by Sylvain Comeau
Everyone knows Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. That is a
key point in scientific history, and one which was unquestioned
Dr. Basilio Catania, a retired telecommunications engineer and former
head of Italys Central Research Laboratories in Telecommunications,
spoke at Concordia recently about uncovered evidence that 19th-century
engineer Antonio Meucci predated Bell.
Meuccis 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
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,
Meucci foresaw the necessity of this... On Bells side, the
need for a quiet environment was first recognized by Bells 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 Bells 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 Meuccis company, Globe. The
court ruled in Bells 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 Bells original patents had expired. This was
also seven years after Meuccis 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 Meuccis
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.
Catanias lecture, held on April 8, was presented by the Faculty
of Engineering and Computer Science.