The Garibaldi-Meucci Museum, Staten Island, New York
By Richard “Zippy” Grigonis — December 2, 2010
The Short Version of the Story: This otherwise nondescript 1840s Country Gothic Revival-style house on Staten Island was not only the home in exile for the great Italian liberator Giuseppe Garibaldi, but also the place where the home’s Italian immigrant owner, an Italian immigrant named Antonio Meucci, perfected a telephone system decades before the one that brought fame and fortune to Alexander Graham Bell. Meucci’s former home is now a museum situated at 420 Tompkins Avenue midway between the Staten Island Ferry and the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.
In 1923 the monument at right was erected in front of the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum, which was inventor Antonio Meucci's home from 1850 until his death in 1889.
The Long Version of the Story: The highly controversial and ultimately tragic story of Antonio Meucci begins with his birth on April 13, 1808 in the San Frediano quarter of Florence, Italy. Meucci studied design and mechanical engineering at Florence’s Academy of Fine Arts and then worked in the Teatro della Pergola and other theaters as a stage technician until 1835, when he accepted a position as scenic designer and stage technician at the home of Cuba’s Havana Opera, the Teatro Tacon. It was in this theater that he experimented with electrical rheostats and mechanical devices that could move the heavy stage curtains.
While in Havana, Meucci developed, among other things, an early form of electroshock therapy with which he attempted to treat various illnesses such as migraine headaches and arthritis. The patient would hold in one hand a copper plate or “tongue” and with the other hand place another copper tongue in his or her mouth. Meucci would then connect the circuit and administer the shock. During a session when he administered the shock treatment to a friend suffering from a migraine headache who was in another room, Meucci heard an exclamation from his friend that traveled through the copper wire connecting the two rooms to vibrate another copper tongue that Meucci held in his left hand.
This gave Meucci the idea for a telephonic device, a telegrafo parlante (“speaking telegraph”) which he built in Havana in 1849, when Alexander Graham Bell was just a two-year-old living in Scotland.
This means of transmitting sound (the “electrostatic telephone”) was later rediscovered in 1878 when physics professor Amos Emerson Dolbear (1837-1910) while at Bethany College, devised a telephonic transmitter in which one plate of a small battery also served as a diaphragm. When the sound waves of a human voice vibrated it, the battery’s voltage varied in sync with it, as did the current in the circuit. Dolbear’s receiver consisted of a capacitor with two metal plates, one fixed, the other slightly loose. The fluctuating current when applied to the fixed plate caused the other, loosened plate to be attracted or repelled in accordance with the current, and this vibration reproduced the sound from the transmitter. Although not used in telephones, Dolbear’s capacitor concept did appear in the so-called “condenser microphone” and “static loudspeaker” designs of the 20th century.
Meucci’s telephone would be completely transformed into an electromagnetic device as it went through 26 design changes over the following decades. He would later (around 1870) call it the telettrofono or “telectrophone.”
Meucci’s wife, Esther, suffered severe rheumatoid arthritis for most of her life. While still in Havana, Meucci was so concerned about her that he set up a mechanical telephonic system between the house where she was ailing and the opera house where he was working.
Meucci must have immediately grasped the commercial possibilities of such a device and soon decided to pursue his researches in the more favorable scientific and economic climate of the United States. He arrived in New York on May 1, 1850, setting up shop in the Clifton section of Staten Island, in what is now called Rosebank. Here he found himself surrounded by Italian political refugees, in particular the illustrious Italian patriot and military genius Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882), the future conqueror of Sicily and Naples, and chief hero-figure of the Risorgimento, the 1860 reunification of Italy. Garibaldi had also arrived in America in 1850, landing at Staten Island's Quarantine Station. He spent his first months on Staten Island in the Pavilion Hotel then situated in St. George. Antonio Meucci, hearing of Garibaldi's arrival, offered to live with Garibaldi. In search for a place to live they asked the advice of the colorful Max Maretzek, musician, composer and impresario, who lived on the Island. Concidentally, Marotzck was leaving for Havana, Cuba, and offered the two men the use of his home in wht is now Rosabank, situated on what was then called Cross Street. It was the small frame Gothic Revival house Garibaldi was to occupy as his residence for a total of eighteen months, from 1851 to 1853. Garibaldi spent parts of his American exile (from 1850 to 1853) in Meucci’s home, making a living by helping to manufacture smokeless candles (another Meucci invention) in a small factory Meucci had outfitted. Garibaldi would have been the most famous witness to Meucci’s demonstrations of his telettrofono.
