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October 24, 2002 Telephone was invented by Meucci, speaker says



by Sylvain Comeau

Everyone knows Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. That is a key point in scientific history, and one which was unquestioned — until recently.

Dr. Basilio Catania, a retired telecommunications engineer and former head of Italy’s Central Research Laboratories in Telecommunications, spoke at Concordia recently about uncovered evidence that 19th-century engineer Antonio Meucci predated Bell.

Meucci’s pioneering work on the telephone is described in files at the United States National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, MD. These include drawings and technical notes by Meucci, which Catania and others believe constitute the earliest explanations of the scientific and technical principles behind the telephone. For example, it was Meucci who deduced that the first phones would work poorly without soundproofing.

“Before the amplifier was invented, the signal received by the pure voice travelling along the telephone wire was very feeble, so you had to set up all possible contrivances to avoid being disturbed by the environment,” Catania explained.

“Meucci foresaw the necessity of this... On Bell’s side, the need for a quiet environment was first recognized by Bell’s assistant, Thomas Watson, in 1877, six years after Meucci.”

More significantly, Meucci filed preliminary papers with the U.S. patent office in 1871, five years before Bell’s patent. He filed a caveat, a form of pre-patent which gave the inventor priority over anyone else filing a patent on the same subject. He let it lapse in 1874 because he did not have the $10 renewal fee, which came back to haunt him during a trial between the Bell company and Meucci’s company, Globe. The court ruled in Bell’s favour in 1887.

Catania also discussed another trial that pitted the U.S. government against Bell and his company. That battle was tied up in legal wrangling for years, until the U.S. attorney-general decided to drop the case in 1897, largely due to the fact that Bell’s original patents had expired. This was also seven years after Meucci’s death in 1889. He died in poverty, while Bell had long since become rich and famous.

But Catania came to praise Meucci, not to bury Bell. In fact, he said that the man himself bore little or no responsibility for Meucci’s unfortunate fate.

“Science must be an objective discipline; if we are honest scientists and researchers, we must find the truth, whatever that happens to be. I think both men have merits, and it would be an error to demonize or deificate either of them.”

Catania is the author of Antonio Meucci: The Inventor and his Time, as well as 15 papers on Meucci. His Web site, www.esanet.it/chez_basilio/meucci.html, is largely devoted to him.

Catania’s lecture, held on April 8, was presented by the Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science.