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No One Remembers Who Invented the Telephone

Alexander Graham Bell, the so-called father of the telephone, may have been the first to patent it. But true credit goes to an impoverished Italian immigrant from Staten Island who couldn't speak English.

Alexander Graham Bell, the so-called father of the telephone, may have been the first to patent it. But true credit goes to an impoverished Italian immigrant from Staten Island who couldn’t speak English.

Antonio Meucci dreamed of making his living through inventions. After years of toiling as a stage technician in Florence – and three months of imprisonment for participating in the revolutionary unification movement – Meucci and his family fled to Cuba. He was developing a water purification in Havana when a friend’s doctor asked him to work with the German physician Franz Anton Mesmer, who was already known for his research into animal magnetism. Mesmer was developing a therapy system for patients suffering from rheumatism. It was while giving electrical shocks to a patient that Meucci realized that sound could travel along electrical wires.

Antonio Meucci

Meucci would use this discovery to create numerous early versions of the telephone. In 1856 he installed a telephone-like device in his Staten Island home in order to communicate with his wife, who was ill and bedridden at the time, while he worked in his basement laboratory. Between 1956 and 1870, Meucci purportedly developed over thirty different types of telephones, including a marine telephone that allowed a diver to communicate with the mothership while underwater. All the while, he worked on numerous other projects, including opening the first lager beer factory and the first paraffin candle factory. He also invented a filter for tea and coffee, a process for canning Italian meat sauce, and a plastic paste that could be used for making billiard balls, among other things.

However inventive he was, Meucci wasn't lucky. When he approached people about his invention, they either laughed at him or conveniently “lost” his models. He wanted to buy a patent, but could only afford a caveat, an official notice of intention to file a patent application at a later date. In 1871, he filed his claim for a “Sound Telegraph” with the US Patent Office. But he didn't make any mention of the machine's telephonic properties. And when time came to renew the caveat two years later, he didn't. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell filed his patent for “the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically… by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sound”. And the rest is noise.

Caveat for Meucci’s telephone-like device

“He had everything stacked against him”, explains poet Matthea Harvey, who has just completed an art project about the inventor called Telettrofono. Meucci's obituary, published in the New York Herald on October 19, 1889, read, “He died in the full belief of the priority of his claim as inventor of the telephone, which, during the lucid intervals of his sickness, he declared must be recognized sooner or later.” Because of the great efforts of his late biographer, Basillio Catania, people are starting to become aware of Meucci. In 2002 the US House of Representatives, on the initiative of congressman and Staten Island native Vito Fossella, passed Resolution 269. which declares his life to have been “extraordinary and tragic”, and asserts “that the life and achievements of Antonio Meucci should be recognized, and his work in the invention of the telephone should be acknowledged.”

Meucci’s former Staten Island home is now a museum

Despite the Resolution, he remains relatively unknown, and Bell is credited with the invention. Through Bell’s experiments with a phonautograph, he did create his own system for transmitting sound waves, and, unlike Meucci, was able to fund and patent his discoveries thanks to financial support from wealthy patrons.

In "Telettrofono," Harvey and sound artist Justin Bennett capture Meucci's fascinating, tragic life through an audio piece that blends ambient sounds from Staten Island with invented noises such as a piano of stone and glass and a bone-xylophone. This soundscape is accompanied by a poetic and fantastical interpretation of Meucci’s life, in which his wife Esterre is imagined as a mermaid in pursuit of the island's sounds. Audience members listen to this story through a modern-day “telettrofono” – an iPod – while wandering in the footsteps of a little known pioneer to the coast of New York's most underappreciated borough.

Telettrofono is the fourth project of stillspotting nyc, a two-year multidisciplinary project that takes the Guggenheim’s Architecture and Urban Studies programming out into the city’s five boroughs. It runs Saturdays and Sundays, July 14-15, 21-22, 28-29, and August 4-5 from 12pm-7pm.