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Phone follies

Posted by Jim Concannon  January 12, 2009 06:05 PM

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On Feb. 14, 1876, an inventor named Elisha Gray filed a claim with the US Patent Office for a device he had designed that would "transmit the tones of the human voice" through wires. That same day, an inventor named Alexander Graham Bell did likewise. Which name sounds familiar?
That is the jumping-off point for science writer Seth Shulman in "The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell's Secret." Shulman, a Northampton resident and the author of five books, initially planned to write about Bell and his friendship with fellow inventor Thomas Edison. But during his research, Shulman found oddities and gaps in Bell's records that caused him eventually to conclude that Bell took a key finding in Gray's research -- that immersing wire in water allows sound to travel more easily -- and made it his own. A month later, Bell conducted the legendary Boston experiment in which he phoned his assistant and said, "Mr. Watson, come here." Bell went on to fame and fortune, while Gray became a historical footnote.
Essentially, Shulman contends that Bell's partnership with a top patent lawyer provided a connection to the Washington office that allowed him access to Gray's design. At one point the patent examiner swore in an affidavit that Bell's lawyer bribed him to share the information. However, the same examiner swore in other depositions that no such thing happened. And Bell's defenders point out that the inventor successfully defended hundreds of challenges to his patent in the late 1800s.
So, in the end, Shulman may have a smoking gun (and a possible victim) but no bullet. Still, his dogged presentation of the case for the prosecution makes compelling reading. You can make your own decision on who you believe when Shulman speaks Thursday, Jan. 15, from 7:30 - 9 p.m. at the Newton Free Library, 330 Homer St., Newton.

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