Saturday, April 05, 2008

Is Lemley right about Bell and Gray?

Getting beyond Seth Shulman's book on Alexander Graham Bell, one notes

Reluctant Genius. Alexander Graham Bell and the Passion for Invention by Charlotte Gray. (Arcade Publishing)

There are references to Elisha Gray. At page 184, one notes: "The American Bell Telephone Company, with Gardiner Hubbard at the controls, launched a suit against Western Union, accusing the company of infringing Bell's patent. It was a wildly uneven battle -- an underfinanced, sickly David against a mighty, well-capitalized Goliath." In the summer of 1878, Elisha Gray and Thomas Edison were both criticizing the validity of the telephone patent.

Page 196 mentions a letter written by Gray to Bell in March 1877: "I do not, however, claim even the credit of inventing it, as I do not believe in a mere description of an idea that has never been reduced to practice .. should be dignified with the name invention." In court, Gray confirmed the authenticity of the letter, and said to Western Union counsel: "I'll swear to it, and you can swear at it!" One wonders what Mark Lemley and the New York Times were thinking when they suggested Gray's invention was good to go:

“It’s not that we wouldn’t have had the telephone. Not only would we have had it, we would have had it the same day,” Mr. Lemley said, adding: “The people who aren’t the winners in the historical dispute sort of fade into obscurity.” Lemley, in the NYT. IPBiz notes that Gray and Western Union fought hard.

However, on November 10, 1879, Western Union settled with Bell. If things were as Lemley claims, that action would seem irrational.

Charlotte Gray wrote: "During the nineteenth century, groundbreaking inventions were repeatedly litigated: the 1834 patent on Cyrus McCormick's harvester was challenged nine times [IPBiz note: Edwin Stanton and Abraham Lincoln were opposed to a McCormick patent in one case.], the 1840 patent on Samuel Morse's telegraph, fifteen times." Gray notes Bell's telephone patents were challenged over 600 times.

At page 200, Gray gets into the asserted fraud on the U.S. Patent Office on February 14, 1876. Zenas F. Wilber was accused of showing the Elisha Gray caveat to Bell's lawyers.

Charlotte Gray also mentions Bell's involvement with airplanes and with Glenn Curtiss.

On page 365, Gray notes that Octave Chanute told Bell in 1906 that the Wright Brothers had achieved flight. At page 366, Bell is quoted: "It seems strange that our enterprising American newspapers have failed to keep track of the experiments in Dayton, Ohio.. " Bell met Curtiss in January 1906 at the New York City Auto Show. Gray notes that the agreement for the Aerial Experiment Association was signed October 1, 1907.

In the context of the Scientific American trophy of 1907, Gray noted that the Wrights were being widely challenged to prove they were either "flyers or liars." Curtiss won the trophy on July 4, 1908.

In terms of the costs of patent litigation, Charlotte Gray (page 411) notes that the
cost of Wright's patent litigation was estimated at $150,000, which would be over $2 million in today's dollars. IPBiz notes: same old, same old.


Blogger Biblionomicon said...

Thank you for your interesting Post!
Did you know that despite he lost the dispute abot the telephone patent, Elisha Gray's reputation as a scientist remained undisputed. He kept on inventing and teaching as a professor. If you are interested, you can read more about the Bell-Gray patent quarrel in our daily 'History of Science, Technology, and Arts' Blog at


10:21 PM  

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