The Telephone

Fact Paper 2

© Samuel Kurinsky, all rights reserved

portrait of Phillip Reis
PHILLIP REIS, one of the inventors of the telephone. An engraving of Reisís self-portrait with the seventh form of his telephone, demonstrated before the Free German Institute in Frankfort on May 11, 1862. A tenth version was marketed in Europe before Alexander Bell applied for a patent on an "improvement on telephony." The telephone achieved its potential when Emile Berliner invented the microphone and the transformer and applied them to telephony. Berliner is, therefore, the true inventor of the telephone as we know it.

For further details on Emile Berliner and inventing the telephone, microphone, transformer, gramophone, helicopter, Ercoupe and many other inventions go to FP 27-I and FP 27-II

Many histories credit the invention of the telephone to Alexander Graham Bell. Scarcely a mention of the inventors who preceded Bell are to be found in schoolbooks, and indeed, in encyclopedias. It is no wonder that the myth regarding the invention of the telephone, so authoritatively promulgated, is commonly believed. It is a classic case of "Institutionalized Obfuscation." It is true that Bell was one of those who patented an "improvement" on a device known as the telephone. It is not true that he invented it.

The device that Alexander Bell imitated was the electrical equivalent of a childís toy composed of two cans connected by a taut string. Electrical sound transference was a known novelty of the time. Many persons had been experimenting with similar contrivances long before Bell performed his experiment. Bell contributed nothing to the theories on which electrical voice transmission is based, nor was he the first to apply those theories in physical form.

The theoretical background for electrical wave transmission was established by Heinrich Hertz and Leo Graetz. Hertz was a half Jew who brought optics, acoustics, and electro-dynamics under one doctrinal discipline. A discovery by which Hertz is best known was of "Hertzian waves," the transmission of electro-magnetic waves through space. Hertz was also the discoverer of photo-electricity, the basis for television.

Leo Graetz was the son of the famous Jewish historian, Heinrich Graetz. Leo was the first to investigate the dispersal of electrical waves. Thus the telephone, radio, and television are founded on the discoveries of Hertz and Graetz.

The physics having been established, many scientists began to experiment with various means of converting sound into electrical waves and vice versa. Two persons to whom the invention of the precursor to the telephone can be most importantly attributed are Philip Reis and Antonio Meucci. Only one person, however, made the telephone a viable instrument. His name was Emile Berliner, and he was the inventor of the telephone in its present form.

Philip Reis, a self-educated physicist, was born in 1834 and began experimenting with sound devices in his teens. The first attempt by young Reis to reproduce and electrically transmit sound was to construct a crude assembly designed to imitate human ear functions. A violin case was the resonator, a hollowed-out beer can was the mouthpiece, a sausage casing was stretched across it to serve as a diaphragm!

Reis continued to improve the system. Finally, Reis demonstrated a more professional version of what he termed an "electrical eardrum" before the Physical Society of Frankfort, Germany on October 26, 1861. The verses of a song were transmitted from the room over a three-hundred-foot line to a hospital room. Thereafter, there were many other public demonstrations of improved versions of the telephon, a word Reis coined.

The demonstrations started 15 years before Bell took out a patent for a similar device. The presentation in 1861 was the first public demonstration of the successful conversion of electrical into auditory waves.

Reis was sickly, and impoverished, with neither the means nor the stamina to capitalize on the device. He died at forty years of age, two years before Bell is reputed to have summoned his assistant with the words," Mr. Watson, come here, I want you."

On March 22, 1876, a New York Times editorial entitled "The Telephone," lauded Philip Reis as its inventor. Bell was not mentioned in the editorial; evidently the writer had never heard of him. Bell later claimed to have transmitted his fabled message to Watson 12 days before that editorial appeared.

In 1878, two years after Bell took out a patent for an "improvement" on the telephone, European physicists erected a monument to Philip Reis as its inventor. German textbooks accredited Reis with the invention until the Nazis expunged Reisís name from German literature. The name has now been only partially reinstated.

Bell admitted he had seen various publications describing Reisí instrument before he applied for a patent. Nor did Bell initially claim to be the inventor of the device, inasmuch as his patent does not state that it is for an original invention but merely for an improvement on existing devices.

Elisha Gray, another American, was among others who "discovered" the Reis instrument. Gray applied for a caveat for a similar "improvement" only a few hours after Bellís application!

Nor was the Reis invention the only one Gray and Bell were familiar with. There was another brilliant inventor who independently had succeeded in electrically producing sound. In 1849, an Italian, Antonio Meucci accomplished that feat. Alexander Graham Bell was then two years old!

Meucci was born in Florence, Italy, emigrated to Cuba and then to Staten Island, New York. He was a politically active supporter of Garibaldi, who was once a guest in his modest Staten Island home. The house is now a museum and is open to the public.

Meucci filed a caveat, a preliminary description of his invention with the U. S. Patent Office, and termed it a teletrofono. The caveat required that he file for converting it into a patent in 1874. Unfortunately, Meucci became a victim of a ferryboat explosion, and was on the death list for a long time. Destitute and ill, Meucci allowed the provisional patent tp lapse.

Two years after the expiration of Meucciís caveat, Bell took out a patent for his "improvement" on the existing instruments. Meucci sued. Bell was wealthy, and dragged the case on to 1887. In spite of the testimony of a parade of witnesses for Meucci, and of the register of Meucciís caveat, Judge William Wallace decide in favor of Bell. The record of the trial leaves no doubt that the Bell Company, grown rich and powerful by that time, exercised pressure on, or bribed, the judge

Just as pre-Hitler Germany attributed the invention of the telephone to Philip Reis, so Italian references attributed it to Antonio Meucci. They were both partially right!

