On this day 1876: First telephone patent filed

ON 9 March, 1876 Alexander Graham Bell filed a patent for the first telephone - just three hours ahead of a similar one by Elisha Gray.

Alexander Graham Bell, in an undated photograph. Picture: Getty
Alexander Graham Bell, in an undated photograph. Picture: Getty

The Edinburgh-born scientist and inventor took inspiration from the work of Charles Bourseul, Johann Philipp Reis and Gray and began work on a telephone device in the early 1870s.

He commenced experiments in 1873, but it wasn’t until 1875 that Graham Bell and his assistant Thomas Watson stumbled upon the mechanism that would pave the way for the invention of the telephone as we know it.

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During testing, Graham Bell is reported to have connected a phone line between his work room and the cellar of his house, and asked his assistant to stand by the receiver in the cellar.

Graham Bell was born in a property on Edinburgh's Charlotte Square. Picture: TSPL

Graham Bell then spoke into his receiver saying: “Do you understand what I say?” with Watson replying “Yes”.

The voice sounds were faint and unclear, and Graham Bell was unable to do further work on the design until after the patent had been filed due to other commitments and ill-health.

But in March 1876, Graham Bell used his design to call Watson, saying: “Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you” with Watson answering.

The first long-distance call - from Graham Bell’s family home to his assistant around 10 miles away - was made in August 1876.

Talking telegraph

Italian immigrant Antonio Meucci is credited with working on the design of a ‘talking telegraph’ - or telephone - in 1849, 25 years before Graham Bell applied for his patent.

In 1871, five years before Graham Bell’s patent, Meucci filed a caveat, or announcement, of his invention of the ‘telephone’.

But due to his personal circumstances and ongoing hardships, Meucci was unable to renew his caveat. His role in the development of the telephone went largely unnoticed until the US House of Representatives passed a resolution in June 2002 honouring his contributions and work.

As well as Meucci, Gray and Graham Bell, a number of other inventors are credited with some involvement in the telephone’s development, including Charles Grafton Page, who passed an electric current through a coil of wire placed between the poles of a magnet in 1840.

Innocenzo Manzetti is considered by many as the true inventor of the telephone, and may have made one in the mid-1860s.

French telegraph engineer Bourseul proposed the first design of a telephone in 1854, around the same time Meucci claimed to have created his first prototype and demonstrated it in Staten Island in New York.

Reis is also believed to have introduced the term ‘telephon’ for a device he created that could transmit musical notes and occasionally distinct speech via electric signals.