In 1853 Esther’s arthritic condition had deteriorated to where she was essentially an invalid and could rarely leave her third-floor bedroom. To stay in communication with her while he worked, Meucci, between 1854 and 1855, constructed the world’s first simple telephone network. One set of wires went from Esther’s bedroom to Meucci’s basement laboratory, while another set of wires led down the staircase, around banisters, across a wall, out a window, and over to Meucci’s larger laboratory in his candle factory building. To initiate a call, Esther would pull on a wire running parallel to the telephone wires, which would ring a bell, getting the other person’s attention. Later, around 1858, Meucci replaced the wire and bell with a telegraphic call signaling system that traveled through his phone network. It was a Morse telegraph key, attached to each end of the line, which when repeatedly pressed could short-circuit the local transmitter, thus sending strong pulses along the line and causing the distant receiver to emit loud, intermittent clicks (which means that Meucci developed the first call signal, a feature that was lacking on Bell’s first telephones when they were deployed to subscribers in 1877 and had to be subsequently “re-invented” by Bell’s assistant, Dr. Thomas Watson, who filed a “ringer” patent on August 1, 1878).
Like Alexander Graham Bell’s later “Butterstamp” telephone, the Meucci device could function as either a transmitter or a receiver. Speak into it, and it acted a transmitter; put it to your ear, and it was a receiver.
Meucci continued to tinker with and perfect the telettrofono until his first official demonstration of it in 1860 for prospective investors. Part of the demonstration consisted of sending a singer’s voice from one building to another.
A description of the apparatus was then published in one of New York’s Italian newspapers, L’Eco d’Italia, in late 1860 or early 1861. Copies of the article were sent to a friend of Meucci’s named Enrico Bendelari who in September 1860 had left New York for Italy and who thought that the telettrofonic system could be financed and mass produced not in America, but Italy. Bendelari took the newspaper article, some drawings and a model of the device and toured Italy looking for backers. But because of the civil wars raging in Italy at that time, businessmen there had more important things to worry about than financing a telephone system. Most thought the idea impractical anyway. In an affidavit dated January 13, 1880, Bendelari stated: “On my arrival in Naples, I did apply to certain capitalists to assist in the matter, but they appeared to consider the discovery an impossibility, and declined to have anything to do with it.” To make matters worse, a civil war soon erupted in America, too.
Antonio Meucci would later have a misunderstanding with Enrico Bendelari when he read an article published in the August 19, 1865 edition of the L’Eco d’Italia reporting that another inventor, Innocenzo Manzetti of Aosta, Italy, had also invented a telephone. Meucci feared that Bendelari, while he was in Italy, had either intentionally or accidentally revealed his invention to Manzetti. Meucci’s letter to Bendelari and his reassuring reply were published together in L’Eco d’Italia on October 21, 1865 (Meucci actually had nothing to worry about, since Manzetti’s telephone was an inferior device incapable of fully transmitting speech, as it was similar in its working principles to the invention of Johann Philipp Reis). Meucci’s letter published n the October 21, 1864 edition of L’Eco d’Italia also briefly mentions his Havana experiments. The same letter was published in the December 1, 1865 edition of Il Commercio di Genova. Both of these publications exist today.
Though discouraged, Meucci after a while again took up his telephone research, even as his financial resources dwindled to practically nothing.
One of Meucci’s laboratory notes, dated May 20, 1862, translates from the Italian as follows: “At the midpoint of the wire, a strongly magnetized iron inside a coil. Do not need any battery at all, and is a good conductor of the sound.”
This cryptic statement becomes more intelligible after reading a similar note, in the same notebook, dated September 27, 1870, which is accompanied by a drawing of four circuit diagrams (see Figure 1, below):
Experiment made the 27-th inst. I put a magnetized horse-shoe at the middle of the conductor. The two bars, that is to say, the two poles, North and South, were linked to the conductor. This arrangement gave satisfactory results, but if the conductor were copper instead of iron, I think it would be better (to be tried) to join a strong induction coil to the midpoint of the conductor, placing a strong magnetic iron bar in the center of said coil, or if not, connecting one pole [of the induction coil] to the transmitting tube and the other pole to the earth. . . . The best method is a coil with a loadstone [core], but the horse-shoe [coil] is better when placed before the [telephone] instrument, be it the receiver or the transmitter, so as to receive electricity from the earth [path], placing the conductor as shown in drawing No. 4, which works as if it were helped by a galvanic battery.
