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"The little-known stories behind well-known inventions"

Will the real inventor please stand up?

By Paul Niemann

[AUG. 31, 2006]  The names of Alexander Graham Bell, Charles Darrow and Guglielmo Marconi are synonymous with their inventions. But are they really the true inventors, or could there be more than one inventor?

I've never been one to support conspiracy theories, but many inventions have had more than one inventor working on them at the same time. So while you might not recognize the names of Elisha Gray, Lizzie Magie or Nikola Tesla, you certainly know the inventions they may -- or may not -- have created.

Who's on the phone -- Bell or Gray?

While it is Alexander Graham Bell who is credited with inventing the telephone in 1876, there was another person who tried to patent the telephone during the same year as Bell. In fact, Elisha Gray arrived at the patent office to apply for a patent for his version of the telephone on the very same day as Bell -- just two hours later!

Bell was awarded the patent, but the case went to court; in fact, it went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Since Bell kept better records of his design than Gray did, his patent was sustained, and the rest, as they say, is history. Elisha Gray did go on to invent and patent the facsimile telegraph system in 1888, while Bell went back to working with deaf children, after giving all of his American Bell Telephone Company stock to his new bride on their wedding day.

Other inventors later staked a claim to inventing the telephone. Bell's patent, which to this day remains the most valuable patent in history, faced more than 600 lawsuits. None changed Bell's status as the official inventor of the telephone, though.

Did Charles Darrow have a monolopy on the world's best-selling board game?

Not many people recognize the name of Lizzie Magie as the inventor of the board game Monopoly, but then again, not too many people recognize the name of the person who is widely considered to be the inventor of the game, Charles Darrow. In 1904 Lizzie created "The Landlord's Game" to teach people the unfairness of realty and tax systems. Soon people were customizing the game to reflect their own neighborhoods.

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Charles Darrow of Germantown, Pa., played one of these games at a friend's house. He then began manufacturing the games himself and selling them for $4 each. When he couldn't keep up with demand, he wrote to Parker Brothers to see if they would license it from him. The company rejected him at first, citing 52 fundamental flaws with the game. When they heard how well the game sold during the Christmas season of 1934, they reconsidered. More than half a billion people have played Monopoly since.

"Marconi is a good fellow. He is using 17 of my patents."

While many inventors contributed to the development of radio, Nikola Tesla is probably its main inventor. Guglielmo Marconi, though, is the one who received credit -- and wealth -- for the invention of radio.

Tesla filed his basic radio patent applications in 1897, three years before Marconi filed his; as a result, Marconi's applications were turned down. Yet it was Marconi who was the first to transmit and receive signals across the Atlantic Ocean, when he signaled the letter "S" from Cornwall, England, to Newfoundland, Canada, in 1901.

When one of Tesla's engineers said, "Looks as if Marconi got the jump on you," Tesla replied, "Marconi is a good fellow. Let him continue. He is using 17 of my patents." But in 1904, for some unknown reason, the patent office suddenly reversed its rulings and awarded the main patent to Marconi. The history books began to refer to Marconi as "the father of radio" when he won the Nobel Prize in 1909, prompting Tesla to sue the Marconi Company for infringement. Tesla lost because he didn't have the funds to finance the case. The patent office reversed its decision in 1943 when the Marconi Company sued the U.S. government for use of its patents in World War I. When it was all said and done, though, Marconi had become a wealthy man while Tesla had gone broke.

[Paul Niemann]

Paul Niemann may be reached at niemann7@aol.com.

Copyright Paul Niemann 2006

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