Elisha Gray


Elisha Gray was an American electrical engineer
who co-founded the Western Electric Manufacturing Company. Gray is best known for his development
of a telephone prototype in 1876 in Highland Park, Illinois. He is considered by some to
be the true inventor of the variable resistance telephone, despite losing out to Alexander
Graham Bell for the telephone patent. Gray is also considered to be the father of
the modern music synthesizer, and was granted over 70 patents for his inventions. Biography and early inventions
Born into a Quaker family in Barnesville, Ohio, Gray was brought up on a farm. He spent
several years at Oberlin College where he experimented with electrical devices. Although
Gray did not graduate, he taught electricity and science there and built laboratory equipment
for its science departments. In 1862 while at Oberlin, Gray met and married
Delia Minerva Shepard. In 1865 Gray invented a self-adjusting telegraph
relay that automatically adapted to varying insulation of the telegraph line. In 1867
Gray received a patent for the invention, the first of more than seventy.
In 1869, Elisha Gray and his partner Enos M. Barton founded Gray & Barton Co. in Cleveland,
Ohio to supply telegraph equipment to the giant Western Union Telegraph Company. The
electrical distribution business was later spun off and organized into a separate company,
Graybar Electric Company, Inc. Barton was employed by Western Union to examine and test
new products. In 1870 financing for Gray & Barton Co. was arranged by General Anson Stager,
a superintendent of the Western Union Telegraph Company. Stager became an active partner in
Gray & Barton Co. and remained on the board of directors. The company moved to Chicago
near Highland Park. Gray later gave up his administrative position as chief engineer
to focus on inventions that could benefit the telegraph industry. Gray’s inventions
and patent costs were financed by a dentist, Dr. Samuel S. White of Philadelphia, who had
made a fortune producing porcelain teeth. White wanted Gray to focus on the acoustic
telegraph which promised huge profits instead of what appeared to be unpromising competing
inventions such as the telephone. White made the decision in 1876 to redirect Gray’s interest
in the telephone. In 1870, Gray developed a needle annunciator
for hotels and another for elevators. He also developed a microphone printer which had a
typewriter keyboard and printed messages on paper tape.
In 1872 Western Union, then financed by the Vanderbilts and J. P. Morgan, bought one-third
of Gray and Barton Co. and changed the name to Western Electric Manufacturing Company
of Chicago. Gray continued to invent for Western Electric.
In 1874, Gray retired to do independent research and development. Gray applied for a patent
on a harmonic telegraph which consisted of multi-tone transmitters, that controlled each
tone with a separate telegraph key. Gray gave several private demonstrations of this invention
in New York and Washington, D.C. in May and June 1874.
Gray was a charter member of the Presbyterian Church in Highland Park, Illinois. At the
church, on December 29, 1874, Gray gave the first public demonstration of his invention
for transmitting musical tones and transmitted “familiar melodies through telegraph wire”
according to a newspaper announcement. This was one of the earliest electric musical instruments
using vibrating electromagnetic circuits that were single-note oscillators operated by a
two-octave piano keyboard. The “Musical Telegraph” used steel reeds whose oscillations were created
by electromagnets and transmitted over a telegraph wire. Gray also built a simple loudspeaker
in later models consisting of a vibrating diaphragm in a magnetic field to make the
oscillator tones audible and louder at the receiving end. In 1900 Gray worked on an underwater
signaling device. After his death in 1901 officials gave the invention to Oberlin College.
A few years later he was recognized as the inventor of the underwater signaling device.
On July 27, 1875, Gray was granted patent 166,096 for “Electric Telegraph for Transmitting
Musical Tones”. The telephone Because of Samuel White’s opposition to Gray
working on the telephone, Gray did not tell anybody about his invention for transmitting
voice sounds until February 11, 1876. Gray requested that his patent lawyer William D.
Baldwin prepare a “caveat” for filing at the US Patent Office. A caveat was like a provisional
patent application with drawings and description but without a request for examination. On Monday morning February 14, 1876, Gray
