Antonio Meucci was a prolific Italian inventor, engineer, and practical chemist who is most known for developing a form of voice communication apparatus in 1857. He has long had champions arguing that he should be credited with the invention of the telephone.
Antonio Meucci was born to Amatis Joseph Meucci and Mary Sunday Louis Pepi on Wednesday, April 13, 1808 in Florence, Italy. He attended the Accademia di Bell' Arte (Academy of Fine Arts) in Florence, where he studied chemical and mechanical engineering, and electricity in particular. These subjects laid the foundation for his future as an inventor.
In 1833, Meucci searched for a workplace that was not oppressive and would be a source of new ideas, so he began looking toward theatre. He took a well-paying job working at the Teatro della Pergola Opera House in
Florence as a stage technician, assisting Artemio Canovetti. It was at this theatre that he met costume designer, Ester Mochi, who later became his wife on August 7, 1834 in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.
In October 1835, Meucci and his wife left Florence, never to return. They emigrated to Havana Cuba. Antonio became the Chief Engineer at the Great Tacón Theater and Ester became the Director of Costumes.
The Meucci family made Havana their home. Antonio pursued numerous experimental lines of research developing a new method for electroplating metals. This new art was applied to all sorts of Cuban military equipment, resulting in Meucci gaining fame and recognition as a scientific researcher and developer of new technologies. During his time in Havana, Meucci invented a water purification system for use in the Tacón Opera house for drinking purposes and for a fountain system.
The decision to move to Havana was indeed a good one. A young and dreamy romantic, Meucci found the beauty of theater work quite
entrancing and inspirational. Genuine acceptance, and loving recognition added joy to the lives of the young couple.
Meucci held a fascination with physiological conditions and their electrical responses, and began studying "electro-medicine," which was popularly practiced throughout Europe and the Americas. Through experimentation, he developed a method of using short electrical impulses to treat pain with the aim of curing illnesses altogether.
An astonishing revelation was made when a man suffering from migraine headaches sought out Meucci and his technology. Treatment began as Meucci placed a small copper electrode both his and the man's mouth, sending a mild stimulating current to the patient. Meucci felt the man's shout of surprise in his own mouth, discovering what would later be known
as the "electrophonic" effect, or the phenomenon later know as "physiophony." The man expressed his thanks and left feeling relieved
that his migraine had broken.
Meucci verified the physiophonic phenomenon repeatedly. Upon experiencing the now famed effect, visitors were awed. Building upon this discovery, it was in Havana that Meucci conceived of the first telephonic system in 1849, when Alexander Graham Bell was only 2 years old.
Staten Island, NY - USA
When the "New World" finally opened its doors to European immigrants, there were no certainties for those who came to work and live. Established families and bureaucrats despised and were so threatened by these "foreigner people," that they set up legislation for the purpose of limiting their upward movements by creating a "middle class" economic stratum that has remained in force to this day.
In 1850, Meucci and his wife left Havana to immigrate to the United States, settling in the Rosebank area of Staten Island, New York, where they would live for the remainder of their lives. Meucci developed a formula for
smokeless candles and opened a small factory for their production on his property. These smokeless candles were sought by neighbors, churches and general stores, earning him a moderate income upon which he could survive.
By now, Ester was completely crippled with arthritis and confined to the upstairs bedroom. Meucci installed a small teletrofonic system, connecting Ester's room to his small factory, so he could speak to her throughout the day. It was here in Rosebank, Staten Island that he developed and improved upon his teletrofono.
Meucci and Ester took boarders from time to time in order to afford minimum luxuries. When Giuseppe Garibaldi, later to be known as the "Hero of Two Worlds," was exiled from Italy, he came to stay with the Meucci family. Meucci and Garibaldi developed a friendship and walked, hunted, and fished in the countryside of Staten Island. He and Garibaldi manufactured candles and other products, supporting themselves and the needs of others.
The First Electromagnetic Telephone
Meucci methodically explored different means of transmitting speech over vibrating electric currents. From 1850 to 1862, he developed more than 30 different models, with twelve distinct variations. His first models utilized the vibrating loop principle discovered in Havana.
Later, paper cones were replaced with tin cylinders to increase the resonant ring. He experimented with thin membranes, set in vibration by contact with the vibrating copper strip in a model resembling the telephone as we know it.
His teletrofoni were now fully formed, handheld, cup shaped devices. Meucci kept diagrams, notebooks, and models proving the success
of his designs. In 1858, a sketch was made by painter Nestore Corradi illustrating long-distance communication, commonly known as
It was lack of funding alone the prevented Meucci from making large-scale demonstrations of his revolutionary system. In addition, prejudices associated with his nationality prevented New York financiers from
knowing of his developments, so he turned to his own compatriots for assistance.
Meucci began looking for funding in Italy from Italian financiers. In 1861, Meucci performed a long-distance demonstration featuring a famous Italian opera singer, which brought considerable attention and was published in L'Eco d'Italia, an Italian newspaper in New York City. Unfortunately, the distraction of the wars of the Risorgimento made it nearly impossible to attract the investments he'd hoped for.