The above quote and its accompanying diagrams seems to indicate that Meucci had discovered the advantage of adding a “loading coil” to a phone line, an idea that would not appear again until Thomas Edison (1847-1941) and Emile Berliner (1851-1929) began using induction coils in their telephones of 1877 and 1878. The theory behind their use for long distance transmission wasn’t worked out until June 3, 1887 when the eccentric English physicist Oliver Heaviside (1850-1925) published a paper on the subject in the journal Electrician. It had been known that a wire or cable had a certain capacitance distributed along its length. The longer the wire, the greater the capacitance and hence the greater the distortion of any electrical pulses traveling along it. Heaviside correctly determined that inserting a series of wire coils at intervals in a long distance telephone circuit would increase inductance and cancel the effect of the capacitance, thus reducing signal distortion and greatly improving the quality of transmitted speech. A French telecommunications engineer, Alfred Vaschy, also published the same conclusion in the July 2, 1887 issue of the Lumière Électrique. All of this brilliant work was ignored until 1900 when Columbia University Professor Michael Idvorsky Pupin (1858-1935) and AT&T research engineer George Ashley Campbell (1870-1954) independently applied for a loading coil patent, leading to a dispute.
Campbell had carefully experimented in the area of “load coils” or “loading coils.” The first long distance cable using Campbell’s invention was demonstrated successfully in September 1899; this was followed by the British Post Office introducing the inductive loading of telephone cables in Great Britain on March 22, 1901. Indeed, there were those at AT&T who were convinced that Pupin simply “got wind” of Campbell’s work and rushed through a patent application. The ensuing battle over the loading coil patents would be the most hotly contested (and financially momentous) since the original Bell patents of 1876. Pupin was awarded one patent on June 19, 1900, the next in 1904. AT&T, wanting to avoid the fees of what was shaping up to be a huge legal battle, ultimately paid Pupin the astounding sum of $435,000 (or about $10,800,000 in 2010 U.S. dollars, using the Consumer Price Index as a guide) to license his work, essentially brushing aside Campbell, who remained incensed about the affair until his death decades later (ironically, for some years after the patent battle, the act of hooking up loading coils to a telephone line was referred to as “Pupinization”).
But as we have already seen, amazingly, there exist Meucci’s circuit diagrams and accompanying descriptions of these types of coils, dated September 27, 1870 (and later notarized in September 1885 to serve as evidence in a patent trial), that clearly predate Heaviside, Vaschy, Campbell and Pupin.
Figure 1. Antonio Meucci memorabilia. The top two drawings are from an article on Meucci in the November 9, 1885 issue of The Chicago Tribune. Figure A on the left shows an 1857 model of Meucci’s telettrofono, which used a permanently magnetized tempered steel bar labeled “M,” a coil of wire and a diaphragm made of either a sheet of iron or a stretched animal membrane bearing a small iron disk glued at the center. The air gap between the diaphragm and the magnet’s bottom pole was adjusted by means of a screw. Figure B to the right is a model from 1867.
The photo at upper right is of a copy of a model reconstructed in 1932 by order of Guglielmo Marconi, then president of Italy’s National Research Council, for the Italian pavilion at Chicago’s “A Century of Progress” Exposition held in March 1933. It now belongs to the Museo delle Telecomunicazioni (Museum of Telecommunications) maintained by the SIRTI Group in Cassina de’ Pecchi, Milan, Italy.
Finally, at the bottom of the illustration is a drawing of four circuit diagrams for long distance telephony, dated September 27, 1870, from pages 35 and 36 of Meucci’s notebook. These comprise Figure 12 of a later deposition sworn by Meucci and attorney Michael Lemmi before Charles Taylor, a New York County notary public, on September 28, 1885. Each of the four circuits employs a ground return path and an electromagnetic “telettrofono” at either end of the circuit. The circuit “No. 1” shows a long distance experiment. Circuits “No. 2” and “No. 3” differ from “No. 1” in that what we would now call an induction or “loading coil” has been inserted midway along the line. In circuit “No. 4,” at bottom, Meucci split the inductance by positioning inductors at both ends of the line between the telephone and the ground.
Meucci also left documentation indicating that he had perfected a way to eliminate the so-called “side-tone” effect which resulted in the speaker hearing an echo of his own voice, a problem that plagued the later Bell System telephones for many years. Anti-sidetone circuits would not be heard of again until 1918, when nine patents relating to them were registered by George A. Campbell (of loading coil fame).
