Book questions Alexander Graham Bell's telephone patent

Author suggests Bell pinched key process in building world's first telephone

High-profile patent disputes are a common occurrence in today's telecom industry, from NTP suing RIM to Wi-LAN suing Cisco, to everyone suing Vonage. But author and science journalist Seth Shulman contends that dodgy patenting in the telecom industry extends all the way back to Alexander Graham Bell, who Shulman alleges fraudulently obtained a process used by a rival inventor to build the world's first working telephone.

In his new book, titled The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell's Secret, Shulman writes that Bell had tried unsuccessfully to design a telephone prototype using magnets and batteries before abruptly changing his approach in March 1876 and employing a diluted sulfuric acid solution and a platinum needle.

According to Shulman, this change coincided with a trip Bell had made to Washington, D.C., the month before to deal with a patent challenge. There he had encountered a filing in the patent office submitted by Elisha Gray, a rival inventor who had been working on inventing a telegraph system that could send multiple telegrams over wires. It was from Gray's schematic diagrams, Shulman says, that Bell got the idea to use a diluted acid solution to produce a liquid transmitter in his telephone prototype. Weeks later, Bell completed the world's successful telephone call.

Shulman says he first took interest in Bell's telephone patent when he was doing research during a fellowship at MIT in 2004. Reading through Bell's laboratory notebooks, he noticed there was a two-week gap between when Bell had travelled to Washington to deal with the patent dispute and when he'd devised his new approach. Apparently, Bell already had filed a patent with overly broad language describing his idea for a telegraph that could send voice signals over a wire. After he encountered Gray's schematics, he added them to his patent illegally, Shulman asserts.

Ironically, however, Shulman thinks that Bell's theft of Gray's work might have been beneficial to consumers, because Bell saw immediately how important Gray's invention was.

"Despite his plagiarism, Bell does deserve credit as a visionary," Shulman says. "One of the things that distinguishes Bell and Gray is that even though Gray did the key piece of work to make the telephone possible, he didn't have the vision to see what the telephone could become. At the time, he even made some disparaging remarks about the telephone and its potential in the marketplace."

Shulman says the Bell case is interesting because it shares some aspects of today's patent disputes. Although Bell went a step further than most of today's so-called "patent trolls" --he actually stole ideas to put into his patent -- Shulman notes that overly broad patent language is a more persistent problem today because inventors no longer have to demonstrate a working model of their invention to get a patent. In particular, he notes that several firms have patented inventions they have no intention of ever producing or selling.

"I believe in patents and I do think they play an important role in driving innovation," Shulman says. "But there are a lot of patents being issued that don't rise to my definition of what a patent should be. Some serious rethinking is needed about how high or low the bar is raised before granting a patent."

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