Bell challenged as a ringer


Telephone: An obscure resolution in the U.S. Congress about an obscure Italian immigrant stirs up Alexander Graham Bell partisans in Canada.

July 02, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

BADDECK, NOVA SCOTIA - The news swept into this secluded lakeside town without warning, like the winds that whistle across Cape Breton from the North Atlantic: "Mr. Bell" was under attack from America.

Which meant that tiny Baddeck, proud to have been the longtime summer home of Alexander Graham Bell, was under attack as well.

In June, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution crediting a little-known Italian immigrant, Antonio Meucci, as the rightful inventor of the telephone. Meucci, the resolution stated, conceived one of the world's greatest inventions years before Bell received his patent for the telephone in 1876.

The resolution, drafted by Rep. Vito J. Fossella, a Republican from Staten Island, N.Y., drew scant attention in the United States, but it made front-page headlines in Canada, where the Scottish-born Bell moved at age 23.

To many Canadians, the resolution represented yet another slight by its pushy neighbor to the south. Last month, Canada's House of Commons passed its own resolution upholding Bell's primacy.

The ire was especially strong in the towns connected with Bell - Brantford, Ontario, where he first lived after arriving from Scotland, and Baddeck, the town on the shore of the Bras d'Or, the large lake in the center of Cape Breton, where Bell spent his last 38 summers and tested many of his inventions.

Bell died in Baddeck in 1922 but the town is still dominated by his presence: It is home to a large Bell museum, and his 97-year-old granddaughter still lives at Beinn Breagh, the 37-room, 11-chimney Bell mansion that looms over the lake.

"I don't care what people say, it's not going to change what I think about him," said Greg MacKay, 19, who helps run a sailboat tour of the lake that offers a view of the mansion. "All I know is, he's got the patent."

Jack Ingraham, a guide at the Bell museum, was particularly upset about suggestions by Meucci boosters that Bell was a schemer who got rich off of another man's idea. (An Italian newspaper referred to Bell as an impostor, profiteer and "cunning Scotsman.")

"They're calling names, and people here don't appreciate that. To destroy a man's life with innuendo is not good," said Ingraham. "They're putting a good story forward, but they don't have all the facts."

Getting at the facts isn't easy. The 1870s were thick with dreamers trying to improve the telegraph and imagining an invention that could transmit speech, which makes it hard to pinpoint who first turned a vague concept into reality.

This much is known: In March 1876, Bell, then a speech therapist for the deaf, received a patent for his discovery that sounds could be electrically transmitted by a "ululating wave," the principle behind the telephone.

A few days later, Bell accidentally transmitted a full sentence over a device that he and his assistant had built, a wire linking a diaphragm and a solution of sulfuric acid hooked to a battery-powered electric current.

That June, Bell exhibited his telephone at a Philadelphia exposition, and that August, he completed a one-way, five-mile call in Ontario. Between a $10,000 prize for the invention and his stock in the new Bell Telephone Co., the patent made Bell a rich man.

Congress says his wealth was undeserved. The resolution states that Meucci, an immigrant living in Staten Island, publicly demonstrated what he called a "teletrofono" in 1860 and in 1871 filed a "caveat," giving notice of an impending patent.

According to the resolution, Meucci was too poor to commercialize his invention and couldn't afford the $10 fee to renew the caveat that would have precluded Bell's patent.

Bell's defenders dispute this. The truth is, they say, Bell fended off an 1887 challenge from Meucci, where it was found that Meucci's device was acoustic, not electric, consisting of tin cans joined by copper wire. It was one of 600 successful patent defenses by Bell in the 18 years after the invention, during which he assumed U.S. citizenship to help his case in court.

Ingraham said the Bell museum won't address the Meucci claim in its exhibits, noting that the U.S. resolution is only an expression of congressional opinion: "It doesn't change history."

It might yet. The Garibaldi-Meucci Museum in Staten Island is planning a letter-writing campaign to publishers to replace Bell's name with Meucci's in textbooks.

"There will be a concerted effort to make sure this is taught to children," said Emily Gear, the museum's director.

Even if Bell eventually has to share credit for the telephone, his defenders note that the versatile inventor will still be known for his other advances: a precursor of the iron lung, a breed of multi-nippled sheep, a probe to find bullets in bodies, a graphophone record player, and a "photophone" that anticipated the cell phone.

Then there is Bell's work in flight, which he embarked on in 1883, long before the Wright brothers flew their plane at Kitty Hawk. Bell and his assistants made major advances in trying to develop an airplane when one assistant defected to the Wrights, taking the information with him, Ingraham said.

Bell's defenders say they could make the same claim for Bell and the invention of the airplane that Meucci's backers are making for the telephone - but say they are above that.

"You don't see the Americans saying, `Well, it wasn't really the Wright brothers who invented the airplane,'" said Judith Langley, a Baddeck inkeeper. "But the Americans think they can just have their own history."

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