Science and Invention


Who invented the telephone?

For more than 100 years Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922) was credited with inventing the telephone. But in 2002 the U.S. Congress officially recognized a previously unknown Italian American inventor, Antonio Meucci (1808–1889), as the “father of the telephone.”

Meucci was born in Florence, Italy, and arrived in the United States in 1845. His focus was the use of electricity in medicine. But in carrying out his experiments, he realized that the voice could be transmitted over wire. By 1862 he had developed dozens of models of his invention but could not afford to protect his prototypes with patents. In 1870 illness forced the poor inventor to sell his early models. By 1874 he had assembled new models, which he gave to an executive at Western Union Telegraph Company. Two years later, the announcement was made that Scottish-born inventor Alexander Graham Bell had pioneered the technology.

Bell came to the United States in 1871 as a teacher of speech to the deaf. He believed that sound wave vibrations could be converted into electric current at one end of a circuit, and the current could be reconverted into identical sound waves at the other end of the circuit. He had described this idea to his father as early as 1874, and some believe that he may have conceived of it as early as 1865. Still, Meucci’s prototypes would have predated these ideas.

On June 3, 1875, while trying to perfect a method for simultaneously carrying more than two messages over a single telegraph line, Bell heard the sound of a plucked spring along 60 feet of wire. In 1876 the first voice transmission via wire was made when Bell had a laboratory accident and called out to his assistant, “Watson, please come here. I want you.” Thomas Watson (1854–1934) was on another floor of the building, with the receiving apparatus, and distinctly heard Bell’s message. That same year, the Bell telephone was patented in the United States and exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Meucci died in poverty in 1889. His recognition as the “father of telephony” was the result of persistence on the part of Italian Americans who wished to set the record straight. In fact, in 1871, five years earlier than Bell’s first voice communication, Meucci had secured a certificate stating his paternity to the invention of the telephone, which he called the teletrophone.


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