Biography of Antonio Santi Giuseppe Meucci



Meucci discovered the principle of the telephone in 1849 and developed a working model by 1859, many years before Alexander Graham Bell’s patent. However, the vagaries of history and the patent office have determined that Antonio Meucci will only be recognized in Italy as the true inventor of the telephone. Antonio Santi Giuseppe Meucci was born in Florence on 13 April 1808. He was admitted to the “Accademia di Belle Arti” on 27 November 1821, and remained in the Academy six years, following the schools of Chemistry and Mechanics, the latter encompassing all of the known physics of the time.

From 1823 to 1830 he was employed as customs officer at the gates of Florence. Then, living in Florence, he worked as a stage designer and technician in various theaters. In October 1833, he was hired at the renowned Teatro della Pergola, as assistant chief mechanician. In 1834, he set up an acoustic-pipe telephone (still existing today) to allow communicating from the stage to the maneuver trellis-work.

In 1833-1834, he was involved in the conspiracies for the liberation of Italy, and was many months in a jail with the famous patriot F. D. Guerrazzi. On 7 August 1834, he married Esther Mochi, a costumer in the Pergola’s tailor shop.

In 1835 Antonio Meucci and his wife left Florence to flee the violence of the civil insurrections which raged throughout Italy. Many immigrants who wished for a peaceful life thought they might find some measure of solace in the New Land which lay to the west. Unhappily restricted by law from entering The United States, persons such as Meucci and his family chose the route into which most other Mediterraneans were forced at the time. Being turned southward, they were literally compelled to dock in Caribbean or South American ports. On 7 October 1835, having accepted the job of chief engineer, and his wife Esther the job of chief costumer, in the magnificent “Gran Teatro de Tacon” of Havana, they embarked in Leghorn on the brig “Coccodrillo” with 81 members of the Italian Opera Company. They arrived in Havana on 17 December 1835.

The Tacon Theater in 1868. Notice, at the left of the theater, the two-story apartment building and the protruding low building, accommodating the theater workshop.

On 12 January 1836, the Italian Opera Company debuts at the Teatro Principal. Shortly after, Meucci solves the problem of purifying, by chemical processing, the water supplied to the city of Havana. On 15 April 1838, the Gran Teatro de Tacon is inaugurated. The Meuccis move to an apartment adjacent to the theater (see figure above).

A young and dreamy romantic, Meucci found the beauty of theater work quite entrancing and inspirational. There, dreams became realities, if only for the short time during which hardened pragmatism was suspended. Fantasy and wonder were magickal liquids which perfumed the soul and opened the mind,s eyes. As in childhood, one could receive the elevating epiphanies of revelation necessary for discovering unexpected phenomena, and for developing unequalled technologies.

New arrivals in Cuba, the Meucci family made Havana their home. They found the warm and friendly nation a place for new and wonderful opportunities. Sr. Meucci pursued numerous experimental lines of research while living in Havana, developing a new method for electroplating metals. In 1844, having obtained a four-year contract from the Governor to galvanize supplies for the army, Meucci sets up the first electroplating factory of the Americas.

This new art was applied to all sorts of Cuban military equipment, Meucci gaining fame and recognition in Havana as a scientific researcher and developer of new technologies. Several special electrical control systems were designed by him specifically for stage production in the Teatro Tacon, the Havana Opera. Electrical rheostats served the safe and controlled operation of enclosed carbon arclamps. Mechanical contrivances hoisted, lowered, parted, and closed heavy curtains. The automatic systems were a wonder to behold.

The decision to move to Havana was indeed a good one. Genuine acceptance, and loving recognition added joy the lives of the bittersweet exiles. Meucci,s wife was often amused by his more outlandish inventive notions. But, as their stay in Havana continued, she scolded that he had better develop something solidly practical on which to “make a living”. In 1844 his family is blessed by the birth of a girl. On 16 December 1844, an evening in honor of Antonio Meucci is held at the Gran Teatro de Tacon.

On 18 April 1847, Meucci is entrusted with the reconstruction of the theater, which was severely damaged by an unusually strong hurricane. He designs a new ventilation system to avoid the roof being taken off again.

In 1848, Meucci sends money to Garibaldi, to help Italy’s independence war.