We can be certain of Meucci’s development of the anti-sidetone circuit since sometime during the period 1857–58 he hired the professional artist Nestore Corradi to prepare a drawing for him, showing two persons sitting, each operating two telephonic instruments, who talk by means of an electrified wire and a battery with an anti-sidetone circuit achieved by separating the two directions of transmission. In fact, the drawing shows a ground return path and two aerial lines, one for each direction. Also included in the drawing are the two Morse buzzers, to solve the problem of call signaling and alerting the called party that someone wanted to speak with them over the phone.
In another note, dated August 17, 1870, Meucci writes that, “I have obtained a [transmission] distance of about one mile.”
Unfortunately, Meucci’s research came temporarily to a halt on the otherwise pleasant Sunday afternoon of July 30, 1871, when he found himself severely injured in what still stands as the worst disaster in the history of the Staten Island Ferry. Meucci was returning to Staten Island from Manhattan, traveling with 400 mostly beach-bound passengers aboard the steam-powered ferryboat Westfield II. He boarded the ship as it sat anchored in its slip at the Whitehall Terminal in Lower Manhattan. Suddenly, at 1:15 p.m., the boiler exploded. Sixty-six people died immediately in the ensuing blast, fire and stampede, and 200 were either scalded or maimed by debris hurled by the explosion; about 60 additional passengers would later die of their injuries.
While Meucci spent three agonizing months recovering in the hospital, his wife Esther, desperate for money, panicked and sold many of his working models and other goods to a secondhand dealer for six dollars (or about $103 in 2010 U.S. dollars). When Meucci later tried to buy back these items, he found that they had already been purchased by a young man of unknown identity.
Realizing that someone out there could now reverse-engineer his telephone, Meucci felt he should now finally patent and again try to commercially deploy his invention. Though impoverished, with three Italian partners he established the Telettrofono Company December 12, 1871. But to file a U.S. patent cost $250 in the year 1871—the equivalent of about $4,530 in the year 2010—so he instead took out a less expensive $10 caveat (about $181 in 2010 currency) which was is a one-year notice of intent to file a patent (caveats were a 19th century version of what we would today call a provisional patent). Entitled “Sound Telegraph,” this caveat (No. 3335) was filed on December 28, 1871 and was renewed on December 9, 1872 and December 15, 1873. But Meucci, now ill and living on public assistance, allowed the caveat to lapse in December 1874.
In desperation, Meucci tried to excite the interest of Edward B. Grant, a vice president of a Western Union Telegraph Company affiliate called the American District Telegraph Company. In 1872 Meucci gave him models and a description of the device, but Grant was apparently careless with them, passing them on to engineers who were promoted or changed positions, which meant that other engineers ignorant of the situation were left to puzzle over the mysterious instruments. At one point the models came under the scrutiny of Henry W. Pope, whose brother, Franklin L. Pope, was perhaps as important a figure in the history of the telegraph as Samuel F.B. Morse and who worked with Thomas Edison on many inventions; with James Ashley they had founded Pope, Edison and Co. which manufactured telegraph instruments.
Brilliant as they were, however, neither of the Pope brothers could apparently figure out how to get Meucci’s devices to work. Over a two year period the seemingly enigmatic models continued to slowly make their way from one Western Union engineer to another, until they finally disappeared into storage. Grant told Meucci in 1874 that he couldn’t help him, and that the models had been lost.
In 1876, Meucci read of Alexander Graham Bell’s momentous “discovery” in a newspaper and was furious. During the period 1877–1880 he relied on and deposed the lawyer Thomas D. Stetson, who had filed his “Sound Telegraph” caveat in 1871. A Colonel William W. Bennett gave Meucci funds with which he was able to rebuild the principal models of the telettrofono he had created between 1853 and 1871, and which were similar to those that his wife had sold while he was recuperating from injuries received in the Westfield II ferry explosion. And in 1879 Meucci secured a certified copy of his 1871 caveat from the U.S. Patent office and began to gather as many affidavits as he could from witnesses who had “spoken over the wire” using his telettrofono in the years prior to Bell’s 1876 patent.
During the time from 1880 to 1885 Meucci sought after (and received) some notoriety in the press and received messages of sympathy and solidarity from many people.
Additional help came in the early 1880s when companies arose having the expressed purpose of formulating ways to invalidate the Bell patents so that cheaper, better systems could compete with the Bell System. During this time period some of the telephone’s forgotten inventors were finally “rediscovered,” albeit purely for legal and financial purposes. Some New York newspapers published a letter by Meucci wherein he proclaimed himself the one true inventor of the telephone, and in September 1883 Meucci struck employment and licensing deals with a syndicate of Philadelphia and Chicago investors who were dissatisfied with current phone service and were determined to compete with the American Bell Telephone Company via their own organization, the Globe Telephone Company of New York.
