Let’s start this chapter off with a bit of trivia.
Who invented the telephone? No, put that smart phone down! If you said Alexander Graham Bell, prepare for a surprise; that’s not the correct answer. Well, not exactly. Alexander Graham Bell does have the patent for the telephone, that much is true.
However, in 2002 the US Congress passed a resolution to acknowledge Antonio Meucci’s role in the invention of the telephone in 1871. This was some five years before the patent from Alexander Graham Bell was filed. It transpired that, being a poor man, Antonio was unable to afford the cost of a full patent application at the time.
Therefore, he had to submit what was effectively a notice of intention to file a patent (a caveat) that had to be renewed to remain valid. Unfortunately, life was not kind to poor Antonio. In 1874, having sunk most of his life’s savings into developing the telephone and being responsible for the care of his wife who was stricken with severe arthritis, he was no longer able to afford to renew the caveat.
To make matters worse,
Antonio had stored his working models at the Western Union Affiliate laboratories and when he asked for their return, he was told they had been lost. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell, who had also been conducting research at the Western Union labs, was granted the patent for the telephone. In 1887, a move to annul the patent was remanded for trial by the Supreme Court. Regrettably, Antonio died in 1889 and the trial was subsequently declared moot, which meant that Alexander Graham Bell retained the patent for the telephone.
The issue of whether Antonio’s design for the telephone was stolen by either Alexander,
or someone acting on his behalf, is unresolved and remains controversial to this day. However, the US Congress made it clear in its resolution that had Antonio been able to afford the fee to renew his caveat in 1874, Alexander Graham Bell would not have been awarded the patent. If only Dragon’s Den had existed in the Victorian era, eh? The patent for the telephone is still widely regarded as the most lucrative patent issued to date, so next time you indulge in a beverage of your choice raise a glass to Antonio Meucci. As the congressional resolution noted: “the great Italian inventor who had a career that was both extraordinary and tragic” (H.Res. 269, 2002, p. 1). If my choice of opening quote for this chapter seemed strange, re-visit it now and prepare for a hit right in the feels.