A long time fascination with physiological conditions and their electrical responses, Meucci was prompted to begin study of electromedicine. With just such a practical view in mind, he established and maintained an experimental electromedical laboratory in backrooms of the Opera House. Investigating the art of “electro-medicine”, as popularly practiced throughout both Europe and the Americas, Meucci investigated the curative abilities of electrical impulse.

Applying moderate electrical impulses from small induction coils to patients in hope of alleviate illness, Meucci learned that precise control of both the “strength and length” of electrical impulse held the true secret of the art. As viewed by Meucci, pain and certain physical conditions were treatable by these electrical methods provided that very short impulses of insignificant voltage were employed. Impulses of specific length and power were necessary to rid suffering patients of their pain. In addition, Meucci imagined that tissue and bone regeneration could be stimulated by such means. What really intrigued Sr. Meucci was the length of impulse time involved in body-applied electricity.

To this end, he developed special slide switches which were capable of specifying the impulse length. It was possible to slide a zig-zag contact surface over a fixed electrical source. By varying the spacings between such slide contacts, Meucci could mechanically generate very short electrical impulses.

Rheostats could also be employed to control the current intensity. By the employment of these two control features, he was able to apply the proper impulse “strength and length”. Meucci wished to chart a specific impulse series which would neutralize each specific kind of pain or illness. Developing catalogues of electrical impulse cures was his real aim. Such a technology, if developed thoroughly, could arm medical practitioners with new curative powers. Sr. Meucci applied continual experimental effort toward these medical goals. He often applied these same impulses to theater employees and stage artists alike.

These people came to regard such electric cures as definitive. Meucci,s method was known to reverse conditions completely. He paid special attention to the placement and size of electrodes on the body. Tiny point-contacts were often held to the body at specific neural points, effecting their analgesic effects. He was especially careful with “shock strength”, applying only millivolt surges to his patients. Pain could be gradually made to retreat by the proper impulse administration.

Meucci had already developed fine rheostatic tuners for limiting the output power of his electrical device. He always applied the current to his own body in order to give completely “measured” electro-treatments. In this manner he was able to judge the parameters more personally and responsibly.

It was his habit to administer treatments of this kind to his ailing wife, Esther. Crippling arthritis was becoming her personal prison, and Sr. Meucci wished to cure her completely of the malady. Watching and praying through until the dawn, Antonio struggled to perfect a means by which cures could be effected with selective impulse articulation.

The most central episode of Meucci,s life now unfolded. It was to be a serendipity of the most remarkable kind. Throughout his later years, Meucci recounted the following story which occurred in 1849, when he was forty-one years of age. A certain gentleman was suffering from an unbearable migraine headache. Since it was known to many that Meucci,s electromedical methods possessed definite curative ability, Sr. Meucci,s medical attention was sought. Meucci placed the weak, suffering man on a chair in a nearby room. His weakened condition inspired an easy pity. Antonio had already felt the thorns of his beloved wife,s pain. Her eyes, like the man before him now, begged for the cure which lay hidden in mystery.

Carefully, caringly, Antonio now sought to ease this man,s suffering. In this severe instance, Meucci placed a small copper electrode in the patient,s mouth and asked him to hold the other (a copper rod) in his hand. The electro-impulse device was in an adjoining room. Meucci went into this room, placed an identical copper electrode in his own mouth, and held the other copper electrode to find the weakest possible impulse strength. Meucci told his patient to relax and to expect pain relief momentarily, making small incremental adjustments on the induction coil.

Migraines of severe intensity characteristically produce equally severe reaction to the slightest irritation. The man being now highly sensitive to pain, Meucci,s insignificant (though stimulating) current impulses were felt. The patient, anticipating some horrible shock, cried out in the other room with surprise at the very first slight tickle.

Momentarily, Meucci forgot the hurtful sympathy which he naturally felt in assisting this poor soul who sat across the hall. His focussed attention was suddenly diverted as an astounding empathy manifested itself: he had actually “felt” the sound of the man,s cry in his own mouth! After absorbing the surprise, he burst into the adjoining room to see why the man had so yelled.

Glad the poor fellow had not run out on him, Meucci replaced the oral electrode of his suffering patient and went into the other room to perform the same adjustments… through closed doors this time. He asked the gentleman to talk louder, while he himself again held the electrode in his mouth.

