Who First Invented the Telephone?

I like to call this a History Mystery! Inventions are hard to pinpoint. Answering the question of who was first often goes back and forth like the famous act by Abbot and Costello. Now called a landline telephone, who first invented the telephone, is a history mystery we may never answer. It’s filled with financial trouble, possible shady business practice or even possibly a case of the early bird getting the worm.

Most children are taught that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. He does in fact hold the patent for such a device, and he deserves credit for his hard work. But there is more to the story.

I didn’t use textbooks as I was homeschooling my children. Access to the internet wasn’t quite as simple as whipping out your phone (ha ha , how ironic!) in those days either. A standard in our home was the book basket. In a nutshell, I scoured used bookstores and libraries for books. I gathered books on whatever topic we were studying to provide as much information as possible. I wanted to teach my children that a topic should be EXPLORED, not just ingested without thought. Sometimes this led us on tangents that others might have considered wildly off topic. Other times we took a deep dive into a subject as we did with the invention of the telephone.

collage of historical images relating to the history of the telephone are shown. Top left shows a sketch by Alexander Graham Bell of his telephone idea. Below that is a replica  of the first telephone. The bottom image in the collage shows Mr. Watson, Bell's Assistant listening on a telephone receiver. The text overlay reads: Facts about the invention of the telephone with an image of a rotary dial telephone.

Invention of the telephone facts

  • In 1849 Italian inventor Antonio Meucci designed a talking telegraph
  • In 1871 Meucci filed the caveat (the announcement of an invention) for his design. He was unable to renew this document when it expired due to financial hardships. Meucci’s role in the invention of the telephone was overlooked for many years!
  • Elisha Grey was an inventor in Illinois known for his work developing a telegraph device that used vibrating reeds to transmit musical tones, but not voice. It was more like a musical instrument. A few months later, he made a drawing in a notebook of his version of the telephone, and how it would work.
  • On February 14, 1876 lawyers for both Gray and Bell filed paperwork with the patent office. Grey filed a caveat and Bell filed for a full patent. At the time a working model did not have to be submitted, with the patent application. Both applications contained similar diagrams.
  • On February 19, the patent office suspended Bell’s application for three month. This gave Gray time to submit a full patent application. Then it would be determined whether Bell or Gray were  the first to invent the telephone.
  • The patent office conducted an investigation that resulted in Bell being awarded the first U.S. patent for the telephone, on March 7, 1876. (There is a LOT of information surrounding this- conspiracy theories, bribes and even possibly just because Bell’s lawyers had good reputations! I encourage research and exploration of the topic on your own.)
  • Bell built and successfully tested a device which transmitted voice. Bell said into the receiver : “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you” . March 10, 1876 marks the first use of the telephone, and when we celebrate landline telephone day.
  • Conflicting theories remain, however, the courts decided in favor of Bell and the telephone he put into use.

Who Really Invented the Telephone First?

We may never truly know the answer to this “history mystery”. Ideas build on ideas. Bell and Grey corresponded and bounced ideas off one another. Let’s not forget the talking telegraph Antonio Meucci designed. Perhaps we should not strive to be the first to invent something for the fame of inventing, but rather remember the purpose of invention: to contribute to society. It took more than Meucci, Grey or even Bell to bring us the telephone. Each invention builds on information and experiments from a time before.

Learning about the past prepares us for the future. Alexander Graham Bell was a wonderful inventor credited with inventing and patenting the first practical telephone! He was homeschooled by his father and mentored as a teenager by his grandfather. He was encouraged to think for himself and find ways to make the world a better place for others. I’m thankful for his dedication to making the world a better place! I don’t think he would mind sharing the credit with other like minded men (and women) who contributed to bringing the telephone to life!

If you would like to inspire a sense of exploration and innovation in your homeschool, check out our History Mystery Resource: Who First Invented the Telephone

You get a google slide presentation outlining the “mystery” behind the invention of the telephone. The resource also includes a narrative writing activity and craft that make an excellent display on your refrigerator!

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Image shows an artists sketch of Alexander Graham Bell sitting at a desk with a group of 10 or more men behind him. He is holding his telephone invention to his mouth. The text overlay reads: HISTORY MYSTERY, Who invented the telephone first? A look at Alexander Graham Bell and the Telephone. There is also an image of the product cover for the Homeschool Holiday curriculum associated with this blog post on the overall image.

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