The essential instruments of mass telecommunication-the telegraph, telephone and radio-were developed during a half-century by men who came to be regarded as the great men of their generations. Samuel F. B. Morse, Guglielmo Marconi and Alexander Graham Bell were in the pantheon of inventors which included Thomas A. Edison, the Wright brothers and, from an earlier generation, James Watt and Eli Whitney. Many of them were considered to have an almost god-like combination of creative talent, political savvy and business acumen. Edison, for instance, was known as "The Wizard of Menlo Park." They were emulated, praised and regarded as paragons of the American industrial revolution. That they were men who honored the highest standards of behavior was not questioned.
Several recent publications have challenged this group portrait, however, pointing to the ethical shortcomings of some of them. This leads to the interesting question: Is the greater good served if unethical behavior is instrumental in creating private fame and fortune through public corporations of enormous wealth and influence?
Let's begin with Alexander Graham Bell. He began his career as a teacher concerned with the deaf. One of the most benign and likable of the inventor/entre- preneurs, he developed kites of potentially commercial value, had a hand in early aviation and was a generous and warm host. If one attempted to model one's own life after one of these men, Bell would seem to be a good candidate for emulation.1
But Gardiner Hubbard, his partner in business matters and eventually his father-in-law, was possessed of shrewd political instincts, the ability to work with lawyers and credibility with the major bankers and investors of his day. The two were a unique combination of idealism and tough commercial pragmatism. In 1876 they made an application for a patent on a "talking telegraph." The decision was clouded because another inventor, Elisha Gray, had submitted a "caveat" to the Patent Office indicating that he intended to submit a full application. Bell won the patent and Gardiner Hubbard began litigation to force others in the telephone business to come to heel.
Elisha Gray had sold his rights to the invention of the telephone to Western Union who developed the invention aggressively. With telegraph poles and lines already in place for the telegraph, they grew rapidly. Bell sued Western Union. Their defense centered on the argument that Bell's lawyers had been allowed to view the patent "caveat" by Gray. Bell, they claimed, used this information to strengthen his patent application. According to them, the Bell patent was based on stolen information. The source of this story was a patent clerk named Zenos Wilber. Robert Bruce describes him as "probably liquored up or bribed or both."2 Charlotte Gray goes so far as to claim Bell had "truth" on his side. In an out-of-court agreement Western Union acceded to the Bell interests and left the telephone business.
The agreement was viewed as a vindication of Bell's and Hubbard's claims. Bell went on to enjoy his public role as the father of the telephone and grew into the benign elder statesman for American (and Canadian) science who has been celebrated in biographies and text books. Patent litigation continued, however, and eventually the Department of Justice sued Bell for interference with Gray's application. The suit never came to trial, but a cloud of suspicion was on the horizon throughout Bell's career.
Elisha Gray, described so harshly, wrote: "The history of the telephone will never be fully written. It is partly hidden away in 30 or 30 thousand pages of testimony and partly lying on the hearts and consciences of a few whose lips are Sealed--(sic) some in death and others by a golden clasp whose grip is even tighter."3
The matter did not end. In 2004 Seth Shulman "stumbled upon a trail of information" that led to the discovery that the Bell patent application used a drawing which appeared to be based upon Gray's caveat. Other incriminating documents appeared, including evidence that the crucial information concerning the telephone was written into Bell's journal after the fact and that the patent application was modified to include Gray's proposal after Bell had formally submitted it.4
Shulman follows in the long line of those who suspect that the Bell application used stolen information. Using the collection in the Science Museum in London, the archives of the Oberlin College library and numerous other documents, Shulman establishes clearly that Bell's blameless life was marred by one major exception: He stole the information upon which the telephone patent was based. One exception to a virtuous life might be easily forgiven, but the exception was the basis for his marriage, his fortune and his public reputation. It is not easy to overlook that it was based upon a theft.
Samuel Morse, whose name has become synonymous with the Morse code, is a somewhat different person. Fame appears to have been the spur which drove his life. He sought recognition first as an artist. To further his career he went to England where he studied and painted but failed to achieve a reputation. His father was reluctant to continue his support and Morse eventually returned to American to pursue other interests. Among his later activities was the invention of the electrical telegraph. It was a surprising achievement for an artist who had shown no previous interest in electricity.
There are two stories concerning the provenance of his invention and patent application. They both stem from a conversation he overheard on shipboard in 1832. According to Morse, it was about a paper recently published by Michael Faraday about magnetism and electricity. Inspired by what he heard, Morse went to his cabin and in a moment of inspiration, entered into his journal the design for the telegraph. The abrupt change of interest and sudden insight were accepted as evidence that he was possessed of a genius comparable to Watt, Gauss, Newton and other scientists and inventors.
The journal is not available. Several years later, while being questioned during litigation concerning the patent for the telegraph, Morse quoted from it freely. Asked to produce the journal, he demurred. The next day he reported that the journal had been destroyed in a house fire.
An alternative explanation concerns the content of the shipboard conversation. The talk may not have been about Faraday but rather a professor at Western College, later Princeton University, named Joseph Henry. He was a respected scientific investigator who enjoyed making working models derived from theories for use in his teaching. One of these was an electrical signaling device.
Henry had strung wires about the college campus and could send messages along this "network." He was not the first to do so: Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke had similar schemes in England and there were reports of a telegraph in Germany where Carl Friedrich Gauss had developed a working system and a code to go with it.
Morse visited Henry who showed Morse his system and allowed him to makes notes and sketches. In 1838 Morse was awarded a patent for the telegraph. Was it the result of a moment of inspiration by a brilliant artist or was it simply based on Henry's work?
Henry was not interested in patents. It is said that he thought patents worked against the sharing of information which he considered essential for scientific progress. Morse, however, had shown an early interest in the patent process and had attempted to patent a marble cutting machine while in England.
Lacking opposition, Morse's application for a patent was granted. Like Bell, Morse spent much of his later life defending his patent against the claims of others. He acknowledged that his invention was made "with the assistance of" Joseph Henry. He did not have a partner, as Bell did, who had the skill and connections to assemble private investors. Morse turned to the government. David Bodanis writes "It took Morse several years-and judicious financial involvement with key members of Congress-before he secured enough government funds actually to build a large, working prototype of his telegraph device."5
If we may indulge in a moment of technological determinism, the telegraph, together with the railroad, windmill driven water pump and barbed wire fencing, became one of the engines that drove the development of the American west. It became, as well, the instrument which enabled financial markets to become national in scope. It helped shape the nation. Like Bell, Morse faced years of litigation culminating in a court appearance in which, pressed to show the journals he said proved the provenance of the telegraph, he resorted to the claim that a house fire had destroyed them. His public reputation rests upon the telegraphic code which bears his name and is in use to this day.
Like Bell, his public reputation was based upon his talent as an inventor, not his skill in manipulating patent applications. But, also like Bell, it appears that, although the telegraph was derived from the work of many, the patent application was based on the work of Henry. Bodanis asks "Did it matter that he had largely stolen the idea for his invention?"6
The third member of our group, Guglielmo Marconi, was a relative latecomer to the crowded field of inventors concerned with radio. Some must have thought the race to the patent office was finished before he entered: Oliver Lodge, a professor at Liverpool University, had been experimenting with wireless telegraphy for several years. In 1896 Lodge was granted a British patent for his apparatus, including the coherer later used by Marconi. In Canada Reginald Fessenden was studying both wireless telegraphy and radiotelephony. It is possible he sent musical signals in the mid 1890s. Americans were also in the race, notably Amos Dolbear. He received an American patent for his wireless system in 1885. Even this was not among the earliest developments of radio. In 1866 Mahlon Loomis sent signals between mountains in Pennsylvania. He received a patent in 1873.
The most notable experimenter, Nikola Tesla, later waged a prolonged but successful battle with Marconi concerning the American patent. One of the most interesting of the people concerned with radio was Nathan Stubblefield. A Kentucky farmer, he did not publish his claims in wireless telephony (although he did patent a system of inductive telegraphy) and was reluctant to join with others who might have provided capital for the development of his ideas. It is reported that he died of starvation. In Scotland, India, Germany and elsewhere experimenters were developing similar schemes. In short, the field was crowded.
Marconi had demonstrated a wireless system in his native Italy but his offer to give it to the Italian government was turned down. His mother contacted relatives in Scotland and England who invited him to visit and gave him valuable advice and introductions.
One of these introductions was to William Preece, an inventor who headed the Post Office. Preece was attempting to establish a monopoly of communication systems in the United Kingdom and overseas. Seeing promise in Marconi's work and finding the young man personally congenial, he underwrote experiments in which Marconi demonstrated his apparatus. They had a gentleman's agreement that, if the experiments were promising, the Post Office would have first right of refusal to purchase it.
The experiments were successful and received widespread coverage in the press. His mother's family, the Jamesons and another Scottish family who had accumulated a fortune in the distillery business, the Haigs, offered to underwrite a new company to exploit Marconi's devices and allow him to conduct further experiments. Marconi accepted their proposal and broke his informal agreement with Preece. This led to an intense animosity between British Marconi and both the Post Office and members of Parliament that continued for decades. Marconi was seen as an opportunist and Preece as a na've bureaucrat who did not protect the government's interests.
