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Forgotten Italian May Be Phone's Inventor

Although the U.S. House declared that Bell ripped off Antonio Meucci, his countrymen have done little to champion his cause.

October 20, 2002|Frances D'emilio | Associated Press Writer

ROME — 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.

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 ...."

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.

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.

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.

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.

"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."

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