Once more, to his own great shock, Meucci actually heard the distant voice “in his own mouth”. This vocalization was clear, distinct, and completely different from the muffled voice heard through the doors. This was a true discovery. Here, Antonio Meucci discovered what would later be known as the “electrophonic” effect.

The phenomenon, later known as physiophony, employs nerve responses to applied currents of very specific nature. As the neural mechanism in the body employs impulses of infinitesimal strengths, so Meucci had accidentally introduced similar “conformant” currents. These conformant currents contained auditory signals: sounds. The strange method of “hearing through the body” bypassed the ears completely and resounded throughout the delicate tissues of the contact point. In this case, it was the delicate tissues of the mouth.

Each expressed their thanks to the other, and the relieved patient went home. The impulse cure had managed to “break up” the migraine condition. Meucci,s reward was not monetary. It was found in a miraculous accident; the transmission of the human voice along a charged wire. In these several little experiments, Meucci had determined and defined the future history of all telephonic arts.

Excited and elated Antonio asked certain friends to indulge his patience with similar experiments. He gave individual oral electrodes to each and asked that his friends each speak or yell. Meucci, seated behind a sealed door, touched his electrode to the corner of his mouth. As each person spoke or yelled, Meucci clearly heard speech again. Internal sound reception in the very tissues of the mouth. Without question, Meucci,s most notable discovery in telephonics is physiophony. Meucci did not foresee this strange and wonderful discovery.

His first series of new experiments would seek improvement of the electrophonic effect. To this end Meucci designed a preliminary set of paired electrodes. The appearance of these devices was strange to both the people of his time and those of own. Each device was made of small cork cylinders fitted with smooth copper discs. Designed as personalized transmitters, each person was to place their own transmitter directly in the mouth! The other electrode was to be hand-held.

Meucci verified the physiophonic phenomenon repeatedly. Upon experiencing the now-famed effect, visitors were awed. Furthermore, it was possible to greatly extend the line length to many hundreds of feet and yet “hear” sounds. The sounds were clearly heard “in the nerves” with a very small applied voltage. Sounds were being deliberately transmitted along charged wires for the first recorded time in modern history.

The auditory organs were not in any way involved. Meucci discovered that oral vibrations were varying the resistance of the circuit: oral muscles were vibrating the current supply. Spoken sounds were reproduced as a vibrating electric current in the charged line which can be sensed and “heard” in the nerveworks and muscular tissues.

With very great care for obvious injuries, it is possible to reproduce these remarkable results to satisfaction. The voltages must be infinitesimal. When properly conducted through the tissues, sounds are heard near the contact point the body. No doubt, the impulsed signal reproduces identical audio contractions in sensitive tissues. This is one source of the sounds internally “heard”. Nerves actually form the greater channel when impulses are arranged properly, directly transmitting their auditory contents without the inner ear.

Physiophony is Meucci,s greatest discovery, one which he should have pursued before also developing mere acoustic telephony. Twenty-five years later in America, an elated Elisha Gray would rediscover the physiophonic phenomenon. He would develop physiophony into a major scientific theme. Long after this time, these identical experimental demonstrations conspicuously appear in Bell,s letters; copying the identical experiments taken first from Meucci, then from Gray, and Reis.

During the early twentieth century, music halls for deaf persons were once found in certain metropolitan centers. These recital halls enabled nerve-deaf persons to hear music through handheld electrodes. Modifying the appliances in order to allow considerable freedom of movement, several such places allowed deaf people to dance. Holding the small copper rods, wired to a network on the ceiling, musical sounds and rhythms could be felt and heard directly. Physiophony, more recently termed “neurophony” holds the secret of a new technology. Physiophony, rediscovered of late, facilitates hearing in those afflicted with nerve-deafness.

Havana’s first experiment

This experiment was performed by Antonio Meucci around the end of 1849 in the premises adjacent to the left wall of the Tacon theater, where both the theater’s workshop and the Meucci’s apartment were located. The discovery of the transmission of the human voice by electricity was made while Meucci was applying electrotherapy to a patient suffering of rheumatisms in his head.

Physical layout of the experiment.