signed and had notarized the caveat that described a telephone that used a liquid microphone.
Baldwin then submitted the caveat to the US Patent Office. That same morning a lawyer
for Alexander Graham Bell submitted Bell’s patent application.
Which application arrived first is hotly disputed, although Gray believed that his caveat arrived
a few hours before Bell’s application. Bell’s lawyers in Washington, DC, had been waiting
with Bell’s patent application for months, under instructions not to file it in the USA
until it had been filed in Britain first. According to Evenson, during the weekend of
February 12–14, 1876, before either caveat or application had been filed in the patent
office, Bell’s lawyer learned about the liquid transmitter idea in Gray’s caveat that would
be filed early Monday morning February 14. Bell’s lawyer then added seven sentences describing
the liquid transmitter and a variable resistance claim to Bell’s draft application. After the
lawyer’s clerk recopied the draft as a finished patent application, Bell’s lawyer hand-delivered
the finished application to the patent office just before noon Monday, a few hours after
Gray’s caveat was delivered by Gray’s lawyer. Bell’s lawyer requested that Bell’s application
be immediately recorded and hand-delivered to the examiner on Monday so that later Bell
could claim it had arrived first. Bell was in Boston at this time and was not aware that
his application had been filed. Five days later, on February 19, Zenas Fisk
Wilber, the patent examiner for both Bell’s application and Gray’s caveat, noticed that
Bell’s application claimed the same variable resistance feature described in Gray’s caveat.
Wilber suspended Bell’s application for 90 days to give Gray time to submit a competing
patent application. The suspension also gave Bell time to amend his claims to avoid an
interference with an earlier patent application of Gray’s that mentioned changing the intensity
of the electric current without breaking the circuit, which seemed to the examiner to be
an “undulatory current” that Bell was claiming. Such an interference would delay Bell’s application
until Bell submitted proof, under the first to invent rules, that Bell had invented that
feature before Gray. Bell’s lawyer telegraphed Bell, who was still
in Boston, to come to Washington, DC. When Bell arrived on February 26, Bell visited
his lawyers and then visited examiner Wilber who told Bell that Gray’s caveat showed a
liquid transmitter and asked Bell for proof that the liquid transmitter idea was invented
by Bell. Bell pointed to an application of Bell’s filed a year earlier where mercury
was used in a circuit breaker. The examiner accepted this argument, although mercury would
not have worked in a telephone transmitter. On February 29, Bell’s lawyer submitted an
amendment to Bell’s claims that distinguished them from Gray’s caveat and Gray’s earlier
application. On March 3, Wilber approved Bell’s application and on March 7, 1876, patent 174,465
was published by the U.S. Patent Office. Bell returned to Boston and resumed work on
March 9, drawing a diagram in his lab notebook of a water transmitter being used face down,
very similar to that shown in Gray’s caveat. Bell and Watson built and tested Gray’s water
transmitter design on March 10 and successfully transmitted clear speech saying “Mr. Watson
– come here – I want to see you.” Bell’s notebooks did not become public until the
1990s. Bell’s test of Gray’s water transmitter idea
proved that clear speech could be transmitted electrically. It was a scientific experiment,
rather than a commercial product. Prior to that, Bell had only an unproven theory.
Although Gray had abandoned his caveat, Gray applied for a patent for the same invention
in late 1877. This put him in a second interference with Bell’s patents. The Patent Office determined,
“while Gray was undoubtedly the first to conceive of and disclose the [variable resistance]
invention, as in his caveat of February 14, 1876, his failure to take any action amounting
to completion until others had demonstrated the utility of the invention deprives him
of the right to have it considered.” Gray challenged Bell’s patent anyway, and after
two years of litigation, Bell was awarded rights to the invention, and as a result,
Bell is credited as the inventor. In 1886, Wilber stated in an affidavit that
he was an alcoholic and deeply in debt to Bell’s lawyer Marcellus Bailey with whom Wilber
had served in the Civil War. Wilber stated that, contrary to Patent Office rules, he
showed Bailey the caveat Gray had filed. He also stated that he showed the caveat to Bell
