March 7 is the anniversary of Alexander Graham Bell’s patent on the telephone. There is a common misconception that Bell received the patent over Elisha Gray because he was first to the patent office by several hours. This is incorrect. The United States has always had a first-to-invent patent system not a first-to-file system. Let’s hope it stays that way. (Congress is considering changing our patent laws to a first-to-file system, which would be disastrous for independent inventors and small companies.) As a result, it was irrelevant who filed their patent application first.
Eventually a number of patents related to the telephone were all involved in an interference, which is a proceeding to determine who was the first true inventor. According to an article in the New York Times dated October 24, 1884, there were originally fourteen parties involved in the interference but only six remained: William L. Voelker (two patent applications), Thomas A. Edison (five applications), Elisha Gray (four applications), John H. Irwin & James W. McDonough (one application), and Alexander Graham Bell (two applications). These patents appear to have covered eleven patentably distinct aspects (counts) of the telephone. One count was directed to the speaker diaphragm, another count was directed to transmitting reproducing sound by increasing and decreasing the strength of an electric current. Bell did not win on all counts.
There are number of things that are interesting about this article in the New York Times. For instance, the writer did not feel compelled to explain to his audience what an interference was or what a count in an interference was. I cannot image this being the case in any general interest publication today. Only in a publication specifically directed to patent attorneys would this be true today. It is unlikely that any generally interest publication or even industry specific publication would carry an article on a patent interference. Clearly, inventors and patents were held in higher regard in the late 1800s than today.
Another interesting point: there were many patents involved in the invention of the telephone. These overlapping rights had to be resolved to create a functioning telephone system. Any number of patent critics today seem believe we are unique in having multiple patents that apply to a product or system; but at least since the invention of the steam engine it was common to have these overlapping rights. Despite today’s critics , our ancestors were able to deal with these issues and move technology forward. Why is this such a hard concept to reconcile?
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