Elisha Gray &
Oberlin School of Telegraphy
Inventor Elisha Gray was a student at Oberlin College in 1860, a physics student. In 1876, he patented an improved telegraph relay. In 1876, he also invented the telephone, filing for patent protection a few hours behind Bell. Gray would found Western Electric and, in 1874, he returned to Oberlin as Honorary Professor of Dynamic Electricity. [Elisha Gray, Oberlin Alumni Magazine] [Robert Samuel Fletcher, A History of Oberlin College]
Timeline"Mr. Elisha Gray, the electrician of the Western Electric Manufacturing Company of Chicago, is of Quaker origin. He bears some distin guishing evidences of his descent in a certain placidity and directness of manner indicative of his temperament and character. He was born at Barnesville, Belmont county, Ohio, August 2, 1835. In early life he was a carpenter's apprentice, and was somewhat of a social nuisance because of his proclivity to acids and laboratory stuffs. At twenty - one he went to Oberlin College where he studied diligently for five years. His mental bent during this period was strongest in the study of natural philosophy. To this he devoted all his spare hours. It was not, however, until he reached his thirtieth year that his attention was first turned to electrical mechanism. This soon fascinated and largely monopolized his time and study." [Reid at 642]
- Gray enters Oberlin college; drops out in 1862
- Sen. John Sherman from Ohio introduces the Post Roads Act; the Sherman family are involved in the establishment of the National Telegraph Company. Sen. Sherman will later introduce the Sherman Antitrust Act
- Elisha Gray and Enos Barton founded Gray and Barton Manufacturing which becomes Western Electric Manufacturing Company, with backing from Western Union. [WE History]
- Chicago Fire - Fire stops within two blocks of Barton and Gray; surviving, they emerge to produce equipment and restore communications in Chicago. [Iardella 28]
- Elisha Gray, U.S. Patent 114,938, Improvement in Telegraph-Repeaters, granted May 16, 1871
- Barton and Gray is reorganized as Western Electric ($150,000 capital). Produces Morse equipment and Gray's telegraph printer. [Iardella 28] The company has strong investments from and ties to Western Union, and supported Western Union's challenge to the Bell's Patents. Western Electric manufactured telephones for both Bell telephone and Western Union.
- Elisha Gray, U.S. Patent 132,907A, Improvement in printing-telegraph instruments, Granted Nov. 12, 1872
"Mr. Gray's name is now connected with an invention more useful and wonderful than any to which his mind has, so far, been directed. During the years 1873 - 4 - 5 his attention was largely absorbed in devel oping a system of "Electro - Harmonic Telegraphy" for the transmission of sounds over the wires of the telegraph. The basis of this system is the discovery of a law of vibration, by which a sound produced in the presence of a magnet will cause a magnet of similar adjustment to respond to its tone. This is not all. It has been found that, over the same wire, another note, by another magnet, may be sent at the same time, and be received on a second magnet adjusted to the second note. Mr. Gray has already succeeded in sending over a wire of 500 miles in length, nine different messages at the same moment, each message hav ing a distinctive note. These several messages, also, can be taken off by any „ umber of intermediate offices by simply turning the relay to the key note on which each is transmitted ! Mr. Gray expects to be able to send in this way, simultaneously, fifteen or more messages Theoretically, these can be increased to as many notes and semi - tones as the range of the gamut will permit.
"Mr. Gray was led to these investigations by a domestic incident. In his paper on the “ Transmission of Musical Tones " before the Ameri can Electrical Society, Chicago, March 17, 1875, he says : “ My nephew was playing with a small induction coil " taking shocks ” for the amusement of the younger children. He had connected one end of the secondary coil to the zinc lining of the bath tub, which was dry. Holding the other end of the coil in his left hand he touched the lin ing of the tub with the right. In making contact, his hand would glide along the side for a short distance. At these times I noticed a sound proceeding from under his hand at the point of contact having the same pitch and quality of the vibrating electrome. I immediately took the electrode in my hand, and, repeating the operation, found, to my astonishment, that by rubbing hard and rapidly I could make a much louder sound than the electrome. I then changed the pitch of the vibration, and found that the pitch of the sound under my hand was also changed, agreeing with that of the vibration. ” Simple contact produced no sound. Rapid friction was necessary." [Reid at 644]
- Gray transmits musical tones over 2400 mile long wire. Gray calls the device a "telephone." July 10 New York Times reports on Gray's innovations [Knight] [Michael Wolff 43]
- U.S. Patent 166,095 Electric Telegraph for Transmitting Musical Tones, filed Jan 19, 1875, issued July 27, 1875
- U.S. Patent 166,096 Improvement in Electric Telegraph for Transmitting Musical Tones, issued July 27, 1875
- Gray sells his share of Western Electric to focus on inventing, competing with Bell to invent the telephone.
