This Day in History – February 14th, 1876


Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell was a professor of elocution at Boston University and tutor of deaf children while pursuing his own research into a method of telegraphy that could transmit multiple messages over a single wire simultaneously, a so-called “harmonic telegraph”. Bell formed a partnership with two of his students’ parents, including prominent Boston lawyer Gardiner Hubbard, to help fund his research in exchange for shares of any future profits.

Elisha Gray was a prominent inventor in Highland Park, Illinois. His Western Electric company was a major supplier to the telegraph company Western Union. In 1874, Bell was in competition with Elisha Gray to be the first to invent a practical harmonic telegraph.

In the summer of 1874, Gray developed a harmonic telegraph device using vibrating reeds that could transmit musical tones, but not intelligible speech. In December 1874, he demonstrated it to the public at Highland Park First Presbyterian Church. On February 11th, 1876, Gray included a diagram for a telephone in his notebook.

Elisha Gray

Elisha Gray

On February 14th, 1876 Gray’s lawyer filed a patent caveat with a similar diagram. The same day, Bell’s lawyer filed (hand-delivered to the U.S. Patent Office) a patent application on the harmonic telegraph, including its use for transmitting vocal sounds. On February 19th, the patent office suspended Bell’s application for three months to give Gray time to submit a full patent application with claims, after which the patent office would begin interference proceedings to determine whether Bell or Gray were first to invent the claimed subject matter of the telephone.

At the time, the USPTO required the submission of a working patent model for the patent application to be accepted, with the acceptance process often taking years, and with interference proceedings that often involved public hearings—although the U.S. Congress had abolished the requirement for patent models in 1870. However, Bell’s lawyers argued strenuously for an exception to be made in their case, likely on the basis of the Congressional amendment to the patent law.

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