CHAPTER III. THE HOLDING OF THE BUSINESS
But, as may be imagined, when the news of the Western Union agreement became known, the story of the telephone became a fairy tale of success. Theodore Vail was given a banquet by his old-time friends in the Washington postal service, and toasted as "the Monte Cristo of the Telephone." It was said that the actual cost of the Bell plant was only one-twenty-fifth of its capital, and that every four cents of investment had thus become a dollar. Even Jay Gould, carried beyond his usual caution by these stories, ran up to New Haven and bought its telephone company, only to find out later that its earnings were less than its expenses.
Much to the bewilderment of the Bell Company, it soon learned that the troubles of wealth are as numerous as those of poverty. It was beset by a throng of promoters and stock-jobbers, who fell upon it and upon the public like a swarm of seventeen-year locusts. In three years, one hundred and twenty-five competing companies were started, in open defiance of the Bell patents. The main object of these companies was not, like that of the Western Union, to do a legitimate telephone business, but to sell stock to the public. The face value of their stock was $225,000,000, although few of them ever sent a message. One company of unusual impertinence, without money or patents, had capitalized its audacity at $15,000,000.
How to HOLD the business that had been established - that was now the problem. None of the Bell partners had been mere stock-jobbers. At one time they had even taken a pledge not to sell any of their stock to outsiders. They had financed their company in a most honest and simple way; and they were desperately opposed to the financial banditti whose purpose was to transform the telephone business into a cheat and a gamble. At first, having held their own against the Western Union, they expected to make short work of the stock-jobbers. But it was a vain hope. These bogus companies, they found, did not fight in the open, as the Western Union had done.
All manner of injurious rumors were presently set afloat concerning the Bell patent. Other inventors - some of them honest men, and some shameless pretenders - were brought forward with strangely concocted tales of prior invention. The Granger movement was at that time a strong political factor in the Middle West, and its blind fear of patents and "monopolies" was turned aggressively against the Bell Company. A few Senators and legitimate capitalists were lifted up as the figureheads of the crusade. And a loud hue-and-cry was raised in the newspapers against "high rates and monopoly" to distract the minds of the people from the real issue of legitimate business versus stock-company bubbles.
The most plausible and persistent of all the various inventors who snatched at Bell's laurels, was Elisha Gray. He refused to abide by the adverse decision of the court. Several years after his defeat, he came forward with new weapons and new methods of attack. He became more hostile and irreconcilable; and until his death, in 1901, never renounced his claim to be the original inventor of the telephone.
The reason for this persistence is very evident. Gray was a professional inventor, a highly competent man who had begun his career as a blacksmith's apprentice, and risen to be a professor of Oberlin. He made, during his lifetime, over five million dollars by his patents. In 1874, he and Bell were running a neck-and-neck race to see who could first invent a musical telegraph - when, presto! Bell suddenly turned aside, because of his acoustical knowledge, and invented the telephone, while Gray kept straight ahead. Like all others who were in quest of a better telegraph instrument, Gray had glimmerings of the possibility of sending speech by wire, and by one of the strangest of coincidences he filed a caveat on the subject on the SAME DAY that Bell filed the application for a patent. Bell had arrived first. As the record book shows, the fifth entry on that day was: "A. G. Bell, $15"; and the thirty-ninth entry was "E. Gray, $10."
There was a vast difference between Gray's caveat and Bell's application. A caveat is a declaration that the writer has NOT invented a thing, but believes that he is about to do so; while an APPLICATION is a declaration that the writer has already perfected the invention. But Gray could never forget that he had seemed to be, for a time, so close to the golden prize; and seven years after he had been set aside by the Western Union agreement, he reappeared with claims that had grown larger and more definite.
When all the evidence in the various Gray lawsuits is sifted out, there appear to have been three distinctly different Grays: first, Gray the SCOFFER, who examined Bell's telephone at the Centennial and said it was "nothing but the old lover's telegraph. It is impossible to make a practical speaking telephone on the principle shown by Professor Bell. . . . The currents are too feeble"; second, Gray the CONVERT, who wrote frankly to Bell in 1877, "I do not claim the credit of inventing it"; and third, Gray the CLAIMANT, who endeavored to prove in 1886 that he was the original inventor. His real position in the matter was once well and wittily described by his partner, Enos M. Barton, who said: "Of all the men who DIDN'T invent the telephone, Gray was the nearest."
It is now clearly seen that the telephone owes nothing to Gray. There are no Gray telephones in use in any country. Even Gray himself, as he admitted in court, failed when he tried to make a telephone on the lines laid down in his caveat. The final word on the whole matter was recently spoken by George C. Maynard, who established the telephone business in the city of Washington. Said Mr. Maynard: