If I were to stand on stage in front of a crowded audience and announce, “Ladies and gentlemen: Amos Dolbear,” I would probably hear crickets chirping—figuratively, if not literally. And, because of Amos Dolbear, I could use that chirping to figure out the temperature of the room.
Dolbear (1837–1910), nicknamed “Dolly”—I’ll bet he loved that—was one of those great polymaths who dabbled in many different areas far afield of each other. He was a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, and later a professor at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. He bounced around a bit but finally ended up as a professor at Tufts College in Massachusetts, where he remained for the rest of his career. He was a physicist and inventor and, among other things investigated the relationship between sound waves and electrical impulses. Oh, and he invented the telephone 11 years before Alexander Graham Bell.
One thing Dolbear was not an expert in, however, was patent law, and he had neglected to patent his invention. So when Bell received a patent for his telephone, Dolbear challenged him, and even though the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, Dolbear ultimately couldn’t prove his claims.
Poor Dolbear, but the guy you really have to feel sorry for is Elisha Gray. Gray (1835–1901) was born in Barnesville, Ohio, and dabbled with electrical devices from a very early age. One of his early claims to fame was an improvement on the telegraph, which would be the first of more than 70 patents he would receive. Gray and his partner founded Gray and Barton, a company that supplied equipment to Western Union. Gray would later become interested in transmitting music over telegraph wires, one of the first electric musical instruments, a path that—were we to take it—would lead us to the modern digital synthesizer.
A critical date in the history of modern communication is February 14, 1876—but there would be no love between Gray and Alexander Graham Bell. Bell had been working away on his own telephone for years, whilst Gray had been working on his own. Gray was close to a patentable invention, and filed a caveat with the U.S. Patent Office on that fateful February 14. (A “caveat” is a provisional patent application that describes an invention, with diagrams and everything, but is not yet ready for examination. It’s kind of a placeholder until a proper application is filed.) Anyway, it turned out that Bell had filed his application for the telephone a few hours before the Patent Office got Gray’s caveat. “Missed it by that much,” as Maxwell Smart would say. Gray wasn’t going to give up without a fight, and he claimed that his caveat actually got to the Patent Office before Bell’s application but sat in the bottom of the in-basket until the afternoon, while Bell’s patent attorney insisted the filing fee be charged immediately and Bell’s patent taken straight to the examiner.
It would be a moot point, because the patent examiner ultimately examined both Bell’s application and Gray’s caveat, noticed the similarities between the two, and suspended Bell’s patent to give Gray time to prepare a full application and request for examination. Alas, Gray’s patent attorney pointed out to Gray that Bell’s application had been notarized as early as January 20, 1876, and persuaded Gray to drop the matter (there’s an attorney you want on your side). And thus Bell got the patent for the telephone, and he has become known as “the inventor of the telephone” and for years the phone company was referred to as “Ma Bell,” and not “Ma Gray” (let alone “Ma Dolbear”).
Sniffed Gray in June, “As to Bell’s talking telegraph, it only creates interest in scientific circles…its commercial value will be limited” (Flatow, 1992). The grapes, they are sour.
The controversy wouldn’t end there, and over the following decade various conspiracy theories would emerge, most of which centered around a supposedly corrupt and alcoholic patent examiner who was alleged to have leaked secret information from Gray’s applications and patents to Bell. It would remain ugly as various lawsuits pinged around the courts.
Not that Gray would languish in obscurity or penury. In 1888, he patented the telautograph, a system for transmitting handwriting over telegraph wires. (He was obsessed with telegraph wires, but then who wasn’t back then?) The system used two pencils, one at the sender’s location, one at a receiver’s. If the sender starts writing or drawing with the pencil, the receiver’s pencil starts moving and a copy is made. Said Gray in an interview:
By my invention you can sit down in your office in Chicago, take a pencil in your hand, write a message to me, and as your pencil moves, a pencil here in my laboratory moves simultaneously, and forms the same letters and words in the same way. What you write in Chicago is instantly reproduced here in fac-simile (The Manufacturer & Builder, 1888).
Note Gray’s use of the term “fac-simile.” It is, after all, not far removed from what we know (or knew) as a fax (facsimile) machine. The telautograph was publicly unveiled at 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and was an immediate success. Gray National and Gray Electric companies, manufacturers of the telautograph, merged in 1915 to become the Telautograph Corporation. In 1971, the Telautograph Corporation was acquired by Arden/Mayfair, and in 1993 by Danka Industries, who renamed it Danka/Omnifax. Danka/Omnifax was acquired by Xerox in 1999.
Gray had moved beyond telautography (and vice versa) and spent the remainder of his life working on underwater signaling systems for submarines.
Gray’s legacy also lives on in the company he co-founded in 1858 with Enos Barton, Graybar, which today remains a Fortune 500 company.
But what about the other inventor of the telephone, Amos Dolbear? Does he have a legacy?
Remember how I opened this post with a mention of the ability to use the chirping of crickets to figure out the temperature of the room? He is perhaps most famous for “Dolbear’s Law,” first described in an article he wrote for The American Naturalist magazine in 1897 called “The Cricket as a Thermometer.” Essentially, you can determine the temperature in Fahrenheit (TF) using the formula
TF = 50 + [(N60 – 40)/4]
where N60 is the number of chirps per minute. Dolbear, however, neglected to specify which cricket (there are more than 900 species of them), but it has since been determined that it is the snowy tree cricket, Oecanthus niveus.
Fortunately, Dolbear knew his crickets better than his patent law.
Dolbear, Amos (1897). “The cricket as a thermometer”. The American Naturalist 31: 970–971. doi:10.1086/276739
Flatow, Ira, They All Laughed, New York: Harper Collins, 1992, p. 71.
Tunney, Glenn, “Elisha Gray Deserves Top Billing In Brownsville History,” Saturday Uniontown Herald-Standard, October 23, 2004, http://freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~glenntunneycolumn/column309.htm.
The Manufacturer & Builder, 1888, (Vol. 24: No. 4: pages 85–86).
“Amos Dolbear,” Wikipedia, last modified on May 17, 2015, retrieved October 27, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amos_Dolbear.
“Dolbear’s Law,” Wikipedia, last modified on July 5, 2015, retrieved October 27, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dolbear%27s_law.
“Elisha Gray,” Wikipedia, last modified on October 23, 2015, retrieved October 27, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisha_Gray.
“Elisha Gray and Alexander Bell telephone controversy,” last modified on August 25, 2015, retrieved October 27, 2015, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elisha_Gray_and_Alexander_Bell_telephone_controversy.