On this date, March 7, in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell was issued a patent numbered 174,465 [see pdf] for an "improvement in telegraphy" or, what some consider to have been the most lucrative innovation in history -- the telephone.
What preceded the grant of this patent to Alexander Graham Bell over his competitor Elisha Gray is the stuff of intellectual property legend, the classic "race to the patent office" as it is often characterized in the telling.
It's interesting, today, while Congress considers a bill named the "America Invents Act" an act to amend the Patent Act, in which one of the fundamental changes proposed it a move to a first-to-file system, similar to many other jurisdictions, versus the current US patent system based on first-to-invent priority.
The legal significance of this proposed change in the Patent Reform Act of 2011 is being discussed this week on leading patent blogs, like Patently-O, here and here. It's interesting, today, as a backgrounder to the story of the Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray patent application controversy, the details of which are summarized in Wikipedia.
Alexander Graham Bell was a tutor for the deaf while pursuing his own research into a method of telegraphy that could transmit multiple messages over a single wire simultaneously, a so-called "harmonic telegraph". Bell formed a partnership with two of his students' parents, including prominent Boston lawyer Gardiner Hubbard, to help fund his research in exchange for shares of any future profits.
Elisha Gray was a prominent inventor in Highland Park, Illinois. His Western Electric company was a major supplier to telegraph monopoly Western Union. Bell was in competition with Elisha Gray to be the first to invent a practical harmonic telegraph.
In the summer of 1874, Gray developed a harmonic telegraph device using vibrating reeds that could transmit musical tones, but not intelligible speech. In December 1874 he demonstrated it to the public at Highland Park First Presbyterian Church. On February 11, 1876, Gray included a diagram for a telephone in his notebook. On February 14, Gray's lawyer filed a patent caveat with a similar diagram. The same day, Bell's lawyer filed (hand-delivered to the U.S. Patent Office) a patent application on the harmonic telegraph, including its use for transmitting vocal sounds. On February 19, the patent office suspended Bell's application for three months to give Gray time to submit a full patent application with claims, after which the patent office would begin interference proceedings to determine whether Bell or Gray were first to invent the claimed subject matter of the telephone.
At the time, the USPTO required the submission of a working patent model for the patent application to be accepted, with the acceptance process often taking years, and with interference proceedings often involved public hearings—although the U.S. Congress had abolished the requirement for patent models in 1870. However, Bell's lawyers argued strenuously for an exception to be made in their case, likely on the basis of the Congressional amendment to the patent law.
On February 24, 1876, Bell traveled to Washington DC. Nothing was entered in his lab notebook until his return to Boston on March 7. Bell's patent was issued on March 7. On March 8, Bell recorded an experiment in his lab notebook, with a diagram similar to that of Gray's patent caveat (see right). Bell finally got his telephone model to work on March 10, when Bell and his assistant Thomas A. Watson both recorded the famous "Watson, come here" story in their notebooks.
How differently might the controversy have played out between Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray if, back in the day, they'd had today's intellectual property technology, like the Creative Registry and the Prior Art Database, to establish authoritatively, who was the first to invent?