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Elisha Gray and The Telephone

Elisha Gray was an American electrical engineer who was also a highly successful inventor. Despite his successes, Gray's legacy is plagued by controversy and disappointment concerning one of his most groundbreaking inventions. Born in 1835 in Barnesville, Ohio, Gray was the son of William Gray and Margaret Sipprelle, who were Quaker farmers. He became a skilled young man with an interest in electronic devices. By the age of ten, Gray had created a working telegraph machine. To support his family following the death of his father, Gray began working as a carpenter until he attended Oberlin College where he continued to pursue his interests in electronics and telegraph technology. This interest would lead Elisha toward a career in telegraphy where he would over time invent and patent better telegraphs.

In 1869 Elisha bought into Shawk & Barton, which was a manufacturer of electrical instruments. He did this by buying out Shawk, who was one of the owners at the time. The company became known as Gray and Barton. In 1972 the company name changed to the Western Electric Manufacturing Company. This was a successful endeavor for Gray as his Western Electric Manufacturing Company was Western Union's primary source for telegraph devices. It was during this time that Gray began working on a way to accomplish multiple telegraphy, which at that time was not yet a possibility. While working on his solution for the problem of multiple telegraphy he became aware of the possibility of transmitting a human voice. Putting his plans for inventing a speaking telegraph, or telephone, on hold, Elisha focused on inventing the multiple harmonic telegraph, which he patented on February 23, 1875. This was two days before Alexander Graham Bell filed for a patent for his multiple harmonic device.

  • In 1867 the inventor applied for his first patent, which was for a telegraph relay.
  • He is the inventor of the world's first music synthesizer.
  • The Western Electric Manufacturing Company is currently known as Western Electric.
  • The inventor had as many as 70 patents to inventions.

On the morning of February 14, 1876, the inventor submitted to the US Patent Office a caveat regarding his intentions to invent the telephone. Unfortunately, another inventor named Alexander Graham Bell had filed a patent application for the same type of device on the same day, allegedly two hours prior. This created a dispute and many legal actions between the two regarding which inventor's claim was valid and legal. Originally, Gray admitted in writing to submitting his caveat after Bell submitted his patent application, but upon discovering further information during the lawsuit trials, he asserted that he had filed his caveat first. Several factors worked against Gray and played a part in his loss to Bell. The primary problem was that Bell had filed an actual patent application while Gray had only filed a caveat that stated his intention to file within a set amount of months. This would have helped keep others from taking his idea; however, Bell had been judged to be faster in getting his application turned in.

Following the dismissal of his caveat and the sale of Western Electric Company, he returned to Oberlin College. In 1880 he was made professor of dynamic electricity at the college. The inventor died in January of 1901 in Newtonville, Massachusetts. He was survived by his wife Delia M Shepard Gray, and two children.

  • Antonio Meucci was the first person to file a caveat on a talking telegraph in 1871; however, he was unable to renew the caveat.
  • Gray invented acoustic telegraphy in 1875.
  • In 1887 he invented the telautograph, which is a machine that transmitted handwriting via wires used for telegraph.
  • Following his death, Gray was recognized as the inventor of an underwater signaling device.

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