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Had he waited until he perfected his instrument, or even another day, he would have lost his patent and his worldwide fame as the inventor of the telephone, for, on the very same day, Elisha Gray filed a caveat in the patent office, covering the telephone as fully as Bell's application. A caveat is an instrument giving public notice that the applicant is at work on an invention which he has not yet perfected. The caveat was at that time, under the law, fully as protective as a patent for a period of six months, during which time the invention must have been completed.
Gray's caveat declared: “It is the object of my invention to transmit the tones of the human voice through a telegraphic circuit, and reproduce them at the receiving end of the line, so that actual conversations can be carried on by persons at long distances apart. To attain the objects of my invention, I have devised an instrument capable of vibrating responsively to all tones of the human voice, and by which they are rendered audible.” Then followed drawings and details describing Gray's apparatus.
Here was the same thing as Bell's, though the form was different and better in that it was more specific and spoke of “actual conversations." Bell's application, in Claim No. 5, described his invention as an "apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically, as herein described by causing electrical undulations similar in form to the vibrations of air accompanying the said vocal or other sounds."
This claim of Bell's was afterwards to become famous for its brevity and completeness throughout the world. It was sustained in the courts, which invariably held that it covered every form of speech transmission by electricity.
Marcellus Baily, the most adroit patent lawyer of his time, is reported to have received a $5,000 fee for preparing this claim. However that may be, and no matter who drew the claim, the filing of the Bell application and the Gray caveat precipitated a conflict as to priority, which has never been settled by any court.
After Bell's patent was secured, Gardiner G. Hubbard gave up his multiple telegraph, was won over by Bell's confidence and enthusiasm, and at the head of the Bell Telephone Company, began to expand the telephone business. The Western Union Telegraph Company, alarmed by the growth of the telephone commercially, decided to go into the telephone business. It bought up Gray's claims for $100,000; another $100,000 was paid to Edison, who had invented a carbon transmitter, and the patents and claims of Page, Blake and other inventors were purchased until $500,000 had been invested. The Western Union started in to give the Bell Company a fight. Exchanges were built in a number of large cities, rates were cut in half, competition by a company with immense financial resources threatened the Bell in every locality and its stockholders saw their golden visions of enormous profits fading from sight. Infringement suits were instituted against the Western Union which never faltered, but continued the building of competitive telephone plants with a vigor and fearlessness which brought loss and fear to the Bell people.
The Western Union based its rights upon the claims of Gray to the original invention and patents upon the improvements they had purchased from Blake, Edison and others. The Bell Company stood upon the Bell patent and the right to a transmitter, for which an application for a patent had been filed by Emil Berliner, the most wonderful perfecter of other men's patented devices known in this country.
Thousands of pages of evidence were taken and thousands of dollars were spent in this litigation, which never reached a final decision. The case was compromised. The Bell Company became the owner of all rights and patents owned by the Western Union; the competing exchanges were consolidated and turned over to the Bell. The Western Union received forty per cent of the total capital stock of the New York and Chicago companies and was given a contract by the terms of which it was to receive twenty per cent of all royalties paid on telephones used by subsidiary companies. Each company agreed to abandon the field of the other as long as the patent remained in force. Elisha Gray, with the $100,000 he had received, went to work for the Bell at $15,000 a year. This closed Gray's fight on Bell, and the controversy which had existed between them for many years as to which of them was the inventor of the telephone was dropped without ever having been definitely settled. There is, however, no doubt that Gray constructed a telephone which talked over a line two miles long, before Bell ever made a telephone that would transmit a word. This talk was had over a telegraph wire, extending from the office of Sidney Shepard & Company, in Buffalo, N. Y., to their factory, two miles distant, and besides Gray, three men, Victor C. Gilman, a Mr. Tripp and a Mr. Forsythe, talked over this wire, through a telephone made by Gray out of a cigar box. The fact that this talk took place has never been questioned, as the men were all of high standing and undoubted integrity.
The third important question raised by the claimants contesting against Bell was that of fraud in the patent office itself, in the issuance of the patent to Bell, and in determining the priority of his application.
Before the Supreme Court, Lysander Hill, one of the attorneys in the cause, made this statement: “The whole business was cradled in fraud. Mr. Bell's attorneys had an underground railroad in operation between their office and the office of Examiner Wilbur in the patent office, by which they were enabled to have unlawful and guilty knowledge of Gray's papers as soon as they were filed in the patent office.” It was further claimed that Gray's caveat was filed first and that Bell's application, afterward filed, was first recorded. Hill insisted that the very fact that Bell's application was recorded showed that it was received after Gray's, and supported his contention by showing that all applications, when received, were filed upon a spear, and at the close of the day's business, were taken from the spear and recorded, so that the last filed would first appear of record. Examiner Wilbur, however, swore that Bell's application was received first. It was also claimed by Mr. Hill that after Bell's application was filed, it was taken from the files and the variable resistance specification stolen from the Gray caveat and inserted in the Bell application. It was shown that in the application for an English patent, filed at about the same time, the variable resistance specification was omitted.
The court, after a careful consideration, again sustained Bell, and upon this branch of the case there was no dissenting opinion. Every question raised was decided in favor of Bell, and he was thus, by the court of last resort, confirmed in his right to a patent on the telephone.
After the decision was rendered, suits were brought all over the United States against infringing companies, which operated telephone exchanges; their plants were closed and in many instances ripped up and burned in magnificent bonfires as object lessons to venturesome capitalists who dared embark their money in the telephone business. Within a year after the decision was rendered, there was not a telephone plant in operation in the United States outside the dominion of the American Bell Telephone Company, except two small plants, one at Fort Smith, Ark., and one at Aberdeen, S. D.
When the Bell patents expired there were in use only 291,253 telephones; there are today more than 10,000,000. So that, after all, as is usually the case, the public suffered the greatest damage from the Bell monopoly.
The multiple telegraph, upon which Bell spent so many years of experimenting and expended so much of his fatherin-law's money, was invented and perfected many years ago, and brought renown and wealth to its inventor. And who, do you guess, invented the multiple telegraph? Elisha Gray, Bell's old rival in the invention of the telephone.
Altogether more than $5,000,000 was paid out for attorneys' fees in the many years of litigation.
This is all ancient history now. Prof. Gray is dead. Drawbaugh is dead. Prof. Bell, years ago, retired from the Bell Telephone Company. The Bell patents have long since expired and the telephone business is now open to the inventive genius and capital of the world. But I believe that if you will read the long decision of the court and the dissenting opinion, you will find it full of romance and wonder, and more interesting than any of the “six best sellers” on the market today.
WILLIAM A. Hough. GREENFIELD, IND.