- Elisha Gray, On the Transmission of Musical Tones Telegraphically, American Electrical Society, March 17, 1875
1876: The Year of the Patent
- Jan. 8: Gray demonstrates harmonic telegraph.
- Feb. 14: Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray file for patents for their telephone inventions
- Western Union acquires telephone patents from Edison and Gray
- May 10: Gray demonstrates multiplexing at Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia
- May 23: Patent published, Elisha Gray, Electro-Harmonic Telegraph, CA6101A Canada
- The Fremont Weekly Journal Fremont, Ohio 20 Dec 1867, Fri • Page 3 (announcing issuance of patent to E Gray for "telegraph apparatus")
- Feb. 15: Patent published, Elisha Gray, Improvement in Electro-Harmonic Telegraphs, US 173618
- U.S. Patent 173,460 Automatic Circuit-Breakers for Electro-Harmonic Telegraphs, filed Jan 8, 1876, issued Feb 15, 1876
- U.S. Patent 173,618 Electro-Harmonic Telegraph, filed Jan 27, 1876, issued Feb 15, 1876
- U.S. Patent 175,971 Telephonic Telegraph Apparatus, filed Jan 8, 1876, issued April 11, 1876
Elisha Gray Telegraph Repeater patent #114938 1871. Smithsonian Museum National Museum of American History.
George Walker, President, American Speaking Telephone Co., Telephone Patents, Circular to the Public, Feb. 19, 1879, Library of Congress.
Railway service was established to Oberlin in about 1852 by the Toledo, Norwalk and Cleveland Railroad, and then by the Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railroad. It's likely that the railroad service established the first telegraph service to the town. In 1914, LS&MSRR was acquired by New York Central Railroad. [Oberlin Station, Wikipedia]
In 1859, Edward Rosewater took job as a telegrapher in Oberlin, Ohio. During the Civil War, he was employed by Norvin Green's Southwestern Telegraph in Nashville. He was accused of being a Northern spy. In 1862, Union forces captured Nashville, and Rosewater joined the U.S. Telegraph Corps. He found his way to the White House telegraph corp, and in 1863 he was the operator that telegraphed Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. [Edward Rosewater, American Jewish Archives] [Kathryn Hellerstein, A Letter from Lincoln's Jewish Telegrapher, The Jewish Quarterly Review Vol. 94, No. 4, The Jewish Experience in America (Autumn, 2004), pp. 625-636]
Derived from Wilbur Phillip, The Oberlin Colony:
"An industry of an educational character which played an important part in the business life of Oberlin for about four decades, which was organized in 1862 by the Pond Brothers. One member of the firm was Reverend C. N. Pond, for years a resident of Oberlin." [J T White, The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, 161 (1916)] (indicating (Chauncey Pond and Elisha Gray were friends; reports are conflicting but suggest that Pond joined the U.S. Military Telegraph Service during the civil war)]
[The Fremont weekly journal. [volume] (Fremont, Sandusky County, Ohio), 15 Feb. 1867. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
Sherman Telegraph Company: "In 1868 the school was purchased by C.A. Shearman and A.G. Shearman. A stock company was formed and the new ownership built and operated a commercial telegraph line in connection with their school. The school was located in rooms in the Carpenter block of West College Street opposite the campus." [The American Horticulturist: A National Journal of Horticulture, Volume 2, 1886 (Advertisement which read "Wanted Young Men and Ladies to Learn Telegraphy. Students practically educated for the business, and situations furnished when competent. Address Sherman Telegraph Co., Oberlin Ohio")] [Oberlin West College St Photograph, Ohio Memory Collection, Circa 1878 (showing the Sherman Telegraphy School)] [The Redwood gazette. [volume] (Redwood Falls, Minn.), 17 May 1877. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
Oberlin Telegraph Company "The following year Mr. Sheridan returned to Oberlin and started an opposition school. Within one year's time he succeeded in getting control of the field and had the only school of the kind in the village. He built the attendance from sixty-five pupils to a peak of two hundred and seventy... Mr. Sheridan was recognized a half century ago as one of the best telegraph operators in the country. He built lines to Lorain, North and South Amherst, and Vermilion, having local business, with connections at Vermilion with a postal telegraph company. The school occupied a brick building, on South Main Street, the Old Pettis Hall, now Odd Fellows Hall, and the room now used as a club by the Oberlin Lodge of Masons." [The enterprise. [volume] (Wellington, Ohio), 28 Aug. 1895. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. Column 2, near the bottom ("A new telegraph company was chartered last week, to be called the Postal Telegraph Company. The stock is owned in Oberlin, with the exception of that owned by F.P. Hill of Elyria. It will be extended throughout the state, and will be operated in conjunction with the Oberlin Telegraph school.")] [The Electrical World, Volume 27, p 541 1896 ("The Oberlin Telegraph Company has decided to run its wire between Oberlin, Elyria, Lorain, North Amherst, South Amherst, and Vermillion. Toll Stations Will be establsihed at the towns mentioned.") ] [Electrical Review: A Weekly Journal of Electric Light, Telephone, Telegraph and Scientific Progress, Volume 27 Delano and Company, 1895 ("The Postal Telegraph Company has changed its name to the Oberlin Telegraph Company") ] [Oberlin Review (Oberlin, Ohio), 1880-12-18 p. 15 (Oberlin Telegraph Company advertisement for students)] [The Wellington enterprise. (Wellington, Ohio), 15 Nov. 1882. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. ("The case of Fletcher against Peterson, the proprietor of the telegraph school at Oberlin, for refusing to admit Fletcher on account of color was decided Monday in favor of plaintiff. A judgement of $37.50 was brought against Peterson.")] [Oberlin Review (Oberlin, Ohio), 1881-10-15 page 15 (advertisement for Oberlin Telegraph Company)]
"The owner finally sold it to a stock company, controlled by Charles T. Beckwith, T.H. Rowland, and Albert Johnson. The School operated by the company for two years when it was sold to George Durand, who was later succeeded in the operation by George J. Peake." [Report of the Federal Security Agency: Office of Education, Volume 2 p. 2136 1906 (In 1904 the school is shown as having one instructor and 62 students; the executive officer was G. L. Durand.)]
The school went through numerous name changes including: Oberlin School of Telegraphy, Central Union Telegraph Co., Union Telegraph College, Sherman Telegraph Co., Oberlin Telegraph School, and National Correspondence School. [Oberlin Archive]. A business card read as follows:
[Report of the Commissioner of Education Made to the Secretary of the Interior for the Year ending 1916 ... with Accompanying Papers, US GPO 1917 (Executive Officer, J A Sheridan, 10 students, one teacher)] [Brief History of Oberlin School of Commerce, Oberlin College ("The telegraphic school was later consolidated with the Commercial Institute and the whole was chartered as CALKIN, GRIFFIN & CO'S UNION BUSINESS INSTITUTE." "According to Fletcher, "In those early years the Commercial Business Institute bore about the same relationship to the College as did the Conservatory of Music. ")] [Harriet Taylor Upton, History of the Western Reserve, Volume 1, p. 244 1910 ("Although not included in Oberlin's public system of education, mention must be made of the Oberlin Business College and the Oberlin Telegraph school, as institutions which have brought great credit as their originators and to the community at large. They are both among the oldest and most successful institutions of this character in the Western Reserve, the school of telegraphy being one of the oldest of the kind in the United States.")]
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"Elisha Gray, a professor at Oberlin College, applied for a caveat of the telephone on the same day Bell applied for his patent of the telephone. In Historical First Patents: The First United States Patent for Many Everyday Things (Scarecrow Press, 1994), Travis Brown, reports that Bell got to the patent office first. The date was February 14, 1876. He was the fifth entry of that day, while Gray was 39th. Therefore, the U.S. Patent Office awarded Bell with the first patent for a telephone, US Patent Number 174,465 rather than honor Gray's caveat. " [LOC]
Elisha Gray's caveat described the principle of variable resistance:Be it known that I, Elisha Gray, have invented a new Art of Transmitting Vocal Sounds Telegraphically. It is the object of my invention to transmit tones of the human voice through telegraphic circuit and reproduce them at the receiving end of the line so that actual conversations can be carried on by persons at long distances apart. . . The obvious practical application of my improvement will be to enable persons at a distance to converse with each other through a telegraphic circuit just as they do in each other's presence or through a speaking tube. [Coon 50]
Note that like Bell, Gray perceived the work that he was undertaking was an improvement to telegraphy, as opposed to something radically different. The telephone was perceived as a technological evolution of network communications, substituting a new innovation for a legacy technology, providing the same fundamental service - the transmitting of end-user content to the destination of the end-user's choosing.
Bell's patent application, entitled "Improvement in Telegraphy," also mentioned voice telephony but curiously only in language scrawled into the patent application in the margin, as if an after thought.
"The method of and apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically or by causing electrical undulations similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sounds, substantially as set forth."
