and the vibration of the diaphragm causes the armature attached to it to move forward and back in front of the electro-magnet. Of course the vibrations thus transmitted are the same in the armature as they were in the air, and consequently the electrical disturbances produced in the coils of the magnet by the movement of the armature also correspond to the air vibrations. The same operation, but in the inverse order, occurs at the receiving station. The electrical changes produced in the electro-magnet near the transmitter are conveyed along the wire to another electromagnet, which attracts and repels an armature; this armature, in turn, communicates to the diaphragm attached to it the same vibrations; the air, again, at the receiving station takes on these vibrations from the diaphragm, and thus the sound is reproduced.
This contrivance Mr. Bell had devised by the fall of 1874, and he described it then to Dr. C. J. Blake, of Boston. But the apparatus had never been constructed. for Mr. Bell (and Dr. Blake agreed with him) felt sure that it would not operate, and that further improvements were necessary. He considered that the very slight current which would be developed would be too weak altogether to transmit the countless and complex variations which should correspond to the form of vibration assumed by the air particles. Other persons skilled in electrical science, with whom Mr. Bell consulted, were of the same opinion ; and indeed, the more thoroughly anybody had mastered what was known at that date about the electric current, the more sure he would have been that Mr. Bell’s invention was not yet complete. The seeming reasonableness of this view may be gathered from the fact that the current generated by the Bell telephone is about one thousand million times weaker than that commonly used in telegraphing.
The inventor was now in great straits, harassed for money, overworked, and anxious. At Christmas time he was at home in Canada for a few days, and his father’s diary contains these significant items : —
“ Sunday, Dec. 27, 1874. Long talk on multiple teleg. and speech trans. Al. [his son] sanguine.
“Tuesday, Dec. 29, 1874. Talking half the night, motor and telephone.”
A month or two later, Mr. Bell was in Washington on business connected with his invention of the harmonic telegraph, and he had an interview with Professor Henry, which he described as follows in a letter to his father and mother: —
“ I felt so much encouraged by his interest that I determined to ask his advice about the apparatus I have designed for the transmission of the human voice by telegraph. I explained the idea, and said, ‘ What would you advise me to do — publish it and let others work it out, or attempt to solve the problem myself ? ’ He said he thought it was the germ of a great invention, and advised me to work at it myself instead of publishing. I said that I recognized the fact that there were mechanical difficulties in the way that rendered the plan impracticable at the present time. I added that I felt that I had not the electrical knowledge necessary to overcome the difficulties. His laconic answer, was ‘ GET IT.' I cannot tell you how much these two words have encouraged me. I live too much in an atmosphere of discouragement for scientific pursuits. Good is, unfortunately, one of the cui bono people, and is too much in the habit of looking at the dark side of things. Such a chimerical idea as telegraphing vocal sounds would indeed to most minds seem scarcely feasible enough to spend time in working over.”
Again, a month later, he wrote as follows : —
“ I have just returned from my trip to New York, thoroughly worn out; found your letters of the 14th inst. awaiting me. I am now beginning to realize the cares and anxieties of being an inventor. In order to complete the apparatus [that of the harmonic multiple telegraph] as thoroughly as possible, I have decided to give up all professional work for some weeks. I have put off all pupils and classes until the 12th of April. Flesh and blood could not stand much longer such a strain as I have had upon me.”
At this time, then, Mr. Bell had really invented the telephone, without knowing it; that is, he was not aware that the exceedingly minute and complex vibrations of the air particles would yet move the diaphragm and armature with sufficient force to generate a current of electricity which would reproduce and transmit the sound vibrations. He knew that the principle of his apparatus was correct, excepting for the lack of power ; and an accident disclosed the fact that, contrary to his belief, the current generated by the armature vibrations in front of the electro-magnet was at least strong enough to reproduce the loudness of a sound. In the course of some experiments with the harmonic telegraph apparatus, Mr. Watson, Mr. Bell’s assistant, accidentally knocked the transmitting instrument with his hand, and simultaneously a sound was heard at the receiving instrument. A mere trembling of the armature of one instrument had, apparently, produced an audible sound at the other; and if this were so, then the strength of the armature vibrations had been very much underestimated. “ The moment the discovery was made,” says Mr. Bell, “ the practicability of the speaking telephone devised by me in 1874 flashed upon me, and I instantly gave instructions to have the instrument made.” But this instrument was imperfectly constructed, and the membrane broke at the first trial. Mr. Bell still supposed that some means must be devised to increase the strength of the electric current, before quality as well as loudness could be transmitted by his apparatus. On the same day, he wrote as follows : —
“ I have accidentally made a discovery of the very greatest importance in regard to the transmitting instruments. ... I have succeeded to-day in transmitting signals without any battery whatever. The musical note produced at the receiving end was sensibly the equivalent of that at the transmitting end in loudness as well as pitch.”
And a month later, in a letter to the same person, he said : —
“ I feel sure that a study of Ladd’s or Wilde’s magneto-electric machine will reveal a means of increasing the intensity of the induced currents. I am told that Professor Lovering has one of Wilde’s instruments in his possession, so I shall call upon him to-morrow for information concerning it.”
This was in June, 1875. Mr. Bell was laboring under great difficulties. A legal controversy in regard to the harmonic telegraph was pending between him. and Mr. Gray ; he was obliged to live on money which he borrowed upon the strength of the tuition fees that he expected to earn during the succeeding winter. It was very difficult for him to prosecute his experiments, for he was not a skilled workman, and he could ill afford to buy tools or to hire assistance. Shortly before, he had written to his father : “ My inexperience in these matters is a great drawback. However, Morse conquered his electrical difficulties, though he was only a painter, and I don’t intend to give in, either, till all is completed.” And yet he had reached the goal, though he did not know it: he had but to stretch out his hand, and pluck the fruit which he had been seeking.
After some further and more successful experiments, in the fall of 1875 he drew his application for a patent. It was taken to Washington early in December by one of Mr. Bell’s partners in the harmonic telegraph, but this cautious person came back just before Christmas, having done nothing with it. Finally, after many delays and disappointments, the application was filed in February, 1876; and even up to that time Mr. Bell had never succeeded in transmitting speech through the telephone. This highly interesting and significant fact was brought out in the subsequent litigation, and on it were based many ineffectual arguments against the validity of the patent. It is undoubtedly true that if Mr. Bell had died in 1875, nothing that he had done would have been held to anticipate a subsequent inventor. But this only serves to show the mathematical accuracy of his reasoning, and the firmness of his intellectual grasp. He had not himself made a telephonic apparatus which was a practical device, but he described it in his specification, so that skilled workmen, following his directions, were able to construct operative instruments. The patent was barely sufficient for this, but still it was sufficient, and thus the invention was saved to the inventor.
The telephone first came into public notice at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. It had been arranged that on Sunday, June 25, 1876, a private entertainment should be given to a few distinguished persons by Mr. Elisha Gray, a well-known electrician and inventor. Mr. Gray desired to show his harmonic multiple telegraph for sending numerous messages at one time over a single wire, by means of musical notes. Sunday was chosen, because on that day the main hall, where the instruments were, would be comparatively quiet. Mr. Bell asked that he too might display an invention on this occasion, not mentioning what it was, and he was told, in substance, that if any odds and ends of time were left over, after Mr. Gray’s apparatus had been shown, he might occupy them. Among the company were Sir William Thomson and the Emperor of Brazil. The day was intensely hot. Mr. Gray’s explanation and exhibition of his invention had already detained the audience beyond the luncheon hour, and they were extremely anxious to get away. However, they curbed their impatience, and Mr. Bell was allowed to proceed. Presently, he sent his assistant to the further end of the line, and, putting the receiver to his ear, he repeated what he heard. This aroused the tired audience. Sir William Thomson rose from his seat, saying, “ I will go and speak, myself ; ” and Professor Barker took the receiver. " I heard,” he relates, “ the well-known accents of Sir William Thomson’s voice, and said, " Sir William is now speaking.’ A moment later I heard him say, ‘Ay, there’s the rub,’ and repeated the words to the company. I then passed the receiver to the Emperor. He placed it to his ear with an expression of doubt upon his countenance ; but immediately this expression changed, and he repeated slowly the words, ‘ To be, or not to be.’ ” The Emperor hastily put down the receiver, and started away to the transmitting end. Mr. Gray then took the receiver. “ I listened intently,” he says, “ for some moments, hearing a very faint, ghostly, ringing sort of sound, and finally I thought I caught the words, ‘ Ay, there ’s the rub ; ’ I turned to the audience, repeating these words, and they cheered.”
On his return to England, at a meeting of the British Association, Sir William Thomson gave the following account of what he saw and heard at Philadelphia on this hot Sunday : —
“ In the Canadian Department I heard, ‘ To be, or not be,’ ‘ Ay, there’s the rub,’ through an electric telegraph wire; but, scorning monosyllables, the electric articulation rose to higher flights, and gave me passages taken at random from the New York newspapers ; ‘ S. S. Cox has arrived ’ (I failed to make out the ‘ S. S. Cox.’) ; ‘The city of New York ; ’ ‘ Senator Morton ; ’ ‘ The Senate has resolved to print a thousand extra copies ; ’ ' The Americans in London have resolved to celebrate the coming Fourth of July.’ All this my own ears heard, spoken to me with unmistakable distinctness by the thin, circular disc armature of just such another little electro-magnet as the one which I now hold in my hand. . . . This, the greatest by far of all the marvels of the electric telegraph, is due to a young countryman of our own. Mr. Graham Bell, of Edinburgh and Montreal and Boston, now becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States. Who can but admire the hardihood of invention which devised such very slight means to realize the mathematical conception that if electricity is to convey all the delicacies of quality which distinguish articulate speech, the strength of its current must vary continuously, and as nearly as may be in simple proportion to the velocity of a particle of air engaged in constituting the sounds ? ”
Mr. Bell’s work was now done, and his fame assured. Other inventors took up the telephone and made the improvements to which it owes a large part of its commercial value. A great corporation was formed to manage and develop the business founded upon the patent. Lawyers were employed to defend it, and others were engaged to pick a flaw in it, if any such might be found. State Street took an interest in the invention, and the possibility of great wealth began to dawn upon the owners of the patent, and upon others who thought they saw how it might be evaded. Litigation soon began, and learned experts were called in, college professors and the like, who swore with much ability to conflicting theories. Meanwhile, the telephone became more and more common in all parts of the country. An army of mechanics, clerks, and laborers were occupied in constructing, maintaining, and operating it, and a vastly greater army of practical persons were employing it every day in their business. What was the source of all this activity, physical and intellectual ? It was a scientific and mathematical problem, worked out in a garret by a penniless teacher of deaf mutes. Man is a thieving, rapacious creature ; if he were not, there would be no patents and no courts ; but it is impossible to contemplate such inventions as the telephone without considering that he is also a wonderfully clever animal.
H. C. Merwin.