The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret, by Seth Shulman
In this book, which is a slim and very readable 200-plus pages of historical investigation, the reader is taken through a carefully researched path that has a provocative conclusion–that Alexander Graham Bell stole key insights for the invention of the telephone from a scientist and inventor named Elisha Gray. As a work of self-consciously revisionist history, this book is at least as much an account of how the author found the evidence and followed it, as well as those who helped guide him in the right direction as it is about the theft of the invention in the first place. It is a dramatic tell, well-told, and it seeks to provide a balanced appreciation of Bell’s behavior as well as the context of his time and situation.
As a work of historical detective work, this is not a chronologically organized book. Instead, it begins with an incriminating similarity between drawings in Alexander Graham Bell’s patent application for the telephone and one in Elisha Gray’s patent application that was filed on the same day. The book weaves the account of the search for the true story of the invention of the telephone by the author with accounts of the people in question, the technological and legal history of the telephone (which involved a lot of lawsuits, and even a Congressional investigation). Included in the historical investigation is a thorough explanation of the technological questions that were required to develop the telephone. Also included is a fascinating and important motivation for Bell to be involved in corrupt and dishonest business, the fact that he became infatuated with a very lovely young lady named Mabel, who happened to be deaf (significantly younger than him) who happened to be the daughter of one of his financial partners. It also just so happened that this financial partner had a shady legal firm in Washington DC that was the creditor for some debts from an employee at the Patent Office who apparently gave Bell some key information in how to transmit the sound of a human voice by wire in exchange for a bribe.
The last part of the book is mostly devoted to Bell’s behavior after receiving the patent, and how the knowledge that Bell stole the invention from Gray affected Bell’s reaction to public scrutiny as well as the legal problems that resulted from the “interference” between Gray’s claims and Bell’s claims. The book seeks in large part to give Gray (and others) their proper credit in the development of the telephone and to rob Bell of his stolen laurels, from which he profited heavily, and for which he suffered an immensely guilty conscience. After all, what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul? Bell’s extreme reluctance to take an active role in the running of the phone company that started from his fraudulent claims and his search for quiet and solutide away from the hustle and bustle of the world can be explained by his guilt over having received wealth dishonestly.
It is not too surprising, given the provacative nature of this book and its claims, that the book has received a fair amount of attention in public radio. The author specifically endorses the claims and approaches of revisionist history, even though more properly historians should always seek to ground their interpretations in primary source documents when those are available, even though it is easy to be lazy and simply repeat discredited old stories from those who have come before. Every historian, and every generation, must do the difficult work of examining history and memory in light of evidence that remains as well as the goals and motives of those who would wish to promote false accounts. Sadly, mixed or wicked motives are rather common in those who seek to pervert and corrupt the historical record, as there is a lot that people have to feel guilty of.