It was argued that Bell had been permitted to see Gray's application and wrote these notes into the margin after both applications had been filed.The Overland Company and the People's Company further contended that certain evidence cited by their counsel, and which is contained or referred to in the report of the argument of their counsel infra justified the inference that the Gray caveat was filed in the Department of the Interior prior to the filing of Bell's application, specification, and claims of 1876; that information of this caveat was surreptitiously furnished to Bell's solicitors; that Bell's specifications and claims as originally filed varied from his specifications and claims as stated in the patent in several important respects; that these changes were made within four days after the filing of Gray's caveat, and that after they had been made, the altered copy was placed in the files of the Department as the original. The following copy of these specifications, known as the Bell George Brown specification, is from the record in the People's case, and is referred to in argument in this connection, and other evidence in this respect on which counsel on one side or the other relied is also referred to in the arguments.
The Telephone Cases, 126 US 1, 87 (1888).
According to Horace Coon:
"Gray knew, and those who studied the case knew, that the transmitter into which Bell spoke on March 10, 1876, the historic words to Thomas A Watson, the first words ever spoken and heard over a telephone, was a very different kind of instrument from that described and illustrated in his patent. Furthermore, the transmitter which Bell had constructed for the occassion had previously been described by Gray in his caveat. Did Bell in some way obtain knowledge of the contents of Gray's caveat? Before Gray died in 1901 he became convinced that Bell had access to what was suppose to be a confidential document in the files of the Patent Office." [Coon 52]
1877: Western Union enters telephone market
- Western Union enters telephone market based on Edison and Gray's patents. Litigation ensues. Western Union and Bell Telephone settle in 1879.
- U.S. Patent 186,340 Electro-Harmonic Telegraph, filed Jan 27, 1876, issued Jan 16, 1877Many Eastern newspapers are favoring their readers with sketches of Prof. A M Bell, 'the inventor of the telephone.' Meanwhile the real inventor of the telephone - Mr. Elisha Gray, of Chicago - minds his own business and apparently concerns himself not at all about the spurious claims of Professor Bell. . . . Mr. Gray's claims . . . are officially approved in the Patent Office at Washington, and they have already brought in large returns in money as well as in reputation to the inventor. Talking by telegraph and other sport of the description Mr. Gray has not paid much attention to as yet.
1877, Feb. 21: Gray requested permission from Bell to demonstrate Bell's telephone during a lecture. [MacKenzie 165] Bell "hotly" replied granting permission conditioned on Gray refuting the Tribune article. [Brooks p 63] [Bruce p 220]
"If you refute in your lecture, and in the Chicago Tribune, the libel upon me published in that paper February sixteenth, I shall nave no objection. Please Answer. A Graham Bell." [MacKenzie 166]
1877, Feb. 24, Elisha Gray responded to Bell:
I do not know what article you refer to. I have seen one or two articles lately which venture to assume that you are not the only man in the world who had contributed to the development of the telephone . . . So far as I know the libels are mostly on the other side, if assertions of originality etc. may be so constructed. The papers have been full of articles, of late, copied from Boston papers, claiming the whole development of the telephone for you. It would not be strange if some one, knowing the facts, should speak and in doing so may have done you injustice.
"You seem to assume that I am responsible for all the newspaper articles that are not in your favor. Now if we are going into the refutation business I suggest that it be mutual. So far as I know, there is quite as much need from your side as from mine. If we undertake to follow up the newspapers we shall have our hands full." [Coon 48] [MacKenzie 166]
1877, Mar. 2, Bell Responded
"I was somewhat hasty, I must confess, in sending my telegram to you, for of course you are not responsible for all the ill natured remarks that may appear in the newspapers concerning me. I have generally alluded to your name in connection with the invention of the Electronic 'Telephone' for we seem to attach different significations to the word. I apply the term only to to an apparatus for transmitting the voice (which meaning is strictly in accordance with the derivation of the word) whereas you seem to use the term as expressive of any apparatus for transmission of musical tones by electric current.
"I have no knowledge of any apparatus constructed by you for the purpose of transmitting vocal sounds, and I trust that I have not been doing you an injustice. It is my sincere desire to give you all the credit that I feel justly belongs to you. I do not know the nature of the application for a caveat, to which you referred, excepting that it had something to do with the vibration of a wire in water and therefore conflicted with my patent. My specification had been prepared months before it was filed and a copy taken to England by a friend. I delayed the filing of the American patent until I could hear from him. At last the protests of all those interested in my invention deprecating further delay, had their effect, and I filed my application without waiting for a conclusion of negotiations in England. It was certainly a most striking coincidence that our applications should have been filed on the same day." [Coon 49] [MacKenzie 167]
1877, Mar. 5: Gray wrote Bell disclaiming the invention of the telephone, and responsibility for the article which he says he had not seen. [Brooks p 64]
"I have just received yours of the 2nd instant, and I freely forgive you for any feeling your telegram aroused. I found the article I suppose you referred to in the personal column of the Tribune, and am free to say it does you injustice.
