Nod to IP Law History: Elisha Gray and the Long Duel for Telephone Patents

grayElishaSome of you may know I enjoy writing about Boston history and architecture on my other blog www.iboston.org. Today is one of the few occasions where both blogs’ topics intersect.

On this day back in 1876, Elisha Gray, an inventor from Ohio, filed notice that he had invented the telephone. Unknown to him, Boston’s Alexander Graham Bell had submitted a full patent application several hours earlier.

The documents filed that day differed in two substantial ways. Bell filed a full patent, while Gray filed only a caveat — a technical description of what he intended to patent, a move to prevent other inventors from registering his idea. The other difference is that the device outlined by Gray worked. Bell’s diagram would not work, except that he wrote the words “variable resistance” and later introduced this mechanism.

Some think Bell was told of Gray’s application, which drew heavily on variable resistance, and was allowed to modify his application. This would never be proved, despite over 600 legal challenges to the patent.

Gray would go on to found the Western Electric Company. He retired to continue independent research and invention and to teach at Oberlin College. He died in Newtonville, Mass., on Jan. 21, 1901.

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