Antonio Meucci (1808 – 1889)
The latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame is a man who has a justifiable claim to be the inventor of the telephone, Antonio Meucci. Needless to say he lost out in his battle to secure his rights to the invention and Alexander Graham Bell saw the opportunity to scoop the prize and claim the glory.
Born near Florence Antonio developed his first communication device in 1834 which allowed the control room and the stage at the Teatro della Pergola to communicate with each other via something akin to the pipe telephones used on ships. Migrating to the States via Cuba in 1850 he set up a tallow candle factory, the first of its kind in the country. But it was his interest in what we now know as telephony that was his main focus.
By 1856 Meucci had achieved his ambition of broadcasting his voice through wires, rigging up a device which allowed him to communicate with his bed-ridden wife on the second floor of his house from his workshop in the basement. Calling his device the telettrofono he described it in his notes as “a vibrating diaphragm and an electrified magnet with a spiral wire that wraps around it. The vibrating diaphragm alters the current of the magnet. These alterations of current, transmitted to the other end of the wire, create analogous vibrations of the receiving diaphragm and reproduce the word”. Between 1856 and 1870 he developed more than thirty different types of telephone based on his prototype. In 1860 he gave a public demonstration of his invention, reported in the New York Italian-language newspaper.
But as we come to expect of our inductees, misfortune dogged him. His candle factory got into financial difficulties, Meucci was severely burned in a steamship accident and his wife, Ester, sold his machines to a second hand shop for $6. Perhaps she was fed up with him ringing her. Nonetheless Meucci persevered and by 1871 had secured funding from some businessmen of Italian extraction to establish the Telettrofono Company.
The next step was to file for a patent but Meucci’s lawyer submitted a patent caveat, a sort of provisional application valid for a year, for a Sound Telegraph on December 28th 1871 rather than an application for full patency. To compound the error the caveat wasn’t renewed on its third expiry in December 1874 – some claim that he couldn’t afford the renewal fee, a claim that should be viewed with some suspicion given that he applied for and was granted patents on other inventions, not telephone related, in the period between 1872 and 1876.
Stranger still, Meucci sent a model and technical details of his telephone to the Western Union Telegraph Company, requesting a meeting with the Company’s executive. This was refused. Spotting his opportunity Alexander Graham Bell filed for a patent on his telephone in 1876, succeeded and wrote his name into the annals of history. When the Bell Telephone Company sued Meucci and others for patent infringement, our hero requested the return of his papers only to be told that they had been destroyed. Bell was working at the Western Union at the time. Did he have a hand in their destruction?
Meucci continued to fight but died in penury. It was only in 2002 that the US Congress acknowledged his contribution to telephony. A truly worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.
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