Loretta Barnard

The telephone, the radio and the two men who stole the invention

While necessity is the mother of invention, we don’t necessarily honour the right man who fathered it.

 

 

Here at The Big Smoke, we hate injustice. We fly the flag of fairness and today we’re trying to rectify some major historical misconceptions by looking at two men whose inventions were “stolen” by others.

 

Meucci and Bell

Have you ever heard of Antonio Santi Giuseppe Meucci? No, neither had I, but it turns out it is Meucci to whom we are indebted for the telephone. Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) gets all the credit but it’s wickedly misplaced. Bell’s fame rests on his theft of Meucci’s intellectual property.

Born in Florence in 1808, Meucci was a gifted mechanical engineer and his work in a Florentine theatre company – where he devised a voice communication system between the stage and the control room – gave him the idea of developing something that would allow voices to be heard across vast distances. Having moved to New York, he developed a method whereby his wife at home could communicate with him when he was in his workshop. Notes dating from 1857 contain his thoughts about electromagnetic transmission of the voice, and over the years he made various models of his “teletrofono”, which he publicly demonstrated in 1860 to the ex-pat Italian community of New York.

Unfortunately he never had enough money to file a lasting patent, so in 1872 he sent his prototype and all the specifications to the Western Union telegraph company. They later said they’d misplaced his material, but two years afterwards, Bell, who had access to Meucci’s material because they shared a workshop, filed a patent for his own telephone, went into business with Western Union and became a wealthy man. Meucci took legal action but he was no match for Bell, who by then was a successful businessman and inventor. Although it went to appeal, Meucci died in 1889 and the case was dropped.

In a belated victory for the Italian inventor, the US House of Representatives declared in 2002 that Meucci was the actual inventor of the telephone, and that Bell had essentially stolen much of his research and methodology to make his own. It must be said that Bell was a talented engineer in his own right, but here he blatantly took another man’s work and passed it off as his own. For shame Bell, for shame.

 

Tesla and Marconi

Marconi invented the radio, right? Wrong! It’s yet another common historical mis-attribution. The actual inventor of the radio was Nikola Tesla, born in what is now Croatia in 1856. To be completely accurate, the development of the radio happened over a period of years with various engineers, scientists and mathematicians proving the existence of radio waves, each building on previous work and devising better technologies, but we’re keen to give Tesla the credit he’s due regarding the radio.

In his twenties, Tesla moved to America, securing a job at Thomas Edison’s electrical works. They collaborated for a time, but ultimately differed over the use of direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC) power systems. When he left Edison, Tesla was awarded the contract with Westinghouse to supply power using his AC system, having shown it was safer, cheaper and more efficient than the DC system.

This riled Edison who badmouthed Tesla for the rest of his life, making it difficult for the inventor to attract sufficient financial backing for his groundbreaking work. A high profile man, Edison gave particularly nasty demonstrations to convince people of the dangers of AC – he electrocuted animals. Cats, dogs, horses, even an elephant. (He also invented the electric chair.) He cruelly killed all those animals just to discredit Tesla but in the end, his DC generators were no match for Tesla’s AC system.

Tesla’s vision, calculations and experiments, his sheer genius led to the invention of the radio. Marconi in this instance was merely the technician who built the machine to the specifications worked out by Tesla.

Tesla was a tireless inventor with boundless imagination. He also designed the first hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls essentially establishing AC as the preferred electrical power-generating system in America and across the globe. Tesla’s genius in inventing the alternating current system should never be underestimated. It changed the world.

Now to the radio. In 1891 Tesla developed what he called the “Tesla coil”, the first device to be able to wirelessly transmit electricity. Using electromagnetic force and resonance, this was a game changer paving the way for further advances, for example using radio remote control to move objects, such as a model boat. But his ambitions were greater than creating playthings. In 1901, on New York’s Long Island, Tesla built a worldwide wireless communication system using an electrical tower as a transmitter. He promised it would provide telephone and telegraph communication, navigation aids, newscasts, entertainment etc – all the things we still get from radio today.

Meanwhile Guglielmo Marconi had been working on improving radio transmission ranges. He was also a successful wealthy businessman and good at self-publicity. Back in 1893, Tesla had demonstrated his transmitters to the authorities and was later granted appropriate patents. But influential rivals (Edison among them) managed to have these overturned in favour of Marconi, and in 1904 Marconi, having taken Tesla’s ideas and made them commercial, was awarded the patent for having invented the radio.

Tesla’s vision, his calculations and experiments, his sheer genius led to the invention of the radio. Marconi in this instance was merely the technician who built the machine to the specifications worked out by Tesla.

For a lengthy period there was a patent war between the two men. Marconi died in 1937, Tesla in 1943. Only months after his death, the US Supreme Court ruled that all the patents belonged to Tesla, and Marconi’s were invalidated. Tesla’s rightful place as inventor of the radio was restored.

 

That’s two wrongs we’ve tried to right. While Bell, Edison and Marconi made valuable contributions of their own, they should not be lauded for things they did not do.

Next time you give someone a call or listen to the radio or pick up the remote control, remember our two neglected inventors Meucci and Tesla – two extraordinary men whose brilliant minds gave us profoundly life-changing technologies.

 

Loretta Barnard

Loretta Barnard is a freelance writer and editor who, in a long career, has done almost everything possible in the book publishing industry. These days she actively pursues her love of music, literature and theatre, and is something of a wannabe roving ambassador for the creative and performing arts.

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