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Forgotten Italian May Be Phone’s Inventor

Associated Press Writer

Italians are a people who love to talk, so they find it natural that the inventor of the telephone was one of their own.

What, you say, Alexander Graham Bell was Italian?

No. But, for Italians, the Scotsman is not the inventor of the telephone. Italian textbooks have long taught that Antonio Meucci, a Florentine immigrant in New York, invented the phone while Bell got the credit.

Now, nearly 113 years after Meucci died a virtual pauper on New York City’s Staten Island, there’s some vindication for him.

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In June, the U.S. House of Representatives declared that, essentially, the Italian was ripped off by the Scotsman.

The congressional resolution was sponsored by Rep. Vito Fossella, an Italian American from Staten Island, and backed by Italian American organizations.

In the ponderous language of government, the declaration sums up Meucci’s hard-luck history:

“Whereas Meucci never learned English well enough to navigate the complex American business community ... whereas Meucci was unable to raise sufficient funds to pay his way through the patent application process ... whereas on Jan. 13, 1887, the government of the United States moved to annul the patent issued to Bell on the grounds of fraud and misrepresentation ... whereas Meucci died in October 1889, the Bell patent expired in January 1893, and the case was discontinued as moot ....”

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Given all the bad breaks, lawmakers concluded that “the life and achievements of Antonio Meucci should be recognized, and his work in the invention of the telephone should be acknowledged.”

Of course, there was dissent. A little later in June, Canada’s House of Commons passed a motion recognizing Bell as the telephone’s inventor. Bell, who had come to Ontario with his parents while a young man, died in 1922 in Nova Scotia, where he had a summer home.

Then, the flurry of patriotic coverage in Italy was over.

The truth is, textbooks and encyclopedias aside, Italians have done little to champion the cause of Meucci, who emptied out his heart and his pockets for his countrymen.

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Take a look at how Rome’s Historic Museum of Post and Telecommunications treats this native son who didn’t make good.

One recent rainy morning, the steps of a sole visitor echoed noisily through room after room, past the bust of Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian who won a Nobel for physics for his pioneering work in wireless telegraphy, past the telephone used by dictator Benito Mussolini in his headquarters in the heart of Rome.

The Meucci display was easy to miss. Among the items were reproductions of two primitive wooden telephone models made by the inventor, two letters he wrote from Staten Island lamenting that he was reduced to living on charity, and a cheap-looking ceramic plaque from one Carlo Meucci complaining how badly life treated his father.

By the time the visitor left, the exhibition was even thinner. It was pointed out to museum officials that Meucci was thought to have had no recognized offspring, and a call to the museum’s recently retired director got the word that there has been a rash of Meucci heir impostors. The plaque was removed.

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The museum’s new director, Barbara Desimio, said that although “local pride” largely figures in Italians giving credit to Meucci, the record shows that Italy, in practice, championed Bell.

In 1878, when the telephone made its first appearance in Italy, in the presence of the royal family, two Bell receivers were used. A year earlier, two Italian brothers from Milan, using Bell’s patent, produced Italy’s first telephone device.

“Even in Italy, as in the rest of the civilized world, the name Bell became famous, while the name of an Italian, Antonio Meucci, remained unknown,” Desimio said.

So much for a man who, in his cottage on Staten Island, hosted Italian patriots like Giuseppe Garibaldi as they struggled to make a nation out of a homeland that for centuries was cut up into fiefdoms by popes and warlords.

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Meucci was largely forgotten here until Marconi, during Mussolini’s Fascist drive to glorify Italian achievements, battled to win some glory for his compatriot.

Marconi didn’t make much headway, judging by a 1954 letter in the museum’s files. The letter advises another museum in Italy to be cautious in putting together any exhibition on Meucci because what was known about the patent battle was “still obscure” and “the Bell Co. could raise objections” if the show wasn’t properly documented.

A little over a decade ago, an electronics engineer in Turin, about to retire from Italy’s state telecommunications company, took up the challenge of properly documenting Meucci’s story.

Basilio Catania recalled how he was immediately struck by something as he started reading what he could find on Meucci.

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“Everyone’s judgments of him were diametrically opposed,” Catania said in a telephone interview from his home.

“Some said he was a charlatan, that he did little more than duplicate the old kids’ game of stringing two boxes together. Others said he was a genius who was ripped off.”

Meucci’s troubles began young. A chemistry student, he invented a powerful propeller for fireworks and when one of the rockets propelled by his device did some damage at a celebration for a Florentine duchess, he ended up in court. Later, he was jailed for his activities to free Italy from foreign rulers.

When he was offered a job in Cuba as engineer for an Italian opera company, Meucci accepted, taking with him his seamstress wife, Esther. They had met while working at a Florence theater that still uses another of Meucci’s devices -- an acoustic pipe that allow stagehands to transmit orders from backstage to above the stage.

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In Cuba, the couple were well-to-do by today’s standards, Catania said, and Meucci was able to spend a lot of money on his hobby -- inventing.

Among his eclectic inventions: a filter similar to those used in today’s coffee machines, and patented, bubbly, vitamin-rich fruit drinks.

Meucci was curious if electricity could be used in medicine. When a man who worked for him fell ill, Meucci put one end of a copper wire in the man’s mouth and delivered an electrical charge from the other end. The poor man’s scream was transmitted through the wire, and Meucci was set on his quest to use electricity to transmit the human voice.

New York awaited.

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“Meucci thought he could better exploit his genius there,” Catania said. “Unfortunately, he found something there he didn’t expect: hundreds of Italians -- aristocrats, generals -- who needed help” in exile as they mapped strategy in their drive to unite Italy.

Next to his Staten Island home, where he settled in 1850, Meucci opened a factory to produce a new kind of candle he invented, and gave the exiles jobs. But the candle business fizzled in the face of competition, and by 1861, Meucci was forced to sell off personal possessions.

In 1870, Meucci was badly burned in a fire aboard a ferry, spent three months in a hospital and went on welfare, receiving $15 a week.

Meucci applied for the cheaper, simple warning about his work in telephony instead of a full patent after his fellow Italians rebuffed his bid for a $200 loan to take out a patent. Three years later, he couldn’t even come up with the $10 to renew the caveat.

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After Meucci heard that Bell took out a patent on the telephone in 1876, he wrote his lawyer and started a newspaper campaign to claim that he was first. In 1887, the U.S. government went to bat for Meucci, but the Italian died two years later and he never had his day in court.

In New Jersey, a spokeswoman for AT&T; Corp., the descendant of the Bell Telephone Co., is staying out of the fray.


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