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No. 2949:

by Andrew Boyd

Today, competing claims. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Who invented the microphone? The answer's not simple. Nor is it pretty.

In 1877 Emile Berliner filed a patent for a microphone — the carbon microphone. Alexander Bell, who only a year before had invented the telephone, recognized the practical importance of Berliner's technology. So he bought the patent for $50 thousand — a huge sum at the time. Problem was, Thomas Edison had also filed a microphone patent. The competing claims set off a legal battle between Berliner and Edison that dragged on for a decade and a half. Finally, in 1892, the U.S. Supreme Court made a ruling. "The [carbon microphone] is, beyond controversy, the invention of Edison." Berliner, who'd demonstrated his microphone a year before any patents were filed, was understandably upset, believing Edison had stolen his ideas. So who had a better claim of invention, Berliner or Edison? The question remains open to debate.

Emile BerlinerThomas Edison
Emile Berliner (Wikipedia) and Thomas Edison (Louis Bachrach/Wikipedia)

And this is only part of the story. While Edison was battling Berliner in the U.S., he also had his eye on Europe where David Edward Hughes claimed the microphone was his invention. Edison believed his own work was stolen by a friend of Hughes who passed it along. In a fit of fury, Edison lashed out at Hughes and his friend in the press, charging the two men with piracy, plagiarism, and the abuse of confidence. Letters both public and private were exchanged, with the debate unfolding as the world watched.

David Edward Hughes
David Edward Hughes (Oliver Heaviside: Sage in Solitude/Wikipedia)

After months of claims and counterclaims, the affair reached such a heightened level that Lord Kelvin was asked to review the situation. In an 1878 letter to the New York Daily Tribune, the distinguished physicist pulled no punches.

A portrait of Lord Kelvin
A portrait of Lord Kelvin (Wikimedia)

Kelvin began by calling the microphone a "beautiful discovery and invention," the pleasure of which had been marred for the world by "one of the most disagreeable things that can be thrust upon the public — a personal claim of priority, accompanied by accusations of bad faith." Kelvin further chastised Edison for his "violent attack," calling Edison's accusations "unfounded." He then appealed to Edison's better self, suggesting Edison would surely see the error of his ways and "not rest until he retracts his accusations." Edison never did apologize. And in many circles Hughes is considered the inventor of the microphone.

Kelvin made two additional observations in his letter: the physical principle used by both Edison and Hughes had been discovered by a Frenchman named Clérac, and Clérac's principle was itself based on a discovery by yet another Frenchman — which returns us to a frequent theme here on Engines. Advances in science and engineering inevitably build on one another. Rather than worry who's first, let's celebrate the many inventive minds whose contributions we're so fortunate to enjoy.

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Notes and references:

E. van Buskirk. March 4 1877: The Microphone Sounds Much Better. Wired, March 4, 2010. See also: Accessed May 30, 2014.

Sir William Thomson (Lord Kelvin). Letters from the People: The Microphone Controversy. New York Daily Tribune, Monday, August 12, 1878. 

This episode first aired on June 5, 2014.