Meucci’s experimental apparatus was even exhibited at the Philadelphia Electrical Exhibition of 1884, attracting much attention.
There was also hope in the form of the U.S. Government, which in June 1885 began proceedings that would lead to a lawsuit against the American Bell Company and Alexander Graham Bell for “fraud, collusion, and deception in their obtainment [of the telephone patent].” The U.S. Government set out to prove that Meucci had actually discovered the electromagnetic telephone and that the German Philipp Reis had discovered the prototype of what we today call the microphone.
While the Secretary of the Interior was holding public hearings in November of 1885 to determine if there were grounds for a government suit against Bell, the American Bell Telephone Company filed a bill of complaint against the Globe Telephone Company and Meucci for patent infringement in the Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York. Judge Wallace, who had already ruled four times in favor of Bell for patent infringement in other cases, presided over this court.
Bell did this more as a maneuver to counteract the attack of the Government, than to actually sue the Globe Telephone Company for any patent infringement, as claimed in their bill. The American Bell Telephone Company was confident to win quickly in New York, also to create a situation of res judicata or res adjudicata, meaning “a settled matter” (an umbrella term referring to both claim and issue preclusion) in an eventual trial with the Government and to impede any actions in favor of Meucci in Washington.
Meucci, in his answer to the Bill of Complaint filed by the Bell Company in New York, remarked that the Bell Company’s attack was given its form mostly because of the hearings in Washington.
During the relatively swift trial that followed (American Bell Telephone Co. et al. vs. Globe Telephone Co. et al., 1885–1887) Meucci’s own testimony explained in every detail his experiments, and there were affidavits, sworn by various witnesses between 1880 and 1885, which substantiated the fact that Meucci could send voice through a wire more than 20 years prior to the Bell patent. Nevertheless, in New York on July 19, 1887, Judge William Wallace ruled against Meucci and the Globe Telephone Company for patent infringement.
Still, there remained the U.S. Government’s case against American Bell. Despite a public statement by no less than the Secretary of State that “there exists sufficient proof to give priority to Meucci in the invention of the telephone,” Bell’s well-funded lawyers managed to obstruct the government’s case, stalling it for over 12 years, a period of time that first stretched beyond Meucci’s death in 1889, then beyond the expiration in 1890 of Bell’s Patent for the membrane telephone receiver.
Upon expiration of Bell’s second patent on January 30, 1893, the Bell lawyers motioned to finally close the trial but the Government prosecutor, Charles S. Whitman, refused, stating that a decision on the case would provide a reference point for issues of fundamental importance to the United States. However, Whitman died in September 1896 and with him the U.S. Government’s main driving force in the case. Still, the trial managed to drag on until November 30, 1897, when a new Attorney General, Joseph McKenna, announced that for all effects and purposes, the lawsuit between the Government and American Bell was to be considered moot. There were no “winners or losers.” The case had been finally dropped without actually settling the underlying issue of who had primacy to the invention of the telephone and entitlement to its patents.
Antonio Meucci died on October 18, 1889. An editorial appearing in the New York Herald the following day opined that “Antonio Meucci died in the full belief of the priority of his claim as inventor or the telephone, which during the intervals of his sickness, he declared must be recognized sooner or later.”
Meucci’s great modern vindicator is Professor Basilio Catania, former head of Italy’s Central Telephone Research Laboratories and recipient of the 1988 Eurotelecom and 1991 Marconi Prizes.
Photo at left is of Dr. Basilio Catania, distinguished telecommunications researcher, whose arduous efforts have brought the work of antonio meucci to the public's attention and who is attempting to "ensure Antonio Meucci’s rightful place in history as the true inventor of the telephone."
Since his retirement in 1989, Catania has gone about the arduous task of revising the history of telephony through a series articles, speeches (notably his eye-opening lecture, “Antonio Meucci, Inventor of the Telephone: Unearthing the Legal and Scientific Proofs,” delivered October 10, 2000 at New York University’s home for Italian studies, the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò), as well as his ongoing work on a four volume biography of Meucci, Antonio Meucci—The Inventor and His Times. The first two volumes have appeared in Italian as Antonio Meucci—L’Inventore e il suo Tempo—Da Firenze a L’Avana (Seat Publications—Divisione STET, Rome, 1994) and Antonio Meucci—L’Inventore e il suo Tempo—New York 1850-1871 (Seat Publications—Divisione STET, Turin, 1996). Dr. Catania and the Federazione Italiana di Elettrotecnica have devoted a Museum to Antonio Meucci having laid out a chronology of his inventing the telephone and tracing the history of the two trials involving Antonio Meucci and Alexander Graham Bell.
