History's Footnote

He began as a poor, tinkering, village mechanic – a genius, constantly inventing. He developed electrical clocks, rotary measuring faucets, and a hundred and one things out of all of which he never made enough money to provide even the ordinary necessities of life. He worked hard to keep a roof over his family, and he kept at his work constantly, always hopeful and enthusiastic that one day he would make a breakthrough.

His shop at Eberly’s Mill, Pennsylvania (near Harrisonburg) was the chief showplace of the little community. There, as far back as 1850, he experimented with an electrical device for the transmission of speech over a wire. These devices or “telephones” as they came to be called, “reproduced articulate speech at a distance, by means of a current of electricity, subjected by electrical induction to undulations corresponding To the vibration of the voice in speaking.”

Yet, the name of this inventor of the telephone, Daniel Drawbaugh, will never become a household name. Although he developed a telephone anywhere from five to ten years before Alexander Graham Bell, he never appreciated the importance and completeness of his invention, and never sought a patent for it.

Drawbaugh, among others, challenged Bell’s patent for the telephone, claiming that Bell was not the first to invent such a device. But in 1887, eleven years after the patents were issued, they were upheld by the Supreme Court on four to three vote. So by the narrowest of margins, Bell has become a household word, while Drawbaugh has become an historical footnote.

(From “A Fight With An Octopus”)