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The American Experience

People & Events

Elisha Gray



Elisha Gray Timing is everything. Elisha Gray knew all too well just how true that old adage could be. On February 14, 1876, the day that Alexander Graham Bell filed an application for a patent for his version of the telephone, Elisha Gray applied for a caveat announcing his intention to file a claim for a patent for the same invention within three months. A caveat was a confidential, formal declaration made by an inventor stating his intention to file a patent on an idea yet to be perfected. Caveats were filed as a means of protecting an idea from being usurped by fellow inventors.

On the basis of its earlier filing time -- a mere few hours -- and on the subtle distinctions between a caveat and an actual patent application, the U.S. Patent Office awarded Bell, not Gray, the patent for the telephone. The coincidental nature of the separate filings spurred a good amount of controversy. Indeed, in the legal proceedings that followed, the claims of Gray and Bell came into direct conflict. In each instance Bell emerged victorious.

Gray's second place showing in the race to lay claim to the invention of the telephone did not tarnish his professional reputation however. In 1880 he was named professor of dynamic electricity at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he taught with distinction. Gray died in Newtonville, Massachusetts, in 1901. Discovered among his belongings was a note indicating a lingering disappointment concerning the telephone. It read, in part, "The history of the telephone will never be fully written.... It is partly hidden away ... and partly lying on the hearts and consciences of a few whose lips are sealed -- some in death and others by a golden clasp whose grip is even tighter."

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