By digging into the records of the telephone-related trials, Catania claims that newly-discovered evidence on file at the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, D.C. confirms that Antonio Meucci invented a working telephone many years before Alexander Graham Bell.
Part of Professor Catania’s proof is the notarized 1885 affidavit by Meucci and Michael Lemmi, Meucci’s friend and attorney, which was Lemmi’s English translation of Meucci’s laboratory notebook or “Memorandum Book” containing his notes on telephone experiments occurring as early as 1862. These include drawings and notes on loading coils, anti-sidetone circuits and other telephony-related discoveries.
Strangely, Catania has found that a different, badly translated version of Meucci’s notes sans drawings was made by the Globe Telephone Company and exhibited as “Defendants Exhibit No. 109” in the Bell vs. Globe trial.
Indeed, Catania, digging into records of the National Archives, has uncovered some considerably disturbing details of the trial.
First, Globe’s counsel, David Humphreys, provided a remarkably poor defense, filing only nine out of the 50 or more affidavits that were exhibited in favor of Meucci and elucidated before the Secretary of the Interior by a Meucci-admirer by the name of Dr. Seth R. Beckwith, an Elizabeth, New Jersey, surgeon who also had a degree in Law and who had been the General Manager of the Overland Telephone Company of New York.
Moreover, in his final argument before Judge Wallace, Humphreys did not insist on Meucci’s priority to the invention of the telephone.
To “dispose” of the affidavits of all witnesses who actually talked through Meucci’s telephones, a completely outrageous trick was employed that had been used in a previous telephone patent infringement case (also presided over by Wallace). As Catania stated in his lecture at New York University: “The trick was to dispose of all such witnesses by ruling that the spoken words that they had heard were from a string telephone, not an electric telephone. As you know, the ‘string telephone’ is a toy used by kids to talk with the aid of two cans and a rope or wire pulled stout between the cans. By ruling that way, Judge Wallace also discredited Meucci as having fooled himself, adding insult to injury.”
In his decision, Wallace wrote:
“[…] There is no reason to doubt that for many years prior to 1865, and from that year until he applied for the caveat, he had been experimenting with telephonic and electrical apparatus with a view of transmitting speech, and during this time had convinced himself that he had made interesting discoveries, which might eventually become useful ones. To this extent he is corroborated by the testimony of a number of witnesses. But the proofs fail to show that he had reached any practical result beyond that of conveying speech mechanically by means of a wire telephone. […]”
Catania actually found affidavits making the preposterous claim that Meucci’s telephone was just a string telephone One was sworn by none other than the eminent Prof. Charles R. Cross, Director of the Physics Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and founder of MIT’s first electrical engineering course. Cross had been a close friend of Alexander Graham Bell’s since 1872. From 1874 to around 1877 Bell worked with Cross on acoustics experiments and had borrowed MIT apparatus for use in his own lectures.
Professor Cross said that he had carefully studied Meucci’s deposition so as to reproduce his system in a physics lab, but Prof. Cross’s own description of his “working” configuration omits all electrical components as well as the long rocchetto or reel of wire Meucci always inserted in a circuit to simulate a long distance line. The existence of such a reel of wire naturally precludes the transmission of any mechanical vibration or effect between the endpoints.
Astonishingly, no objection was raised here by the apparently non-technically minded Globe attorney Humphreys, and no expert was called by Globe to counter Cross’s affidavit.
Cross even testified against the validity of Meucci’s 1871 “Sound Telegraph” caveat filed with the Patent Office, claiming that the caveat once again “plainly and well describes what is known as a lover’s telegraph or string telephone.”
This time, however, the Globe Company did call a witness—none other than Thomas Stetson, the patent lawyer who had prepared Meucci’s caveat in 1871.
In an affidavit of July 21, 1880, Stetson had sworn the following:
[. . .] I acted as his patent attorney [. . .] to caveat in the United States Patent Office Mr. Meucci’s invention of what is now known as the telephone; and that from his verbal explanation and the description contained in the caveat I verily believe him to be the first and original inventor thereof. [. . .]