Fig. 2 of Meucci’s deposition shows the layout of Meucci’s first experiment in Havana, performed in 1849. The first three rooms shown on top of the figure, were part of Meucci’s apartment and were looking to the courtyard of the theater (shown at the bottom of the figure). The batteries (about sixty Bunsen batteries, yielding a total emf of about 114 volts) were located in the theater’s workshop (shown at the right side of the figure), which communicated with Meucci’s apartment through a door and also with the courtyard. The patient was located in the first room at the left of the figure, while Meucci was in the workshop. The big circle in the second room indicates a reel of wire.

Electrical layout of the experiment.

Fig. 17 of Meucci’s deposition shows more in detail the electrical layout of his first experiment. The patient was holding in his left hand the copper tongue of one of the instruments shown on top of the figure as “1″. Upon command received by Meucci, the patient put in his mouth the copper tongue of the other instrument, held in his right hand by its cork handle. Meucci could break the current to the patient either manually or through a suitable current breaker of his own design, indicated in the figure below, as “2″. In his first experiment, he interrupted the current manually.

1. Insulated wooden tubes to be held in the hands, with a sponge on top communicating with the conductor to be applied to the sick part of the body
2. Apparatus to break the current in giving the electric shock
3. Series of Bunsen Batteries

Meucci’s posture during his first experiment.

This figure shows that Meucci, holding in his left hand an instrument similar to that of the patient, was bending down to switch on the current, by manually connecting one end of the wire to one end of the battery. At this moment, the patient yelled from the shock received. A sound reached Meucci’s left ear, apparently coming from the instrument in his left hand. In his affidavit, Meucci stated: “I thought I heard this sound more distinctly than natural. I then put this copper of my instrument to my ear, and heard the sound of his voice through the wire. This was my first impression, and the origin of my idea of the transmission of the human voice by electricity.” These words can be thought as marking the beginning of the electrical transmission of the speech.

Equivalent circuit of the experiment

When the patient yelled, a strongly variable resistance Rv formed in his mouth between the copper tongue C2 and his saliva. This variable resistance, in turn, was connected, through his body, with the other copper tongue C1 in his left hand. The variable resistance Rv added to the total (fixed) resistance of the circuit Rw + Rb, where Rw was the resistance of the wire and Rb the internal resistance of the battery, thus making the total resistance Rv + Rw + Rb also variable. As a consequence of that, the electrical potential of Meucci’s copper tongue C3 would vary accordingly, thus making the patient’s yell audible to Meucci, by an electrostatic effect.

It may be remarked that Meucci, in this first experiment, exploited two quite advanced principles of telephone communication: the variable resistance principle, that was to be employed in either liquid or carbon “microphone” transmitters some 30 years later, and the variable capacitor principle, that was to be employed in the so-called “static telephone” at about the same time.

Reconstruction of Meucci’s instrument used in 1849 in Havana both for electrotherapy and his first experiment of transmission of the human voice by electricity. His first experiment was performed without a cone added to the instrument; his second experiment was performed after adding a cone, originally made of pasteboard. The model in this window has a transparent plastic cone, to allow the visitors better seeing the interior.

Meucci discovered two distinct forms of vocal communication: physiophony and acoustic telephony. Meucci,s next experiments dealt with the development of a means for separating the physiophonic action from the human body entirely. He developed working systems to serve each of these modes, with primary emphasis on acoustic telephony. Replacing tissues of the mouth with a separate vibrating medium required extending the cork-fixed electrodes.

Meucci coiled thin and flexible copper wire so that it could freely vibrate in a heavy paper cone. Once more, Meucci varied the experiment. This time his own oral electrode would be enclosed in a heavy paper cone. Again each subject was asked to talk into the first cone-encased electrode as Meucci listened at the other terminal. Each time, speech was heard as vibrating air. This was his first acoustic transmitter-receiver.

Havana’s second experiment

Meucci’s second experiment in Havana was performed shortly after his first one and was mainly aimed at preventing the patient from undergoing a strong electrical shock. This experiment (in fact, it was a series of experiments) differed from the first one in three ways:

1. Both the patient’s and Meucci’s implements were covered with a cone of pasteboard, into which the patient could speak freely and Meucci could better hear, enjoying the acoustic power gain of the cone, as well as some acoustic isolation from the environment.

