Thursday, December 15, 2011

Does This Ring a Bell?

Many years ago, I lived in Rome, Georgia, in the United States. There, I knew a woman named Esther Watson Tipple, daughter of Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant, Thomas Watson. Mrs. Tipple, who was about seventy at the time, took a proprietary view of the telephone. She’d dial your number, say what she had to say, then hang up. She never said goodbye.

I think of Mrs. Tipple from time to time now that I live in Rome, Italy, because it seems to me that the telephone was invented for the Italian people and their gift for gab. Italian people, in fact, say the telephone was invented BY an Italian: Antonio Meucci.

Antonio Meucci
A native of Florence, Meucci studied design and mechanical engineering at the Academy of Fine Arts there and later worked as a stage technician at the city's Teatro della Pergola. He developed a communications system allowing his colleagues at the theater to talk among themselves.

He emigrated, first to Cuba, where, during his work with early electro-shock therapy, he heard a patient’s voice over the copper wire. He began experimenting as early as 1849 with voice transmissions when Bell was only two years old. In 1850, he moved to New York with his wife Ester to continue his experiments.

When Ester became immobilized by arthritis, Meucci set up a communications system between her second-story bedroom and his workshop. He apparently made several working models of his invention, and he gave a public demonstration of his device, which he called a “talking telegraph” and named  teletrofono, in 1860.

The Meucci family was always short of money. After Antonio was severely injured in a ferryboat accident in 1871,  Ester sold some of the telephone models to a second-hand shop for $6 to pay for his care. The others were stored in the laboratory Meucci shared with Bell and Watson.

Unable to afford $250 for a patent application, Meucci filed a caveat for $10 later that year. A caveat was a one-year, renewable declaration of an intention to file for a patent. The caveat contained a brief description of the proposed telephone. Meucci was unable to renew the caveat after 1874 for lack of funds.

At the same time, Meucci sent a model with technical details to the Western Union company because he wanted to test his invention over their wires. He was put off for about three years, and when he requested return of the materials in 1874, he was told they had been lost.

Two years later, in 1876, Bell filed his patent for the telephone. Meucci eventually sued. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, and the federal government moved to annul Bell’s patent on the grounds of fraud and misrepresentation. Bell counter-sued, and the case dragged for years, ending when the presiding judge died and Bell's patent expired. Meucci died a pauper in 1889; Bell went on to fame and fortune.

In 2002, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution that recognized Meucci’s role in developing the telephone and acknowledged that if Meucci had been able to pay the $10 fee to maintain the caveat after 1874, no patent could have been issued to Bell.

Meucci is so esteemed in Italy that his hometown of Florence held a huge celebration in 2008 honoring the city’s great geniuses: Dante, Leonardo, and Meucci.

Plaque Marking Meucci's Birthplace in Florence


  1. You've done it again, gone behind the scenes and revealed the true story. Amazing! We don't hear about this in the history books...Thanks so much :-)

  2. Kenda, thanks so much for your comment. I was in a friend's kitches with some other women with a game show on TV in the background a few years ago. The question was (in Italian) "What inventor said, 'Watson, some here, I need you.'" I said that I knew the answer and blurted out Bell's name. The Italian women pounced on me. I did know some of Meucci's story, but that experience gave me first-hand look at Italy's passion on the subject.

  3. This story shows how much money drives the world. If only Meucci had had the cash... I think Congress's resolution is nice but too little, too late. Did anyone take much notice of it, I wonder? It's nice that the Italians still celebrate him.

  4. I think the Italian American community had championed Meucci for decades, and this resolution was the culmination of their efforts. I first read about the resolution in the Italian press here.