1861, Meucci was led to poverty by trials held against him by fraudulent collectors, resulting in the auctioning of his Staten Island cottage. The purchaser allowed the Meucci's to live in the cottage without paying rent, but the Meucci's private finances dwindled so that they soon had to live on public funds and by depending on friends.
In July 1871, while traveling from Manhattan to Staten Island, Meucci was nearly killed when the steam engine of the ferryboat Westfield exploded, leaving him severely burned. Meucci languished in a hospital bed for months. His financial and health state was so bad that his wife Ester sold his original teletrofono models to a second-hand dealer for six dollars to raise
money for his expenses.
The Telettrofono Company and Caveat
While recovering from injuries, Meucci set up an agreement with Angelo Zilio Grandi (Secretary of the Italian Consulate in New York, Angelo Antonio Tremeschin (entrepreneur), and Sereno G. P. Breguglia Tremeschin (businessman), forming the Telettrofono Company. The agreement was notarized by Angelo Bertolino, a Notary Public of New York on December 12, 1871.
Meucci was warned not to bring anything to the American industrial market without first protecting himself by legal means, which meant he needed a patent at the cost of two-hundred and fifty dollars. Since he could not afford the patent, he settled the matter by obtaining a temporary one-year caveat for twenty dollars, funded by his new business partners.
On December 28, 1871, Meucci had the legal caveat numbered 3335,"Sound Telegraph," from the U.S. Patent Office, which gives a brief
description of the invention. Given the low fee of the caveat, the lawyer dictated the caveat specification in half an hour and did not include some important information. Meucci wrote a letter to his lawyer to try to correct the imprecision, but the lawyer did not take his suggestions into consideration, assuring Meucci that the abridged caveat would provide
The Telettrofono Company only lived for a short time, collapsing after two of the partners left the United States, withdrawing their shares and the third died the following year.
In 1872-1873, upon request by William Carroll, a diver, Meucci constructed a special marine telephone to allow a diver to communicate with the mother ship while underwater. On July 8, 1880, Meucci he filed a Patent application for this device.
Western Union Telegraph
In the summer of 1872, Meucci and his friend Angelo Bertolino went to Edward B. Grant, Vice President of Western Union Telegraph Company of New York, to ask for permission to test his telephone apparatus on the
companies telegraph lines. He gave Grant a description of his prototype and a copy of his caveat, encouraged by Grant that he would be contacted shortly for the test run. Hours of waiting became days. So infuriated over this betrayal of trust, Meucci maintained a vigil at the Union Office, becoming an annoying eyesore. In 1874, after two years of repeated visits
asking for his models and documentation, Grant finally answered that all of Meucci's materials had been lost.
On December 28, 1874, Meucci's caveat expired. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell, an employee working in the Western Union laboratories,
is granted a patent on the telephone. Meucci repeatedly protested, sending letters to newspapers, claiming the invention as his.
In March 1886, Bell was taken to court in the case "The U.S. Government vs. Alexander Graham Bell and the Bell Company," for fraud, collusion and deception in obtainment of the patent.
The trial lasted 11 years, closing in 1897 due to the death of the presiding judge and also because Bell's patent had expired. This left no winners or losers, except for the lawyers who were paid significant amounts during those years.
In 1886, two days after the Government vs. Bell case had begun, the Bell Telephone Company set up another trial, "The U.S. Government vs. Antonio Meucci," which, if ruled quickly, would create a situation of res adjudicata in the former trial. Plainly, this meant that if a case had already been judged, a similar case could not be judged again.
Meucci had limited existing evidence to prove his priority of the electromagnetic telephone. His models had been sold and then lost at Western Union. Furthermore, the newspaper article describing his work in L'Eco d'Italia appeared to have been destroyed in a fire and no copies could be found. As a result, Meucci had to recount in court what he wrote for the newspaper.
One of the most important pieces of evidence was Meucci's Memorandum Book, produced by Rider & Clark, which noted drawings and records from 1862 - 1882. In the trial, Meucci was accused of having produced records after Bell's invention and backdated them. As proof, the prosecutor produced the fact that Rider & Clark was founded only in 1863. In the trial,
Meucci said that William E. Rider himself, one of the owners, had given him a copy of the Memorandum Book in 1862. The judge, a well-known
proponent of anti-immigration policy, did not believe him.
On July 19, 1887, Judge William Wallace in the case of "The U.S. Government vs. Antonio Meucci" ruled in favor of Bell. Wallace's ruling stated that Meucci was not able to provide adequate evidence, from the caveat or otherwise, that contained elements of an electric speaking telephone that would give him the same priority over or interfere with the Bell patent. Wallace also refuted that Meucci understood the key principles of the invention, describing Meucci's system as an elaborate "string telephone." He further concluded that Meucci was deliberately involved in attempts to defraud investors.
Throughout the rest of his life, penniless on Staten Island, Meucci maintained confident resolve of his life's work: "...the telephone
which I invented and which I first made known and which, as you know, was stolen from me."
On June 11, 2002, long after his death, the U.S. Congress passed House Resolution 269, introduced by Rep. Vito Fossella of Staten Island, which recognizes the life and achievements of Antonio Meucci, and his work in the invention of the telephone.