Bell Didn't Invent
The Telephone
By Liam McDougall
Arts Correspondent
The Sunday Herald - UK

For more than a century, Alexander Graham Bell has been credited with inventing one of the world's most ingenious and profitable inventions. But astonishing new evidence unearthed in the archives of London's Science Museum reveals that successful tests on a German telephone, created 13 years before Bell's, were suppressed, allowing the Scot to retain his position as the father of modern communications.
Previously unseen documents show how a series of experiments in 1947 on a device developed by Philipp Reis, found that it could work as well as Bell's design when amplified. Using a modern receiver, the engineers found the German's 1863 transmitter, a system written off by history, could transmit speech and that Reis's receiver would also "reproduce speech of good quality but of low efficiency".
But the file also reveals that the tests ñ carried out on a number of the museum's telephone exhibits in 1947 to coincide with the centenary of Bell's birth ñ were considered so controversial that they were ordered to be kept secret by Sir Frank Gill, then chairman of British firm Standard Telephones and Cables (STC).
According to the documents, STC was at the time locked in talks to win a lucrative business deal with the American Telephone and Telegraph company (ATT), which had evolved from the famous Bell Company, and Gill thought it commercial suicide to have the results made public.
The file, marked "con fidential" and discovered by curatorial staff at the Science Museum eight weeks ago, lays bare a remarkable conspiracy of silence between the STC and museum bosses which has now re-ignited the debate about whether Bell really did invent the telephone.
In one memo, dated March 18, 1947, Gerald Garratt, the then curator of communications at the Science Museum, writes that "the attached reports were handed to me today by Mr LC Pocock of Standard Telephones and Cables Ltd on the strict understanding that they will not be referred to publicly nor published without their permission".
He adds: "The immediate reason for this reticence is that a commercial agreement is in the process of negotiation at the present time between STC and ATT ñ and the mutual relations would not be improved by any suggestion originating from STC that Graham Bell did not invent the telephone!"
In a later letter from Garratt, it is revealed how STC was so concerned about the results that it requested that all files relating to the Reis tests be returned to them. In the letter to Pocock, Garratt writes: "I am frankly uneasy at all this secrecy and would have much preferred to leave the reports among the other records Ö But if you tell me that I may not have copies for my records, I am left with the thought that there is something so secret about them as to be a matter of first class public interest.
"You must know as well as I the old controversy 'Did Graham Bell invent the telephone?' and I have here an unpublished manuscript of over 400 pages which proves pretty conclusively that he didn't. Does your anxiety to retrieve these reports rather suggest that you agree?"
All documents were eventually returned to the Science Museum in 1955, where they have lain buried in the archives until John Liffen, the current curator of communications, chanced upon them while preparing for a talk on the origins of the telephone.
He said: "I came across this file and thought, Good Lord! That is interesting. Both the Reis transmitter and receiver did work as well as Bell's system and that Reis developed his 'telephon' in 1863, 13 years before Bell got his patent.
"It shows that STC was so concerned that its results might show that not Bell but someone else had invented the telephone that they were prepared to keep quiet about the results."
The argument over who should be credited as the inventor of telephony has raged since Bell won his patent in 1876, described at the time as "the most valuable patent in American history".
Then, Reis, a physics teacher from Friedrichsdorf, near Frankfurt, was viewed as a brilliant engineer, but his telephone systems were thought inferior to Bell's model.
In June last year the US House of Representatives caused controversy after it passed a resolution naming Antonio Meucci, a penniless Italian, as the real inventor of the telephone. Painting Bell as a cunning opportunist, the resolution argued that the Scotsman did not invent the telephone but was simply the first inventor with the means to take out a patent on work pioneered by Meucci.
Although Bell is also credited with making the first telephone call in 1876 ñ with the famous words to his assistant, "Come here, Watson, I want you," ñ supporters of Meucci claim the Italian had made calls years earlier.
While the controversy rages over who should rightfully be named as the true inventor of the telephone, Liffen believes that Reis's name should now be given a renewed prominence in the debate.
"It could be said that Reis did not produce a commercially successful telephone in 1863, but what Graham Bell made in 1876 was not a practical telephone either. It was two years before he had something that ordinary people could use and even then it needed a better microphone than the one Bell designed.
"Eventually, the Bell telephone became the receiver and a Blake microphone became the transmitter. Then you had a practical telephone and one that used a principle that Bell hadn't developed. In my opinion no one person invented the telephone, rather it was a continual development by a lot of people, including Bell, Meucci and Reis."
Liffen, a communications expert for 30 years, is now to write a paper based on the information about Reis unearthed in the museum. Last night, news of his discovery already caused a reassessment of Reis's place in history.
Neil Johannessen, BT historian at its archives in London, said: "Here is a real laboratory test of something that history had written off as not being a functional telephone. The tests [by STC] tend to show that perhaps history has been unfair."
At the Reis House Museum in Friedrichsdorf, the former home of the inventor, there was little issue about where the plaudits should lie. Museum director Dr Erika Dittrich said: "We have no doubt that Reis invented the telephone. People, especially in America, are of the opinion that Bell invented the telephone because he got the patent. But Reis died in 1874, two years before Bell got it. As far as we are concerned we would like to see Reis's name in the encyclopaedia as the telephone's inventor."
©2003 Newsquest (Sunday Herald) Limited. all rights reserved.




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