Today, an old question: who invented the telephone?
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Ask who really invented the
telephone, and you may get the name of a German,
Philipp Reis, not Alexander Graham Bell. The common
wisdom is that Reis's telephone was only marginal,
while Bell's phone really worked. Now Lewis Coe
rethinks the priority question in his book,
The Telephone and its Several
Reis was a 26-year-old science teacher when he
began work on the telephone in 1860. His essential
idea came from a paper by a French investigator
named Bourseul. In 1854 Bourseul had explained how
to transmit speech electrically. He wrote:
Speak against one diaphragm and let each
vibration "make or break" the electric contact. The
electric pulsations thereby produced will set the
other diaphragm working, and [it then reproduces]
the transmitted sound.
Only one part of Bourseul's idea was shaky. To send
sound, the first diaphragm shouldn't make or break
contact. It should vary the flow of electricity to
the second diaphragm continuously. Reis used
Bourseul's term, "make or break," but his diaphragm
actually drove a thin rod to varying depths in an
electric coil. He didn't make and or break the
current. He varied it continuously.
Bell faced the same problem when he began work on
his telephone a decade later. First, he used a
diaphragm-driven needle, entering a water/acid
solution, to create a continuously variable
resistance and a smoothly varying electrical
current. Bell got that idea from another American
inventor, Elisha Gray.
Of course evaporation and immobility both make a
liquid pool impractical. Bell soon gave it up in
favor of a system closer to Reis's electromagnet.
Still, it's clear that Gray's variable resistance
pool had pointed the way for Bell. And so we
wonder, was Bell also influenced by Reis's
invention? Reis died two years before Bell received
his patent. He was only 40, and he never did get
around to seeking a patent for his device.
Reis's phones were tricky. The diaphragm was too
delicate. A German company produced them with
inconsistent results. Some worked well. Some
transmitted only static. Reis's phones were
demonstrated all over Europe. One was demonstrated
in Scotland while Bell was back there visiting his
father. We don't know if Bell saw it. However, he
could hardly have been unaware of Reis's work.
Still, we don't want to deny Bell's brilliance. He
produced a robust and viable telephone, and he had
the force of personality to sell it to a skeptical
public. But to do that, he did what all inventors
do. He built on the combined wisdom of others --
just as Reis had built on the work of Bourseul
The very word priority cheats all but
one person of credit. In fact, we must thank
Bourseul, Reis, Gray, Bell -- all of them. For
great inventions are always the gift of many
people, not just one.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds