Who Got There First
Who Got There First
Years ago, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution said to me, “Scientists and engineers are nutty on the subject of priority.” That was before I realized just how far-reaching that nuttiness was or how misguided the very concept of priority is. As an example, try searching out the inventor of the telephone. Instead of Alexander Graham Bell, you may get the name of a German, Johann Philipp Reis. The common wisdom is that Reis invented a primitive telephone that was only marginally functional, while Bell’s phone really worked. Reis was a twenty-six-year-old science teacher when he began work on the telephone in 1860. His essential idea came from a paper by a French investigator named Bourseul. In 1854 Bourseul had explained how to transmit speech electrically. He wrote: . . . Speak against one diaphragm and let each vibration “make or break” the electric contact. The electric pulsations thereby produced will set the other diaphragm working, and [it then reproduces] the transmitted sound. . . . Only one part of Bourseul’s idea was shaky. To send sound, the first diaphragm should not make and break contact; instead it should vary the flow of electricity to the second diaphragm continuously. While Reis had used Bourseul’s term “make or break,” his diaphragm actually drove a thin rod to varying depth in an electric coil. Instead of making and breaking the current, he really did vary it continuously. Bell faced the same problem when he began work on his telephone a decade later. First, he used a diaphragm-driven needle that entered a water-acid solution to create a continuously variable resistance and a smoothly varying electrical current. Bell got the idea from another American, inventor Elisha Gray. Of course, a liquid pool comes with two problems. One is evaporation; the other is immobility. Bell soon gave it up in favor of a system closer to Reis’ electromagnet. Still, it is clear that Gray’s variable-resistance pool had pointed the way for Bell. Next we must ask whether Bell was influenced by Reis’ invention. Reis died two years before Bell received his patent. (He was only forty, and he never got around to seeking a patent of his own.)
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