October 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 5
Overrated Alexander Graham Bell’s Patent No. 174,465, for his telephone, is commonly thought to have earned more money than any other single patent in history. His invention was certainly notable, but it was an imperfect prototype, and Bell made no significant contribution to the telephone thereafter.
The technical problem with Bell’s device was in the transmitter; the weakness of the current prevented the signal from traveling very far. Thomas Watson remarked that the Bell phone was “more calculated to develop the American voice and lungs” than to encourage conversation. It was Thomas Edison who made progressive improvements in the transmitter so that when Western Union pooled the patents of Edison and Bell’s rival Elisha Gray to found the American Speaking Telephone Company, it had a better telephone to offer in a war with the infant Bell Telephone Company. The Bell company was managed from its inception not by Bell himself but by Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the Boston businessman whose deaf daughter, Mabel, was one of Bell’s pupils. Bell married Mabel in 1877 and went on a yearlong honeymoon in England and Scotland. In Bell’s absence it was Hubbard who recruited the key innovator of the telephone system, Theodore Newton Vail (1845-1920), to be the first general manager of the Bell Telephone Company.
Vail had the vision and the administrative genius to manage a revolution. He negotiated a settlement with Western Union that took it out of the telephone business so that the Bell company could forge ahead. He foresaw the potential of a national long-distance system and worked to overcome myriad technical, political, and bureaucratic obstacles. In 1885 he became president of the newly formed American Telephone and Telegraph Company. Bell was busy with many fine humanitarian and scientific initiatives, but the common perception that we owe him our telephone service is mistaken.
Underrated There are thousands of ingenious Yankees who fiddled with tools and bits and pieces of machinery who are forgotten but whose incremental practical innovations were critical to American progress. And of all the innovators I have looked at, the most classically underrated in my judgment is Oliver Evans (1755-1819), a Delaware country boy who had almost no formal education and yet gave us the following: the first automatic production line (long before Henry Ford was born); the first wheeled self-propelled vehicle to move on an American road; the first amphibious vehicle; and America’s first effective high-pressure steam engine. Evans conceived of some 80 inventions, including the first refrigerator that used vapor. But the high-pressure steam engine alone was a mighty power in the advancement of America from a rural to an industrial society. Evans designed and built a hundred engines and boilers for American workshops, freeing them—and the young nation they were serving—from the necessity of access to waterpower. Henry Shreve, the master of the Mississippi River, used Evans’s principle for the Washington , the model for a generation of steamboats that opened the West.