Antonio Meucci

Did Meucci Invent the Telephone Before Alexander Graham Bell?

Who was the first inventor of the telephone and would Antonio Meucci have won his case against Alexander Graham Bell if he had lived to see it adjudicated? Bell was the first person to patent the telephone, and his company was the first to bring telephone services successfully to the marketplace. But people are passionate in putting forward other inventors who deserve the credit. These include Meucci, who accused Bell of stealing his ideas.

Another example is Elisha Gray,  who almost patented the telephone before Alexander Graham Bell did. There are a few other inventors who have invented or claimed a telephone system including Johann Philipp Reis, Innocenzo Manzetti, Charles Bourseul, Amos Dolbear, Sylvanus Cushman, Daniel Drawbaugh, Edward Farrar, and James McDonough.

Antonio Meucci and the Patent Caveat for the Telephone

Antonio Meucci filed a patent caveat for a telephone device in December of 1871. Patent caveats according to the law were "a description of an invention, intended to be patented, lodged in the patent office before the patent was applied for, and operated as a bar to the issue of any patent to any other person regarding the same invention." Caveats lasted one year and were renewable. They are no longer issued.

Patent caveats were much less costly than a full patent application and required a less detailed description of the invention.

The U.S. Patent Office would note the subject matter of the caveat and hold it in confidentiality. If within the year another inventor filed a patent application for a similar invention, the Patent Office notified the holder of the caveat, who then had three months to submit a formal application.

Antonio Meucci did not renew his caveat after 1874, and Alexander Graham Bell was granted a patent in March of 1876.

It should be pointed out that a caveat does not guarantee that a patent will be granted, or what the scope of that patent will be. Antonio Meucci was granted fourteen patents for other inventions, which leads me to question the reasons that Meucci did not file a patent application for his telephone, when patents were granted to him in 1872, 1873, 1875, and 1876.

Author Tom Farley says, "Like Gray, Meucci claims Bell stole his ideas. To be true, Bell must have falsified every notebook and letter he wrote about coming to his conclusions. That is, it is not enough to steal, you must provide a false story about how you came along on the path to discovery. You must falsify each step toward invention. Nothing in Bell's writing, character, or his life after 1876 suggest he did so, indeed, in the more than 600 lawsuits which involved him, no one else was credited for inventing the telephone."

In 2002, the U.S. House of Representatives passed Resolution 269, "Sense of the House Honoring the Life and Achievements of 19th Century Italian-American Inventor Antonio Meucci." Congressman Vito Fossella who sponsored the bill told the press, "Antonio Meucci was a man of vision whose enormous talents led to the invention of the telephone, Meucci began work on his invention in the mid-1880s, refining and perfecting the telephone during his many years living on Staten Island." However, I do not interpret the carefully worded resolution to mean that Antonio Meucci invented the first telephone or that Bell had stolen Meucci's design and deserved no credit.

Are politicians now our historians? The issues between Bell and Meucci were headed to trial and that trial never happened, we do not know what the outcome would have been.

Antonio Meucci was an accomplished inventor and deserves our recognition and respect. He patented other inventions. I respect those who have a different opinion than me. Mine is that several inventors independently worked on a telephone device and that Alexander Graham Bell was the first to patent his and was the most successful in bringing the telephone to market. I invite my readers to draw their own conclusions. 

Meucci Resolution - H.Res.269

Here is a plain English synopsis and extracts with the "whereas" language of the resolution removed. You can read the full version on the Congress.gov website.

He immigrated to New York from Cuba and worked on a creating an electronic communications project he called the "teletrofono" that linked different rooms and floors of his house on Staten Island.

But he exhausted his savings and couldn't commercialize his invention, " though he demonstrated his invention in 1860 and had a description of it published in New York's Italian language newspaper."

"Antonio Meucci never learned English well enough to navigate the complex American business community. He was unable to raise sufficient funds to pay his way through the patent application process, and thus had to settle for a caveat, a one-year renewable notice of an impending patent, which was first filed on December 28, 1871. Meucci later learned that the Western Union affiliate laboratory reportedly lost his working models, and Meucci, who at this point was living on public assistance, was unable to renew the caveat after 1874.

"In March 1876, Alexander Graham Bell, who conducted experiments in the same laboratory where Meucci's materials had been stored, was granted a patent and was thereafter credited with inventing the telephone. On January 13, 1887, the Government of the United States moved to annul the patent issued to Bell on the grounds of fraud and misrepresentation, a case that the Supreme Court found viable and remanded for trial. Meucci died in October 1889, the Bell patent expired in January 1893, and the case was discontinued as moot without ever reaching the underlying issue of the true inventor of the telephone entitled to the patent. Finally, if Meucci had been able to pay the $10 fee to maintain the caveat after 1874, no patent could have been issued to Bell."

Antonio Meucci - Patents

  • 1859 - US Patent No. 22,739 - candle mold

  • 1860 - US Patent No. 30,180 - candle mold

  • 1862 - US Patent No. 36,192 - lamp burner

  • 1862 - US Patent No. 36,419 - improvement in treating kerosene

  • 1863 - US Patent No. 38,714 -  improvement in preparing hydrocarbon liquid

  • 1864 - US Patent No. 44,735 - improved process for removing mineral, gummy, and resinous substances from vegetables

  • 1865 - US Patent No. 46,607 - improved method of making wicks

  • 1865 - US Patent No. 47,068 - improved process for removing mineral, gummy, and resinous substances from vegetables

  • 1866 - US Patent No. 53,165 - improved process for making paper-pulp from wood

  • 1872 - US Patent No. 122,478 - improved method of manufacturing effervescent drinks from fruits

  • 1873 - US Patent No. 142,071 - improvement in sauces for food

  • 1875 - US Patent No. 168,273 - method of testing milk

  • 1876 - US Patent No. 183,062 - hygrometer

  • 1883 - US Patent No. 279,492 - plastic paste

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Bellis, Mary. "Antonio Meucci." ThoughtCo, Aug. 9, 2016, thoughtco.com/antonio-meucci-4071768. Bellis, Mary. (2016, August 9). Antonio Meucci. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/antonio-meucci-4071768 Bellis, Mary. "Antonio Meucci." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/antonio-meucci-4071768 (accessed December 16, 2017).