However, when Stetson took the witness stand in the Bell vs. Globe trial in December 1885 and January 1886, his testimony showed an enigmatic reversal of opinion. For example, Prof. Catania has unearthed this eye-opening portion of Stetson’s testimony dated December 24, 1985:
I sincerely believe that he [Meucci] did not communicate to me the idea of a battery or batteries in connection with the insulated wire or wires. Also that he did not communicate to me any idea of a ground connection, or of diaphragms, or of permanent magnets, or electro-magnets, or adjustments. [. . .] This wire was adapted to conduct sound on the principle which is now sometimes called The Lover’s Telephone. [. . .]
Naturally, Mr. Stetson’s statements could be easily disproved by the written description that Meucci had physically handed to him for preparation of the caveat in 1871. Stetson, however, testified that he had lost it. He then said he had also lost letters on the same subject that Meucci had written to him. Moreover, Stetson went on to testify that he did not remember any drawing illustrating Meucci’s invention accompanying Meucci’s description. The climax came, when, in a startling move, Stetson produced and exhibited a mysterious letter—that he said he had recently dictated but not sent to the Globe Company—containing a detraction of Meucci’s caveat!
Stetson’s testimony enabled Judge Wallace to rule that Meucci’s claims “are overthrown by his own description of the invention at a time when he deemed it in a condition to patent, and by the evidence of Mr. Stetson.”
Prof. Catania found that there were many other bizarre occurrences in connection with the Bell vs. Globe trial. In the text of his NYU lecture Catania lists the following:
1. The Secretary of the Globe Company, though being one of the defendants, testified for the Bell Company.
2. A potential witness for Meucci, Edward B. Grant, Vice President of the American District Telegraph Company, died suddenly of heart attack on 7 October 1884. Meucci had repeatedly asked him, from 1872 to 1874, to test his telephones on the company’s lines and left with him documents and prototypes. Shortly before his death, Mr. Grant had told one Mr. Bertolino, a friend of Meucci, that he had found supporters for Meucci’s invention. Moreover, his death propitiously occurred one day after the ex-superintendent of the company had offered his services to the Bell Company. One month later he was hired by the Bell Company, and appointed Vice President and General Manager of their Missouri Branch. He then testified against Meucci, distorting the facts and calling Meucci “a crank.”
3. Domenico Mariani, a witness for the Globe Company and a good friend of Meucci since 1846, testified that, about one month before his testimony, he was offered $10,000 (about $250,000 in 2010 dollars) to return to Italy.
4. Major Zenas Fisk Wilber, the Chief Examiner of the U.S. Patent Office, who had examined both the Bell patents and Meucci’s caveat, had released affidavits, between July and August 1885, proving frauds in the grant of Bell patents.
5. Two Italians, Frederico Garlanda and John Citarotto, testified for the Bell Company that they owned a quite complete collection of L’Eco d’Italia, an Italian newspaper of New York, running from 1857 down to 1881. However, they stated that their collection lacked the issues from December 1, 1860 to the whole of 1863. We must recall that Meucci’s invention was reported as having been published in L’Eco d’Italia between the end of 1860 and the beginning of 1861. If retrieved, it would have rendered null the Bell patents. That precious issue of L’Eco d’Italia missing from said collection, was now missing from all main libraries in the United States, whereas the files in the Office of L’Eco d’Italia had been destroyed by a mysterious fire.
Any way you look at it, the cards were stacked against Antonio Meucci. He was an Italian immigrant, part of the first wave of immigrants who came to the U.S. from the 1820s through the 1880s and who suffered discrimination and numerous injustices. Like many Italian immigrants, Meucci didn’t speak English, making it difficult to both find financial backers for his inventions and to defend himself in the courts during his patent trial.
Of course, even if Meucci spoke perfect English and had ancestors who came to America on the Mayflower, he was still up against major corporate interests and their attorneys, all of whom managing to eventually defeat Meucci and nearly 600 other legal challenges to the Bell telephone patents. As we’ve seen, some of the “character assassination” directed at Meucci at the time consisted of completely ludicrous insinuations that his telettrofono was just an acoustic rather than an electrical device, and was likened to “two tin cans and a string.”
And if Meucci had all of the right enemies, he also had all of the wrong friends. Bendelari’s attempt to seek venture capital for the telettrofono in war-ravaged Italy was absurd and doomed from the start. Not having any entrepreneurial acumen himself, Meucci entrusted the commercial exploitation of his promising inventions to others, which eventually led to his financial ruin.
Taken as a whole, Meucci’s life is a kind of inverted form of the cherished myths some of us still hold today about immigrants and the spirit of the emerging American Republic in the Gilded Age. What should have been a Horatio Alger-like rags-to-riches story of: “poor latter-day Italian Renaissance Man comes to America, conquers adversity with a brilliant invention and ends up as a great and successful businessman,” was instead a tale of almost inconceivable pathos: A successful Italian inventor working in Cuba comes to New York in 1850 with assets of 26,000 pesos fuertes (around $632,000 in 2010 dollars), finds himself nearly destitute by 1871, then wages a legal struggle against a corporate giant, only to die long before the final trial’s ambiguous outcome.
Still, of all the “pre-inventors” of the telephone, it is the legend of the brilliant though ill-fated Antonio Meucci that has slowly aroused public curiosity and sentiment, no doubt because he has a claim to being the telephone’s true inventor.
The Garibaldi-Meucci Museum
Meucci's house was recognized as a historic landmark during his lifetime, but only because Garbaldi had lived there. Upon Garibaldi's death in 1884, a committee was formed to come up with something that would commemorate his stay in Staten Island. Meucci was present that year when a marble plaque was placed over his home's front door. After Meucci’s death, the house was turned over to the Italian community to be preserved as a memorial to Garibaldi. By 1907, on the centennial of Garibaldi’s birth, the house was moved about 400 hundred yards to its present location at 420 Tompkins Avenue in Rosebank, Staten Island, where a pantheon was erected over it. In 1919, the Garibaldi Society turned over the house to The Order Sons of Italy in America. The Order has restored and maintained the house ever since. The house/museum now stands on a concrete platform four steps above the surrounding ground. This small five room house, three windows wide, has a narrow porch running the length of the house dupported by four posts. With the assistance of the cultural department of the Italian Embassy, artifacts were collected from around the world. On May 20, 1956 the house was opened to the public and rededicated as The Garibaldi-Meucci Museum. Administered by the New York Grand Lodge Order Sons of Italy in America, the museum hosts 70,000 visitors a year and features period rooms, documents, historic Meucci telephone models and art-nouveau furniture and a four-octave piano handcrafted by Meucci himself. It even has a plaster “death mask” of Meucci, his weary visage peering at us from across time. Today the museum offers historical tours, Italian language programs for all levels, school programs for K-12, permanent and temporary exhibitions, lectures and concerts. Additionally, the museum serves as a repository for Italian American Heritage and Culture.
On October 12, 2000 the Council of the City of New York passed unanimously Resolution No. 1566, “calling upon the United States Congress to acknowledge the primacy of Antonio Meucci in the invention of the telephone and declare his moral vindication for this great achievement in the service of science and all mankind.”
The April 23rd and 29th, 2000 issues of America Oggi (“America Today,” the last remaining Italian language newspaper still published in the U.S.) reported that Governor George E. Pataki of the State of New York had proclaimed May 1, 2000 “Meucci Day” in New York State, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Antonio Meucci’s arrival in New York. Pataki stated that “the basic concept of the telephone was born in Meucci’s laboratory in 1849. . . .” The 1st of May was also proclaimed “Meucci Day” in New York City by its Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, who said that “the federal case against Bell for fraud. . . was dismissed following the expiration of Bell’s patent. . . and the issue [of who invented the telephone] was not resolved.”
A few years later, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate passed resolutions acknowledging Meucci’s work regarding the invention of the telephone.
Interestingly, if you happen to look up the word “Telephone” in most versions of Microsoft’s Encarta Encyclopedia published on CD-ROM, you’ll find Alexander Graham Bell described as the inventor. But if you look it up in the Italian edition of Encarta, you’d discover that the inventor was none other than Antonio Meucci! You’ll also find an essay by Basilio Catania on “Meucci, Bell and the Invention of the Telephone.” To explain these kinds of variations in the Encarta, Bill Gates wrote an article in 1997 explaining that each foreign version of the encyclopedia that differs from the American version “is as local as possible, representing what we call ‘local, educated reality’.”
Unfortunately, since the protean Mr. Gates was now writing for American readers, he concluded his article by sounding as if he had just been sitting in an 1886 courtroom listening (and believing) the Meucci-trashing testimony of Cross and Stetson: “. . . Bell did invent the electric telephone, after Meucci conceived of a simpler mechanical device that allowed remote conversations over relatively short distances. At least, that’s reality as I understand it.”
Or, to paraphrase Adam Savage of TV's Mythbusters fame, these days anybody can reject anyone else's reality and substitute their own.