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Thread: A German Invented the Telephone, but the British Suppressed the Evidence

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    A German Invented the Telephone, but the British Suppressed the Evidence

    Debate over who invented first phone hushed up for 50 years
    By Roger Highfield, Science Editor
    (Filed: 01/12/2003)

    Evidence of a 50-year-old cover-up to curb public debate over whether a German science teacher invented the first telephone rather than the Scot Alexander Graham Bell has been discovered in the Science Museum, London.

    Alexander Graham Bell
    Tests conducted after the Second World War on a primitive German telephone that predates Bell's by 13 years were suppressed by a prominent businessman, ensuring that there would be no debate over whether the Scot really deserved to be called the father of modern communications.

    Previously unseen documents show how experiments conducted in 1947 on a range of phones revealed that a device developed by Philipp Reis (1834-1874) - from an earlier version based on sausage skin - actually worked, said John Liffen, Science Museum curator.

    Engineers from the British firm Standard Telephones and Cables (STC) found that Reis's 1863 "Telephon" could transmit speech, albeit faintly, and that his receiver would also "reproduce speech of good quality but of low efficiency".

    But Sir Frank Gill, chairman of STC, ordered that the tests were kept secret.

    STC was at the time attempting to win a deal with the American Telephone and Telegraph company, which had evolved from the Bell Company, and Sir Frank thought the results could wreck his plans by reflecting badly on STC. The file, marked "confidential" and discovered by Mr Liffen at the Science Museum a few weeks ago, reveals the extent of the cover-up.

    One memo, dated March 18, 1947, from Gerald Garratt, Mr Liffen's predecessor as the museum's curator of communications, describes how the STC reports were given to him "on the strict understanding that they will not be referred to publicly nor published without their permission".

    He added: "The immediate reason for this reticence is that a commercial agreement is in the process of negotiation at the present time between STC and ATT - and the mutual relations would not be improved by any suggestion originating from STC that Graham Bell did not invent the telephone."

    A subsequent letter from Garratt reveals how STC was so concerned about the results that it demanded all files relating to the Reis tests be returned. Garratt wrote: "I am frankly uneasy at all this secrecy . . . I am left with the thought that there is something so secret about them as to be a matter of first class public interest.

    "You must know as well as I the old controversy 'Did Bell invent the telephone?' and I have here an unpublished manuscript of over 400 pages which proves pretty conclusively that he didn't.

    "Does your anxiety to retrieve these reports rather suggest that you agree?"

    All documents were eventually returned to the Science Museum in 1955 but their significance was only recognised when Mr Liffen stumbled across them a few weeks ago.

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    Unfortunately, the Reis telephone was not practical enough to be a commercial success. It could transmit sound, particularly music, but it was difficult to understand the spoken word. Reis would die of tuberculosis two years before Bell's U.S. patent was filed in 1876. (Bell's phone, particularly its microphone, had to be improved by others before it could become a widespread success.) Ironically, in his patent fight with Bell, Elisha Gray used the legal defense that it was Reis and not Bell who had invented the telephone, and thus Bell was not entitled to his patent. But the court ruled that the Reis version could not be considered a real telephone, and Bell won the patent struggle.
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    Post Re: A German invented the telephone, but the British suppressed the evidence

    In 1861 Johann Phillip Reis completed the first non-working telephone. Tantalizingly close to reproducing speech, Reis's instrument conveyed certain sounds, poorly, but no more than that. A German physicist and school teacher, Reis's ingenuity was unquestioned. His transmitter and receiver used a cork, a knitting needle, a sausage skin, and a piece of platinum to transmit bits of music and certain other sounds. But intelligible speech could not be reproduced.

    The problem was simple, minute, and at the same time monumental. His telephone relied on its transmitter's diaphragm making and breaking contact with the electrical circuit, just as Bourseul suggested, and just as the telegraph. This approach, however, was completely wrong. Reproducing speech practically relies on the transmitter making continuous contact with the electrical circuit.

    A transmitter varies the electrical current depending on how much acoustic pressure it gets. It must be in continuous contact, even though people pause and stop while talking. Turning the current on and off could not begin to duplicate the range of speech. Reis's instrument worked only when sounds were so soft that the contact connecting the transmitter to the circuit remained unbroken.

    Speech may have traveled first over a Reis telephone however, it would have been done accidentally and against every principle he thought would make it work. And although accidental discovery is the stuff of invention, Reis did not realize his mistake, did not develop his instrument further, nor ever claim to have invented the telephone.
    In addition, though, there were several reports of successful speech transmission. These reports were subsequently discounted in court cases upholding the patents of Alexander Graham Bell, largely because it was recognized that speech transmission would have been impossible if the instruments had operated as Reis believed they did.
    Last edited by Cole Nidray; Sunday, October 2nd, 2005 at 08:58 AM.

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