I came across a fascinating bit of historical correction today. Generations of children in the United States (including me) were raised to revere Alexander Graham Bell as the inventor of the telephone. We learned about how his work with the deaf led to interest about the artificial transmission of sound, and how he filed the first patent for the telephone in 1876.
But while Bell may have been the first to patent the telephone, he was not the first to have invented it.
That honor goes to a little-known Italian immigrant named Antonio Meucci.
After moving from Italy to Staten Island in 1850, Meucci began to experiment with the electromagnetic transmission of sound. In 1856, he succeeded in building a functioning telephone which he described in his notes:
It consists of a vibrating diaphragm and an electrified magnet with a spiral wire that wraps around it. The vibrating diaphragm alters the current of the magnet. These alterations of current, transmitted to the other end of the wire, create analogous vibrations of the receiving diaphragm and reproduce the word. (translated)
Meucci developed over 30 different types of telephones, but began running into financial problems. Unable to secure funding for his invention, it was not until 1871 that he finally applied for protection of his idea. In one of history's most bitter lessons, his caveat omitted any mention that the variable electrical conduction in the transmission wires was to be converted to sound-- the key point of the telephone. Meucci's poor command of English may have been the prime factor in his inability to secure a patent with his poorly-written caveat. To make matters worse, the Western Union affiliate laboratory he had been working with lost the functioning models of his invention. Five years later, Alexander Graham Bell successfully filed his patent for the telephone, and has been credited with its invention ever since.
Meucci tried to challenge Bell's claim, but failed in court. He died nearly penniless and unknown to history until 2002, when the US Congress officially recognized him as the true inventor of the telephone.
The history of engineering is rife with disputes about where credit truly lies-- from William Shockley and the discovery of the transistor, to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak and Xerox PARC. And, of course, the advent of patent trolls has caused the entire system of intellectual property to break down because worthless claims are being accorded patent protection.
What do you think? How can engineers ensure that they receive credit for their inventions?