CHAPTER III. THE HOLDING OF THE BUSINESS
For seventeen months no one disputed Bell's claim to be the original inventor of the telephone. All the honor, such as it was, had been given to him freely, and no one came forward to say that it was not rightfully his. No one, so far as we know, had any strong desire to do so. No one conceived that the telephone would ever be any more than a whimsical oddity of science. It was so new, so unexpected, that from Lord Kelvin down to the messenger boys in the telegraph offices, it was an incomprehensible surprise. But after Bell had explained his invention in public lectures before more than twenty thousand people, after it had been on exhibition for months at the Philadelphia Centennial, after several hundred articles on it had appeared in newspapers and scientific magazines, and after actual sales of telephones had been made in various parts of the country, there began to appear such a succession of claimants and infringers that the forgetful public came to believe that the telephone, like most inventions, was the product of many minds.
Just as Morse, who was the sole inventor of the American telegraph in 1837, was confronted by sixty-two rivals in 1838, so Bell, who was the sole inventor in 1876, found himself two years later almost mobbed by the "Tichborne claimants" of the telephone. The inventors who had been his competitors in the attempt to produce a musical telegraph, persuaded themselves that they had unconsciously done as much as he. Any possessor of a telegraphic patent, who had used the common phrase "talking wire," had a chance to build up a plausible story of prior invention. And others came forward with claims so vague and elusive that Bell would scarcely have been more surprised if the heirs of Goethe had demanded a share of the telephone royalties on the ground that Faust had spoken of "making a bridge through the moving air."
This babel of inventors and pretenders amazed Bell and disconcerted his backers. But it was no more than might have been expected. Here was a patent - "the most valuable single patent ever issued" - and yet the invention itself was so simple that it could be duplicated easily by any smart boy or any ordinary mechanic. The making of a telephone was like the trick of Columbus standing an egg on end. Nothing was easier to those who knew how. And so it happened that, as the crude little model of Bell's original telephone lay in the Patent Office open and unprotected except by a few phrases that clever lawyers might evade, there sprang up inevitably around it the most costly and persistent Patent War that any country has ever known, continuing for eleven years and comprising SIX HUNDRED LAWSUITS.
The first attack upon the young telephone business was made by the Western Union Telegraph Company. It came charging full tilt upon Bell, driving three inventors abreast - Edison, Gray, and Dolbear. It expected an easy victory; in fact, the disparity between the two opponents was so evident, that there seemed little chance of a contest of any kind. "The Western Union will swallow up the telephone people," said public opinion, "just as it has already swallowed up all improvements in telegraphy."
At that time, it should be remembered, the Western Union was the only corporation that was national in its extent. It was the most powerful electrical company in the world, and, as Bell wrote to his parents, "probably the largest corporation that ever existed." It had behind it not only forty millions of capital, but the prestige of the Vanderbilts, and the favor of financiers everywhere. Also, it met the telephone pioneers at every point because it, too, was a WIRE company. It owned rights-of-way along roads and on house-tops. It had a monopoly of hotels and railroad offices. No matter in what direction the Bell Company turned, the live wire of the Western Union lay across its path.
From the first, the Western Union relied more upon its strength than upon the merits of its case. Its chief electrical expert, Frank L. Pope, had made a six months' examination of the Bell patents. He had bought every book in the United States and Europe that was likely to have any reference to the transmission of speech, and employed a professor who knew eight languages to translate them. He and his men ransacked libraries and patent offices; they rummaged and sleuthed and interviewed; and found nothing of any value. In his final report to the Western Union, Mr. Pope announced that there was no way to make a telephone except Bell's way, and advised the purchase of the Bell patents. "I am entirely unable to discover any apparatus or method anticipating the invention of Bell as a whole," he said; "and I conclude that his patent is valid." But the officials of the great corporation refused to take this report seriously. They threw it aside and employed Edison, Gray, and Dolbear to devise a telephone that could be put into competition with Bell's.
As we have seen in the previous chapter, there now came a period of violent competition which is remembered as the Dark Ages of the telephone business. The Western Union bought out several of the Bell exchanges and opened up a lively war on the others. As befitting its size, it claimed everything. It introduced Gray as the original inventor of the telephone, and ordered its lawyers to take action at once against the Bell Company for infringement of the Gray patent. This high-handed action, it hoped, would most quickly bring the little Bell group into a humble and submissive frame of mind. Every morning the Western Union looked to see the white flag flying over the Bell headquarters. But no white flag appeared. On the contrary, the news came that the Bell Company had secured two eminent lawyers and were ready to give battle.