People & Events
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."