Elisha Gray’s 1887 Fax Machine

Elisha GrayOn this day in 1835, one of the greatest American inventors Elisha Gray was born. He’s most interesting because almost no one has ever heard of him. Despite this, he probably invented the telephone. We all know Alexander Graham Bell because, of course, of the company name. And there is the stupid little narrative of the first telephone transmission, “Mr Watson: come here; I want to see you.” That, at least, has the advantage over most stories we are told in grammar school of actually being true.

Bell, of course, got the patent first and so made all the money from the telephone. But it does bring up this issue that I have been grappling with for years. How should a society reward creative work when multiple people develop the same ideas at the same time? We see the same thing with airplanes between the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss. I don’t like the system we have for many reasons, but this random aspect of it is quite troubling.

Don’t get the wrong idea, however. Gray was enormously successful. For example, he invented the fax machine. In 1887. Really! He called it the teleautograph, and it allowed handwriting to be transmitted via the telegraph. The company he founded would (through a circuitous route) went on to become Xerox. He was (like many inventors of the time) a telegraph man. It was, after all, the internet of its day. And being an electrical engineer, most of his work was based on the telegraph.

Another such application was the harmonic telegraph. It was a way of sending musical tones over a wire. It is one of the first electronic musical instruments and the first device that can be said to be a musical synthesizer, although it more along the lines of your grandmother’s old electric organ. But this was in 1875.

As I sit here, my partner is fighting with the hardware of our top secret amazing “I never thought we would be able to do this” invention. And as a result, we were not able to go out and do field tests today. I don’t mean to compare myself to Gray, and as much as I admire my partner, I don’t mean to compare him to Gray either. But we are doing this work outside our regular work. So I’m quite interested in the fact that Gray did his greatest work after he retired. The creative instinct in humans is strong. So I find it offensive when conservatives and neoliberals claim that if we don’t allow creative people to become billionaires, we won’t have progress. I think it is rather the opposite. Although I don’t question possible riches as being a motivator, without a certain level of financial stability, nothing creative gets done.

Happy birthday Elisha Gray!

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