This week in history: The telephone patented

In 1848, Italy’s Antonio Meucci developed a device for electronically transmitting the human voice, although in a form too distorted to understand.

By 1856, he was communicating with his arthritic wife inside his own home via an electromagnetic telephone.

And by 1870, he had devised a ‘telettrofono’ to communicate over distances of a mile. But he was unable to find a company willing to support his invention, or to afford to file a full patent (although he did file a preparatory document called a caveat).

Another inventor, Alexander Graham Bell, was more successful. Having conducted his own experiments in the early 1870s, he raised enough from wealthy backers to file a patent in 1876. The same day a third inventor, Elisha Gray, also filed a caveat.

By late summer, Graham Bell had shown his device could work over distances of more than 8km. Western Union turned down the chance to buy a share of his patent for $10,000, but he was still able to raise enough money to set up the Bell Telephone Company in 1877.

By the 1880s, Western Union realised its mistake. Rebuffed by Bell, it challenged the patent, but the US Supreme Court ruled – by a single vote – in Bell’s favour. The patent expired in 1894, but Bell Telephone (known as AT&T after 1899) prospered.

By the 1950s, it had over a million staff. An antitrust case in 1974 forced its partial break-up, but the parent company is still worth $168bn. Around 20% of the world’s population owns a fixed-line phone, although the proliferation of mobiles means this is set to fall.

Merryn

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