A Corrupt Patent Official Indirectly Stifled Telephone Adoption for Two Decades

Alexander Bell is famous for being the inventor of the telephone. Less known is that he invented it at the same time as a totally different guy, Elisha Gray.

However, Bell had an edge: the patent examiner owed a debt to Bell’s attorney. As soon as Gray’s patent arrived, one of Bell’s lawyers (who had been sitting on the patent for arcane international patent law reasons) was mysteriously tipped off and delivered Bell’s patent as well. Then, while Gray’s patent sat in a pile, Bell’s got timestamped immediately.

The resulting monopoly and ridiculous phone rates charged by Bell limited adoption of phones by 1894 to only 250,000 phones. Bell’s company didn’t see widespread consumer adoption as a priority.

As soon as the patent expired, phone adoption expanded 12 times more in 10 years than they did in double that time under Bell. While it seems no one asked Grey how he’d do it differently, he couldn’t have been more aggressive than Bell, whose company ignored expansion in favor of low-cost city centers and refused to connect independent providers until competition forced them to. And Grey’s 70 other inventions, including one (used mostly by banks) that lets people sign things remotely, didn’t suffer from the same bottlenecking.

Imagine the U.S. during the 20th century if its communication revolution had happened 20 years earlier. Then feel free to make Alexander Bell as hated by the Internet as his contemporary, Edison.

Bell and his partners almost surely got inside information and favorable treatment from the patent examiner, who was in deep debt to Bell’s attorney. By March 1874, when Bell famously did succeed in transmitting speech and summoning his assistant Watson, his supposed invention resembled not his original patent but that of his rival Gray, who—by virtue of that time-stamp—Bell had beaten to the patent office by hours.
[quote]Bell Telephone’s monopoly stifled the growth of phone service. There were 250,000 phones in the United States when the company’s monopoly ended. Five years later, by 1899, the number was over one million—and in the following five-year intervals the numbers leaped to three million and seven million.


Service was provided by use of iron wire or on grounded circuits with a local battery power source’ 3 and was directed to customers located within a mile of the wire center. Since central offices were usually located in the center of a large urban community’s business-industrial area, residential, suburban, and rural service went largely undeveloped. Public relations were usually ignored during the patent monopoly period while the System concentrated on reaping large profits. As later assessed by the FCC, “the System’s attitude toward the public was characterized by arrogance and indifference.”

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