Marconi's British patent was the subject of similar disputes. In June 1896 he applied for a patent. It was granted on July 2, 1897, and received a critical reaction. Hugh Aitken has written "there was nothing in Marconi's patent that was new in concept, with the single exception of the vertical wire used for transmission." Marconi did not claim originality; rather his patent application was for "improvements" in existing technology. Aitken continues:
It would have been difficult indeed for Marconi to prove that he literally was the first to "invent" what this claim, or most of the other 18 claims, described. . . . He was the first to claim these methods, these pieces of equipment, these circuits, as property and under British law that was what counted.7
The British Marconi company was reviled by many, but Marconi's continuing research and flair for publicity insulated him personally from the criticism. He became, for generations of radio operators, an exemplar of the scientist who could apply theories to practical problems. Above all, for them, he was a "radio man" par excellence.
If he was not a creator of new concepts or devices, what was the nature of his accomplishment? Aitken gives him measured praise because "he translated laboratory hardware into a technological system that could serve practical needs."
Marconi's public reputation was based in large part upon his claim that he and his employees received signals from Poldhu, Cornwall, UK on Signal Hill, Newfoundland on December 12, 1901. This was one of a series of tests Marconi conducted in his attempts to increase the distance over which radio signals could be sent and received. He reported that his employees in Newfoundland heard three clicks (the letter "S") at the time the Cornwall station was sending them. There are historic markers in Poldhu, Signal Hill, Cape Cod and Italy noting his achievement. There are Marconi museums, amateur radio clubs, scholarships and research awards.
Word spread among radio engineers, however, that the event may not have occurred. Computer reconstructions of the conditions at the time suggest that propagation was poor. In addition, it is questionable whether the signal could have been received at the frequency they used and the equipment they had available.
In an attempt to solve the riddle, amateur radio operators have tried to reconstruct the event by sending signals from Poldhu at roughly twice the frequency Marconi claimed and antennas somewhat like his. One of the experimenters, Steve Nichols, said their successful experiment indicated Marconi's claim "entered the realm of true feasibility."9 Others noted that the modern equipment used was not available to Marconi. Did they receive signals from across the ocean? It is extremely unlikely, but a negative cannot be proven. The continuing debate has helped to solidify the positions of both those who see him as an opportunist with a gift for promotion and those who view him as "a radio man" of heroic stature.
Marconi was, in the popular mind, "the father of radio" in much the way that Bell was the father of the telephone and Morse of the telegraph. The comparison is ironically appropriate. Each took advantage of large funding, whether private or governmental, extensive public relations efforts and shrewd litigation to secure his patent. In each case crucial information in the patent application was stolen or copied. In each case the patent helped to create fortunes and had an enormous social impact.
The question raised by all of this is: Does the success of these inventions, innovations and resulting industries justify or excuse the thefts upon which they were based?
In private dealings these would be considered, at best, ethical shortcomings. In each case, however, the patent was used to create substantial corporations. The question remains: Does this industrial success justify or excuse any claim that might be made against the patent holders on ethical grounds?
It is tempting to say that without the efforts of these men and their backers to build corporate structures and gain public recognition, the fields of electrical communication might have remained the provinces of amateur experimenters. In this view there would have been no radio industry without Marconi, no telegraph industry without Morse or telephone industry without Bell. We can't know what might have been but the assumption that no other persons or groups would have stepped forward is dubious.
The view that, despite their ethical shortcomings they provided a greater good that benefited millions is, superficially, persuasive. That is why biographers and text book writers have accepted it. At its core, however, lies an interesting phenomenon. Aitken observed "By 1896 . . . the technology of the radio was ripe for just the kind of entrepreneurial thrust that Marconi brought to it." In each case the person who had access to substantial capital (Marconi and Bell) was successful at the expense of those who did not (Lodge and Gray).
What we have encountered is a unique conjunction of an invention that had reached a marketable level of technological maturity, capital and businessmen seeking an opportunity for investment, and an inventor possessed of what Aitken termed "entrepreneurial thrust." Might and daring made for remarkable successes but these achievements were made at the cost of notable ethical compromises. Should not the other inventors have been reimbursed for their efforts? Or did the patent system, in these cases, function primarily to protect investment? Balzac, in his widely quoted and paraphrased aphorism, may have said it most aptly: "Every great fortune is built upon a great crime."
That may be an over-reaching generalization but, in these three cases, it seems to apply.
1Charlotte Gray. Reluctant Genius (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2006) pp. 80-86.
2Robert V. Bruce. Bell (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1973) p. 178.
3Bruce, op. cit., p. 179.
4Seth Shulman. The Telephone Gambit (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008) pp. 117-121.
5David Bodanis. Electrical Universe (New York: Crown Publishers, 2005) p. 21.
6Bodanis, op. cit., p. 23.
7Hugh G. J. Aitken. Syntony and Spark (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985) pp. 202-208.
8Bodanis, op. cit., p. 23.
9Steve Nichols. "GB3SSS- Marconi's Transatlantic Leap Revisited." QST, Dec. 2007, p. 40.