2. The second instrument, formerly held by the patient in his left hand, was left idle, as it was not required anymore to apply current to the patient.

3. The total emf was gradually reduced down to four or six elements of Bunsen, providing a total emf between 7.6 volts and 11.4 volts, because, as Meucci stated “experimenting, I found that I didn,t need a current so strong as the one produced by many cells; and the current not being too strong, gave better results in the transmission of the sound”.

Fig. A of Meucci’s affidavit shows the layout of his second experiment. This figure is similar to that of the first experiment, though rotated by 90, but it is now more evident that the patient “a” is not traversed by current. The outcome of this second experiment is described by Meucci in his affidavit as follows: “I directed him to speak… I being at the end of the third room, I placed my instrument, covered like his, to my ear. I then heard, while holding this to my ear, quite distinctly, the sound of his voice, so much so that I believed it came over the wire. I made him repeat what had said several times, which convinced me that I heard his voice over the wire electrically.”

This drawing shows the equivalent circuit of this second experiment. Of course, no variable resistance in the patient’s mouth existed any more; instead, the vibration impressed by the patient’s voice upon his copper tongue only produced a variable capacitance C1 that caused similar vibrations to be induced in Meucci’s copper tongue C2, as if the two copper tongues were the leaves of a (gold-) leaf electroscope, exploiting the same principle that would be employed, many years later, in the so-called “static telephone”.

However, the speech transmission quality, featured by Meucci’s second experiment, was not (and could not) be as good as that of his first experiment, basically because the powerful principle of variable resistance was not exploited. This is confirmed by Meucci himself: “At the moment that said individual spoke, I received the sound of the word; not distinct, but a murmur; an inarticulate sound. I caused it to be repeated several times in the same day, and then I tried it again in different days, and I obtained the same result.

From this moment this was my imagination, and I recognized that I had obtained the transmission of the human word by means of conducting wire united with several batteries to produce electricity, and I gave it immediately the name of “Speaking Telegraph.” These words are a confirmation that Antonio Meucci considered his Havana’s experiments as marking the discovery of the electrical transmission of the human voice.

In 1850, having expired their contract with the Cuban impresario, Don Francisco Marty Torrens, the Italian Opera Company leaves Havana for the USA. The Meuccis, following the death of their child, embarked on the brig Norma on 23 April 1850 and arrived in New York on 1 May 1850. They brought with them about 26,000 pesos fuertes, equivalent to some $500,000 of today.

In early October, 1850, the Meuccis went to live in a cottage on Forest Street (now Ditson Street), in Clifton (Staten Island), NY. Clifton was once a picturesque little town, nestled on a rocky ridge and surrounded by babbling brooks and lush forests. The Meucci,s acquired a large and spacious house, filled with windows. Golden bright sunlight flooded the home in which Antonio devised the technology of the future. The rooms contained numerous pieces of striking art nouveau furniture which Meucci himself handcrafted. A beautiful four octave piano and several of these furniture pieces yet remain, the house itself having been declared a national monument. The cottage and the adjacent land were later purchased by Meucci.

First telephone link, established by Antonio Meucci in Clifton,
between 1854 and 1855

In 1853, his wife, Esther, aggravated her rheumatoid arthritis to the point that she seldom could leave her bedroom, in the third floor of the house. Esther’s illness stimulated the resuming of Meucci’s speaking telegraph, as it would allow her to communicate with him and others from her bedroom. Therefore, between 1854 and 1855, Meucci established his first telephone link from Esther’s room to the basement (where he had a small laboratory) and to a larger laboratory in the yard. To call attention, a traditional (mechanical) call bell was used, its wires running parallel to those of the telephone. Only one instrument was used at each end, that was alternatively brought to the ear or the mouth of the user.

Meucci tried on the above said link very many kinds of telephones, steadily improving the quality of speech transmission with respect to that of his “static telephone” of 1849 in Havana. He came to satisfactory results around 1857, when he constructed an electromagnetic instrument (Fig. A at left, reproduced from “The Chicago Tribune” of 9 November 1885 ), in which he used a tempered steel bar “M”, permanently magnetized, and a many-turns bobbin, both of which he bought from one Charles Chester, a manufacturer of telegraphic instruments in Centre St., New York. The diaphragm of this instrument was either made of a sheet of iron or of a stretched animal membrane bearing a small iron disk glued in the center. The air gap between the diaphragm and the bottom pole of the magnet could be adjusted by means of a screw.