I gave you full credit for the talking feature of the telephone as you may have seen in the Associated press dispatch that was sent to all the papers in the country - in my lecture in McCormick Hall, Feb. 27th. . . . Of course you have had no means of knowing what I had done in the matter of transmitting vocal sounds. When, however, you see the specification, you will see that the fundamental principles are contained therein. I do not, however, claim even the credit of inventing it, as I do not believe a mere description of an idea that has never been reduced to practice - in the strict sense of that phrase - should be dignified with the name invention.
Bell's patent would be challenged by Western Union based on Gray's caveat; the legal challenge would be settled out of court.
- U.S. Patent 205,378, Improvement in the art of transmitting rhythmical vibrations in an electric circuit, granted June 25, 1878
- U.S. Patent 221,406, Improvement in apparatus for operating speaking-telephones, granted Nov. 11, 1879
- U.S. Patent 212,373, Improvement in speaking-telephone apparatus, granted February 18, 1879
- Gray becomes Professor of Dynamic Electricity at Oberlin College
- U.S. Patent 224,013, Electric Telephone, granted February 3, 1880
- U.S. Patent 233,345, Telephonic telegraph, granted October 19, 1880
1881: Jay Gould Takes Control of Western Union
- Western Electric acquired by AT&T. Western Electric remains a part of the Bell System until 1982 Divestiture, when manufacturing was simply subsumed into the AT&T Long Distance company
- [Elisha Gray: The Author, Graybar (Gray helps form the Postal Telegraph Company.) (Editor: This seems wrong - i think they have confused Hubbard's postal telegraph which Gray may have supported with the private Postal Telegraph - or maybe Gray had some relationship with the British Postal Telegraph)]
- Congressional hearings investigated who invented the telephone.
- 1886: The Washington Post reports that Zenas Wilbur, a patent officer, stated in an affidavit that he had been bribed by Alexander Graham Bell "to award the patent to Bell over a rival inventor, Elisha Gray." Wilbur indicated that he took $100 and gave Bell complete details of Gray's invention. In previous affidavits, Wilbur swore the opposite. [Wash Post 022008] It is reported that Wilbur owed money to one of Bell's attorneys. [Roth] Another book reports that Wilbur was an alcoholic who had had several run ins with the law. [Coe p 70] [See also Brooks p 77] [See also Coon 52]
- U.S. Patent 386,814 Art of Telegraphy, issued July 1888 (writing telegraph or telautograph)
- Gray National Telautograph Company established
- Gray elected to the International Electrical Congress
- U.S. Patent 636,519, Transmission of Sound, granted Nov. 7, 1899
1901: Elisha Gray dies
- Jan. 20: Elisha Gray Dies. "He was Intensely Bohemian and with a dollar in his pocket millions were to him the veriest nonentities. Capitalists knew this, and, knowing it, they traded upon the knowledge, so that Gray usually got little but glory from the products of his brain" [Los Angeles Herald 1901]
- U.S. Patent 989,250, Transmission of sound, granted April 15, 1901
- U.S. Patent 744,336, Electrical ringing of bells for submarine signaling. Nov. 17, 1903
- Roderic Knight
- Roderic Knight, Gray Matters, Oberlin Online Fall 2018 p. 38 [Knight 2018]
- Knight, Roderic. "Elisha Gray and the Musical Telegraph."" Galpin Society Journal 2019 LXXII, 205-31 & color sec. 151-53 [Knight 2019]
- Lloyd W. Taylor, The Untold Story of the Telephone, The American Physics Teacher 5 (December 1937)
- Sorry, Wrong Inventor (Elisha Gray of Oberlin invented the telephone), CSM 1/10/2008
- Elisha Gray, Oberlin College
- Elisha Gray, The American Experience PBS
- Elisha Gray Collection, 1871-1938. Smithsonian Institution
- Who Is Credited with Inventing the Telephone? Library of Congress Everyday Mysteries.
- Elisha Gray, inventor of the variable resistance micriphone, Fierce Telecom
- HE MADE MILLIONS AND DIED POOR Professor Elisha Gray Who Made fortunes for Other Men, Los Angeles Herald, Volume XXVIII, Number 113, 22 January 1901 [Los Angeles Herald 1901]