Credit is usually given to the Scottish-born scientist and engineer Alexander Graham Bell, who was granted a US patent for what he called an ‘acoustic telegraph’ in 1875. His claim comes complete with the famous story of Bell using his invention to call his colleague in the next room with the words: “Mr Watson, come here – I want to see you.”
Yet like many major inventions, whether Bell deserves all the credit has long been the subject of debate, not least over what exactly constitutes a ‘true’ telephone. For example, some historians point out that Italian engineer Antonio Meucci and German inventor Philipp Reis independently invented telephone-like devices that achieved the key breakthrough of turning sound into electric signals over a decade before Bell.
In 2002, the US House of Representatives accepted that Meucci’s work was so important that it could have been enough to prevent Bell getting a patent. Over the years, Bell’s right to any credit has been challenged by evidence that he plagiarised key parts of his design.
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