By: Felicia LaLomia
Here’s a trivia question for you: who invented the telephone? Most would answer Alexander Graham Bell, but there are layers of history, Italian history, that have too often gone untold.
Bell was the first to acquire a successful patent of the telephone, but this milestone is mired in controversy. In 1849, Italian immigrant Antonio Meucci’s innovations would lead to the creation of the telephone. But let’s back up.
The Florence native spent years inventing different gadgets. In the 1830s in Italy, he invented a talking device that allowed for communication between stages and theater control rooms. Later that decade, he emigrated to Cuba and, working for another theater, invented a water purification system, a shock therapy system for people with rheumatism and a talking telegraph.
In 1850, he moved to Staten Island, opened a candle factory and hired many Italian immigrants as employees. In 1856, Meucci built a transmission device that connected his laboratory to his house so he could communicate with his wife, who had arthritis and could not move.
Soon after, he held a public demonstration of his new invention and continued to tinker with it, eventually creating over 30 different versions. Meucci knew his invention would be successful, but because he didn’t have the money to secure a patent, he filed for a caveat, which was cheaper but only lasted a year.
He went to Western Union to see if they would help him get the funds. After an initial meeting with company executives, Meucci waited to be contacted about performing a test run. Days turned into weeks, and after repeated visits asking for his documentation back, he was informed it was all lost. In 1874, the caveat expired, and Western Union laboratories employee Alexander Graham Bell filed for the patent in 1876.
Later, Bell began demonstrating the telephone, and having the funds, he also organized the Bell Telephone Company in 1877. That same year, Bell was brought to Washington D.C. to defend his patent for the telephone. (Over the years, there were 550 court cases that challenged Bell’s patent.)
Meucci was among those inventors who felt his idea was stolen, writing to newspapers to say that the telephone was actually his. In response, the Bell Telephone Company claimed in court that Meucci doctored records to make it seem like he had written them first.
The judge said that Meucci failed to provide adequate evidence of the caveat or other records and that he deliberately defrauded investors.
Records of Meucci’s invention were difficult for him to produce in court due to Western Union losing his models, he contended.
In October 1889, Meucci died in his home on Staten Island at the age of 81. It wasn’t until 2002 when the U.S. Congress passed House Resolution 269, introduced by Rep. Vito Fossella of Staten Island, honoring him for his work and providing long overdue credit for the invention of the “teletrofono.”