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Alexander Graham Bell: Fraud, Phones, And The Power Of "The Standard History Narrative"

October 3, 2007

Before Monday I never knew that Alexander Graham Bell was not the inventor of the telephone.

In another installment of my ongoing series, tentatively titled “It Pays To Read The Business Section,” a Chicago Tribune article—authored by Jon Van—provided a historiography lesson. I could retell Mr. Van’s story, but please allow me to simply excerpt from his piece:

——————–

– “Despite widespread belief that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone, people who look deeply into the matter keep concluding that he didn’t.”
– “Indeed, the first working telephone was built by Johann Philipp Reis in Germany in 1863, but Reis didn’t seek to patent his invention or commercialize it. In the U.S., Elisha Gray [right] of Highland Park [IL] had the clearest claim to inventing the telephone. He and Bell both filed papers with the U.S. Patent Office on the same day in 1876, but Bell and his lawyers argued that his claim was filed first.”
– “Others contend that Bell looked at Gray’s patent papers and lifted some ideas, which Bell incorporated into his patent filing. Amazingly, the patent was granted to Bell in three weeks, an unheard of swiftness then as now. Protracted litigation ensued that the Bell Telephone Co. survived with its patent intact.”
– “Bell’s company, later called AT&T, was able to perpetuate the myth that Bell’s claim as inventor of the telephone was clear and uncontested.”
– “From time to time, authors attempt to set the record straight but find that it is difficult to unseat a popular myth once it is thoroughly ensconced in the public’s consciousness.”
– “Seven years ago, A. Edward Evenson, a semiretired engineer who lives in Rolling Meadows, wrote a book, The Telephone Patent Conspiracy of 1876, to set the record straight. It was published by McFarland & Co., which specializes in selling books to public libraries but doesn’t promote them to the general public. ‘I think my book is in most libraries,’ Evenson said, ‘but I don’t believe it was ever sold in bookstores. I didn’t get much feedback from it.’ ” [Here’s a webpage with an excerpt from Evenson’s book (authored by him).]
– “As part of his research, Evenson built half a dozen telephones based on original drawings and descriptions. He can attest that the Reis phone does transmit voice, though a subsequent device built by Thomas Edison does a better job because it uses carbon instead of platinum to help convert sound to electrical pulses.”
– “Now, another author, Seth Shulman, will attempt to set history aright with a new book, The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret. The book, due out early next year and published by W.W. Norton & Co. Inc., could gain more attention than Evenson’s did because Norton appears committed to putting some marketing muscle behind it.” [Note: Shulman is a journalist by training.]
– “Shulman’s book acknowledges the work of Evenson and others who looked at historical records and concluded that Bell’s reputation for inventing the telephone is ill-deserved. Books by more than half a dozen authors and written between 1878 to 2000 have failed to change public perception, which Shulman notes ‘underscores just how difficult it is to correct the record in the face of persistent historical myths.’
– ” ‘Bell’s an overrated icon,’ Evenson said. ‘Nothing against him, but historians elevated him to a position he doesn’t merit. I’m glad Shulman did this. We’ll see if it gets people’s interest.’ “

——————–

These last two bullet points hit me the hardest. Before reading this article Bell was perhaps “an overrated” historical person to me too (I’m not big on historical “icons”). Although I’m a professional historian, I simply didn’t know this story about the telephone’s invention and Bell’s fraud.

But now I have to be very careful. To begin, I have a great deal of respect for the work of history sleuths, “amateurs,” and enthusiasts. Their energy helps keep history alive. Many times we professionals kill their good work! Non-professionals uncover truths that professional historians subsequently spend years interpreting.

But Evenson’s last accusation, about “historians elevat[ing Bell] to a position he doesn’t merit,” demonstrates at best a lack of knowledge about how the history profession works, both in terms of philosophy and practice. At worst his accusation is a glib fallacy—a false generalization or a straw man. I won’t reply to the glibness possibility of his statement—if it even applies, but I will respond to the other scenario.

