The Real Inventor of the Telephone
Most of us were brought up on the story that Alexander
Graham Bell invented the Telephone.
But it seems that history must be rewritten if justice is to
be served to an immigrant who came from Florence, Italy: Antonio Meucci. He
invented the telephone in 1849 and filed his first patent caveat (notice of
intention to take out a patent) in 1871, setting into motion a series of
mysterious events and injustices that would be incredible if so well documented.
Meucci was an enigmatic character. The tragic events of his
personal and professional life, his accomplishments and his association with
the great Italian patriot, Giusseppi Garibaldi, should be legendary, but,
curiously, the man and his story are practically unknown today.
Antonio Meucci was born in San Frediano, near Florence, in
April 1808. He studied design and mechanical engineering at Florence’s Academy
of Fine Arts and then worked in the Teatro della Pergola and various other
theaters as a stage technician until 1835, when he accepted a job as scenic
designer and stage technician at the Teatro Tacon in Havana, Cuba.
Fascinated by scientific research of any kind, he real every
scientific tract he could find and spent his spare time in Havana on research,
inventing a new method of galvanizing metals that he applied to military
equipment for the Cuban Government. He also continued his work in the theater
and pursued his endless experiments.
It was during this time that he began to realize the
possibility of a device that people could communicate their voices on. The next
ten years were to be spent perfecting this device and trying to promote its
With this goal in mind, he left Cuba for New York in 1850
and settled in the Clifton section of Staten Island. Here in Staten Island he
found himself surrounded by Italian political refugees. He became friends with Giusseppi
Garibaldi, who was in exile at this time. During Garibaldi’s time in America,
he was a guest in Meucci’s home. Meucci did all he could to help his Italian
friends, even though he had his own financial problems. He new nothing about money
management and many, including his so called friends took advantage of him.
Meanwhile, Meucci continued to dedicate his time to perfecting
the telephone. In 1855, when his wife became partially paralyzed, he devised a
telephone system which joined several rooms in his house to his workshop in
another building nearby. This was the first such installation anywhere. In
1860, when the instrument had become practical, Meucci organized a
demonstration to attract financial backing.
The description of the device was soon published in one of
New York’s Italian newspapers and the together with a model of the invention
was taken to Italy with the goal of arranging production there. Nothing
happened. The many promises of financial support after the demonstration also
The years that followed brought increasing poverty to an
embittered and discouraged Meucci. A dramatic event, in which Meucci was
severely burned in an explosion of the steamship, Westfield, returning from New
York City, brought things to an even more tragic state. During Meucci’s
hospitalization, his wife sold many of his working models to a second hand
dealer to raise money. After his recuperation, Meucci tried to buy back his
precious objects, but was told that they were resold to an unknown young man,
whose identity remains a mystery to this day.
Crushed, but not beaten, Meucci reconstructed his invention
and produced new designs and specifications. Unable to raise the sum of
$250.00(a considerable amount in those days) he took recourse in the caveat or
notice of intent. The caveat was registered on December 28, 1871 and renewed in
1872 and 1873, but fatefully not thereafter.
Immediately after he received certification of the caveat,
he tried again to demonstrate the enormous potential of the device. His
attempts to demonstrate the device to representatives of Western Union never
It is believed that Meucci’s poor knowledge of the English
language was partially the cause of his failure to promote his invention.
In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell filed a patent, which does
not really describe the telephone but refers to it as such. When Meucci learned
of this he instructed his attorney to protest to the U.S. Patent Office in
Washington. It was never done. However, a friend did contact Washington, only
to learn that all the documents relevant to the Talking Telegraph (a name
Meucci gave it) filed in Meucci’s caveat had been lost. Later an investigation
produced evidence of illegal relationships linking certain employees of the
patent office and officials of the Bell Company.
In the 1886 court case involving a law suite instituted by
Meucci, he was able to explain every detail of his invention so clearly that it
left little doubt of his veracity, although he did not win the case against
forces fielded by Bell. After the case was closed, the then Secretary of State
made a public statement that there exists sufficient proof to give priority to
Meucci in the invention of the telephone. The United States Government did
initiate a prosecution of fraud against Bell’s patent. The trial was postponed
year after year. When Meucci died in 1896, the case was dropped.
Finally on June 15, 2002, the United States Congress
officially recognized that Antonio Meucci is to be credited with the invention
of the Telephone and not Alexander Graham Bell, as has been claimed.
So after all he went through he has finally has been recognized
for his wonderful contribution to the world Especially in this day and age,
what would we do without our cell phones? Thank you Mr. Meucci.
The problem is: Who knows this story? Now we as
Italian/Americans must see to it that justice be served. We must spread the
word that indeed Antonio Meucci invented the telephone and not Bell.
Story adapted from Italian Historical Society and submitted by Salvatore J.
Appeared in ComUNICO June