Emile Berliner (1851-1928) a German/Jew who had emigrated to the United States, had much stronger grounds for claiming to be the telephone's inventor for it was he who made the telephone a practical communications instrument. Emile was born in Hanover, Germany. At 14 years of age, Emile worked to help his father support his ten siblings. He apprenticed in a print shop, and then clerked in a dry goods store. His genius quickly came to the fore. After studying the extant methods of producing the textiles he was handling, teen-age Berliner constructed an improved weaving machine.

image of a schematic
drawings of early telephones
TOP: 1876, Bell's crude application for an "improved instrument" over the inventions of Philip Reis and Antonio Meucci. In the application Bell refers to the prior existence of such devices.
CENTER LEFT: 1857: Meucciís teletrofono
CENTER RIGHT: 1867, Meucciís improved telephone as registered in his caveat.
BOTTOM: 1862: The tenth, sophisticated version of the Reis telephon.

Hanover was taken over by the militaristic Prussians, and the Jews came under severe oppression. An American friend offered young Berliner a job in the USA, and Berliner, eager to leave Germany, accepted the offer. He emigrated to Washington DC to work in a manís furnishings store, worked at odd jobs in various parts of the country until he found employment in a New York laboratory. The laboratory became famous for developing the process of manufacturing saccharin out of coal tar. The stimulating scientific environment suited Berliner perfectly.

Berliner spent every spare moment of his time in the Cooper Union library, and became fascinated with acoustics and electricity. The device that Reis and Meucci had invented, and the crude imitation that Bell had patented could do little more than communicate from one room to another. The sound diminished rapidly in strength and the distance over which the sound could remain audible was extremely limited. It was more of a novelty than a practical means of communication.

Berlinerís experiments in the bedroom of his boarding house resulted in the invention of two mechanisms that made electric transmission over distance practical:

Berliner invented the transformer; It prevented electrical transmission from fading rapidly, thereby making communication over long distance possible.

Berlinerís second crucial invention was the microphone, an apparatus capable of far more efficiently transforming sound into electrical currents or voltages, and thus of producing a wide range and better quality of sound. The microphone can be considered the most basic invention for electronic communication of all time. Berlinerís microphone and Berlinerís transformer, turned Reisís telephon and Meucciís teletrofono into a practical instrument which has served the world to the present day. The two inventions gave sound-activated telephone, radio, public address systems, disc record recording, and television enormous commercial potential.

Bell negotiated for the use of Berlinerís patents. Berliner became part of the company marketing the now commercially feasible telephone. He was assigned to head research in the company. The device was first advertised and marketed as the "Bell-Berliner Telephone." Berliner was unable to capitalize on his enormously profitable inventions, the telephone and subsequently the gramophone, likewise coopted by Edison. After many years of litigation against companies associated with Bell and Edison, he won his case in the Supreme Court of the United States as the inventor of both those instruments. Berliner won a cash settlement of $20,000 and the stamp of recognition by the Supreme Court as the true inventor of those enormously important devices, but Bell and Edison were left with their commercial exploitation.

Obviously, Berliner ended up with official recognition but hardly an equitable financial settlement. In addition, the promotion of the telephone thereafter involved a massive publicity campaign by the Bell Telephone Company, in which the myths promulgated by the company became rooted in Americaís text books and consciousness. It is a classic example of the effect of a "spin" put on history by characters such as Bell and Edison.

Berlinerís invention of the disc records, and of a method of mass producing them, became as universally employed as was the telephone. Berliner went on to other basic inventions, notably the helicopter and acoustic tiles, and involved himself in a massive campaign for public health, promoting the "scalding" of milk against the opposition of the medical profession It is no exaggeration to state that his efforts saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of children. Berliner exhibited his compassionate social consciousness by actively promoting womenís rights by founding and financing the "Sarah Berliner Research Fellowship" for women to earn doctoral status in the sciences.

It is clear that anti-Semitism, and the anti-Italian attitudes of the past exhibited in the Meucci litigation were a factor in the distortion of history. It is a sad commentary on the scholarly community that Bell Telephoneís propaganda proved so successful in saturating schoolbooks and reference material.

For an expanded history of the invention of the telephone, see Factpaper 27-I, Emil Berliner: The Early Years


Note: Refer to the Garibaldi/Meucci museum in Staten Island, NY (Tel.: 718- 442-1608) for information about Meucci and for an excellent video recording, "Antonio Meucci, Father of the Telephone. For further information on Berliner, HHF Fact Paper 27-I: Emile Berliner; An Unheralded Genius, The Early Years; And Fact Paper 27-II: Emile Berliner; An Unheralded Genius; The Later Years.

Refer also to:

  • Cecil Roth, The Jewish Contribution to Civilization, University Press, London, 1956
  • Giovani E. Schiavo, Antonio Meucci, Inventor of the Telephone, The Viga Press, NY 1958.
  • Francesco Savorgnan di Brazzà, Tre grandi inventori Italiani sconosciuti, Rome, 1927
  • Silvanus P. Thompson, Phillipp Reis, Inventor of the Telephone, Arno Press, NY. 1974
  • Frederic William Wile, Emile Berliner, Maker of the Microphone, Arno Press, 1974.