To Mr. Evenson I would reply that there is no single Standard Trust of Historians that conspires to keep one Standard History Narrative alive. The Standard History Narrative is that knowledge that persists due to the faulty formation of us all. We learn things in elementary, junior, and high school that act like cholesterol deposits in the arteries of our historical imagination. Professional historians, beginning hopefully in college, attempt to unlearn much of the so-called Standard History Narrative in order to ask good questions and conduct exciting research. Bad assumptions sometimes drag down history professionals as much as the population at large.

But while historians in general are trained in many specialties, a single professional historian can learn only a few. The history of technology is only one of hundreds in which a professional can be trained. Although I find the history of technology fascinating, I’ve spent years—many of them, in fact—learning about only three subfields of U.S. (and sometimes Western) history: culture, intellectual life, and the history of education. I maintain enthusiastic interests in several other subfields—such as the history of the environment, Catholicism, and urban history—yet I can only cautiously proclaim some aptitude in my original three areas.

But I am a professional historian, and therefore implicated in Mr. Evenson’s statement. To him and all others who labor under his false conception about “historians,” I think I can safely propose a few things on behalf of all professional historians existing everywhere and at anytime in the world:

1. We don’t know everything that happened in the past. No one does. Period.
2. We don’t cooperate, as a Trust or by any other means, to be a homogeneous group of Historians whose goal is to perpetuate falsehoods. It’s impossible. Although professional historians belong, in common, to many historical organizations, those organizations don’t propose that we follow any one Standard History Narrative. Even the beloved internet hasn’t helped us become a Standard Trust of Historians.
3. Every professional historian, and every person acting as an historian (including Mr. Evenson), can only tell one, subjective, partial, perspectival story at a time.

And lastly, a phrase by the article’s author, Jon Van, gets closest to the truth of things: “popular myth.” His phrase allows me to make an addition to my list of propositions above:

4. Like Mr. Evenson, all professional historians labor against mythology. These mythologies are taught early in life—even to professional historians!—and persist like arterial plaque throughout one’s life. All professional historians share Mr. Evenson’s goal of dismantling false mythologies.

Any other historians out there want to add to my fledgling List of Propositions? – TL

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6 Comments
  1. Mike N. permalink

    Couldn't agree more, Tim. I'd also add to your well-argued points, that for historians, the invention of the telephone is not something that we'll dwell upon, nor the person who invented it. Your point about compartmentalization is well taken.

  2. Mike N. permalink

    By the way, I thought Meucci invented the phone. Well, you learn something new every day.

  3. MikeN: I was shocked that a Chicago suburbs guy was in the mix.

    But on your first comment, it is true that inventors—without context, as presented in most textbooks—often aren't dwelled on in survey courses. And if they are mentioned, Edison is the one who is set up as the archetype “New Inventor” for the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. He is used as to demonstrate the technological “promise” of U.S. modernity. – TL

  4. Justin permalink

    For the population at large – I don’t think they learn this in school but in other places. On reflection, I remembered one of the first (if not the very first) places I first learned about Bell. Am I unique to my generation? See School House Rock — http://www.school-house-rock.com/Moth.html — and the words:

    “Mother Necessity, where would we be? Ring me on the Alexander Graham Bell. Thank you Alexander for the phone. I'd never get a date, I'd never get a job Unless I had a telephone. Mother Necessity!”

    I agree that specialty is the real issue for professionals. And the field of technology is pretty far away from the half-dozen or so trendy subjects that reign in history graduate programs right now – so those not in technology would probably not have picked this up. For better or worse, I’d wager that most US history graduate students studying this era could tell you more about the Hull House than about the telephone.

  5. Justin,

    Ah, School House Rock. The historical mythology of Saturday morning cartoons. That's what we're up against—indirectly at least—in our survey courses. I concede that my introduction to classical music came through the Looney Tunes.

    As for your Hull-House/Bell point, well, very little to do with particulars is even emphasized in graduate school. A good undergrad, yes: particulars are still taught to them. I learned the most about Chicago history, as a graduate student, by taking upper-level undergrad course on the subject. Keeping in touch with the particulars (names, dates, evidence) is probably the best argument to allowing grad students to occasionally take undergrad courses.

    – TL

  6. Reggie McKay permalink

    Granville Woods needs to be part of this discussion. Woods manufactured and sold telephone, telegraph and electrical equipment to Alexander Bell. Woods, along with his brother Lyates, formed the Woods Railway Telegraph company in 1884.

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