and Bell gave him $100. Bell testified that they only discussed the patent in general
terms, although in a letter to Gray, Bell admitted that he learned some of the technical
details. Bell’s patent was also disputed in 1888 by
attorney Lysander Hill who accused Wilber of allowing Bell or his lawyer Pollok to add
a handwritten margin note of seven sentences to Bell’s application that describe an alternate
design similar to Gray’s liquid microphone design. However, the marginal note was added
only to Bell’s earlier draft, not to his patent application that shows the seven sentences
already present in a paragraph. Bell testified that he added those seven sentences in the
margin of an earlier draft of his application “almost at the last moment before sending
it off to Washington” to his lawyers. Bell or his lawyer could not have added the seven
sentences to the application after it was filed in the Patent Office, because then the
application would not have been suspended. Although Bell was accused, and is still accused,
of stealing the telephone from Gray, Bell used Gray’s water transmitter design only
after Bell’s patent was granted and only as a proof of concept scientific experiment to
prove to his own satisfaction that intelligible “articulate speech” could be electrically
transmitted. Bell’s assistant Thomas Watson testified that he tested all of the competing
designs. After March 1876, Bell and Watson focused on improving the electromagnetic telephone
and never used Gray’s liquid transmitter in public demonstrations or commercial use. When
Bell demonstrated his telephone at the Centennial Exhibition in June 1876, he used his improved
electromagnetic transmitter, not Gray’s water transmitter.
Gray’s further inventions In 1887 Gray invented the “teleautograph”,
a device that could remotely transmit handwriting through telegraph systems. Gray was granted
several patents for these pioneer fax machines, and the Gray National Telautograph Company
was chartered in 1888 and continued in business as The Telautograph Corporation for many years;
after a series of mergers it was finally absorbed by Xerox in the 1990s. Gray’s telautograph
machines were used by banks for signing documents at a distance and by the military for sending
written commands during gun tests when the deafening noise from the guns made spoken
orders on the telephone impractical. The machines were also used at train stations for schedule
changes. Gray displayed his telautograph invention
in 1893 at the 1893 Columbian Exposition and sold his share in the telautograph shortly
after that. Gray was also chairman of the International Congress of Electricians at
the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Gray conceived of a primitive closed-circuit
television system that he called the “telephote”. Pictures would be focused on an array of selenium
cells and signals from the selenium cells would be transmitted to a distant station
on separate wires. At the receiving end each wire would open or close a shutter to recreate
the image. In 1899 Gray moved to Boston where he continued
inventing. One of his projects was to develop an underwater signaling device to transmit
messages to ships. One such signaling device was tested on December 31, 1900. Three weeks
later, on January 21, 1901, Gray died from a heart attack in Newtonville, Massachusetts.
Gray’s publications Gray wrote several books including:
Experimental Researches in Electro-Harmonic Telegraphy and Telephony, 1867–1876
Telegraphy and Telephony Electricity and Magnetism and
Nature’s Miracles a nontechnical discussion of science and technology for the general
public. See also
Invention of the telephone Timeline of the telephone
The Telephone Cases Water microphone
References Notes Bibliography External links
Works by Elisha Gray at Project Gutenberg Works by Elisha Gray at LibriVox
Elisha Gray biography from Oberlin Gray’s telephone caveat filed on February
14, 1876 same day as Bell’s application Gray’s telephone caveat with drawings, filed
on February 14, 1876 Gray’s “Musical Telegraph” of 1876
Gray’s “Harmonic Multiple Telegraph” Bell–Gray conflict at the Wayback Machine
over the harmonic telegraph “Telautograph” description
1911 Britannica article Grave of Elish Gray in Rosehill Cemetery,
Chicago Gray’s patents
Patent images in TIFF format

Comments 2

  • This is incredible. So much history that we were never told. Thank you for sharing.

  • https://www.bbvaopenmind.com/tecnologia/visionarios/la-guerra-del-telefono-fue-un-invento-de-graham-bell/ (La guerra del teléfono: ¿fue un invento de Graham Bell?. OpenMind, BBVA)

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