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Bell’s Underdog: Elisha Gray and the Telephone

A lesson in entrepreneurship from history’s little-known scandals.

By common knowledge, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. It’s in the history books. There’s a medal in his name honoring outstanding contributions in telecommunications. The man even has a museum.

It may be, however, that Bell’s claim to the invention could come down to a great performance at a fair, a very pushy lawyer, and some good ol’ bureaucracy.

Elisha GrayYou see, another inventor, Elisha Gray, had been working on a similar device at the same time. Gray, who had partnered with Western Union and Thomas Edison, developed his own telephone and filed for patent on a very fateful day indeed: February 14, 1876. Fateful not because it was Valentine’s Day, but because it was the exact same day Bell filed his own patent for the telephone. That morning, Gray arrived at the Patent Office a few hours before Bell’s lawyer. So his application (a.k.a. “patent caveat”) was filed first. However, upon getting to the Patent Office, Bell’s lawyer — being a, well, lawyer — demanded Bell’s filing fee be entered immediately. Gray’s fee, however, was entered with the usual pace of governmental bureaucracy and was not taken to the examiner until the following morning.

So began the greatest controversy in telecommunications. (Malcolm Gladwell calls it “simultaneous invention,” but we think there’s no room for gray in the black-and-white world of history.)

Simultaneous Invention

The how’s and the why’s of this race are subject to a number of conspiracy theories. But what complicated things further was that Bell was first to claim the spotlight. In June of the same year, both Bell and Gray took their inventions to the World’s Fair in Philadelphia. Gray, once again, was first to present. But Bell, a true entertainer and showman, staged a presentation for some of the era’s greatest A-listers, including the emperor of Brazil.

The rest is, literally, history.

But we mostly like the story because it’s such a great allegory for today’s entrepreneurship and startup culture. Coming up with the big idea first has little to do with making it big. Everything comes down to impressing the right people, paying the right lawyers, and giving a hell of a presentation.

Published October 20, 2008




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