Reconstruction of the first electromagnetic telephone realized by Antonio Meucci in Clifton, NY, in 1857. This model is a copy of the model reconstructed in 1932 by direction of Guglielmo Marconi, then president of the National Research Council of Italy, to be exhibited at the Italian stand of the Chicago,s Exhibition “A Century of Progress”, Chicago, IL, March 1933.

Meucci began investigating topics related with the telephone “system” in 1858, as shown by a drawing of the same year, reproduced here. This drawing formed the basis for Meucci’s caveat of 1871, but, as Meucci’s lawyer did not file it with the caveat, it was later notarized by Meucci himself in his affidavit of 9 October 1885. The drawing shows a two-way, simultaneous, telephone conversation, with a complete separation between the two directions of transmission (indicated by arrows).

This contrivance is aimed to counteract the so-called “side-tone” effect, that is, the hearing of the echo of the speaker’s own voice (as well as any background noise) in his own receiver. This layout is known today as a “four-wire circuit”.

Meucci wrote up all these findings in 1849… when Alexander Graham Bell was just 2 years old. Living in Havana at the time, Meucci conceived of the first telephonic system. He imagined that American industry would allow infinite production of his new technology. A telephonic system would revolutionize any nation which engineered its proliferation.

Meucci’s priority for this scheme can be proved by the following: No mention of side-tone effects, nor measures to counteract it, are found in Bell’s patents, nor in Gray’s caveat, both of 1876. In the first Bell’s subscriber lines, the four (initially, two) instruments were simply put in series on the same line. The first anti-sidetone (AST) circuits were introduced by the Bell people in the 1900s, particularly by George A. Campbell, with his nine patents of 1918, many decades after Meucci’s solution was shown in this drawing, and over thirty years after the same drawing was notarized.

Meucci’s experiments, both in Havana and Clifton, on the electrical transmission of the human voice, are basically substantiated by Meucci’s own testimony at the Bell/Globe trial of 1885-1886 and by some fifty affidavits, sworn by various witnesses between 1880 and 1885. In addition, his electromagnetic telephone was described in L’Eco d’Italia of New York at the beginning of 1861, though all issues of the 1861-1863 period are not available in the major libraries of the United States. Havana’s experiments were briefly mentioned in a letter by Meucci, published by Il Commercio di Genova of 1 December 1865 and by “L’Eco d’Italia” of 21 October 1865 (both existing today). Finally, a caveat (or preliminary patent) titled Sound Telegraph, setting forth the basic principles of Meucci’s telephonic system, was filed with the US Patent Office on 28 December 1871, five years before the first Bell patent, and its validity was extended up to December 1874, by paying the corresponding fees.

Telecommunications engineers will immediately recognize the technique illustrated in this drawing: the inductive loading of telephone lines. The technique was used for many decades after 1900 to improve the performance (both range and quality) of telephone lines by a factor of two to three. The invention of this technique is commonly attributed to Michael Idvorsky Pupin, an American of Yugoslave origin, who obtained two U.S. patents for the technique on 19 June 1900. The Bell Telephone Company later acquired both patents. Regardless of who first invented the technique, the inductive loading of telephone lines was commonly referred to as “pupinization.”

Even more amazing are Meucci’s earlier notes dated 20 May 1862: “At the midpoint of the wire, a strongly magnetized iron inside a coil. Do not need any battery at all, and is a good conductor of the sound.” This notebook entry suggests that as early as 1862, 38 years before Pupin, Antonio Meucci had discovered the effectiveness of the inductive load on a long-distance telephone line, even to the point of eliminating the battery. To infer the length of Meucci’s long-distance line, we take a look at another note, dated 17 August 1870, which reads: “I have obtained a distance of about one mile.”

Because of the increased bandwidth of the telephone with respect to the telegraph, telephone lines were subjected to increased attenuation, due to the so-called skin effect. In two notes of 1862 in his Laboratory notebook (notarized in Lemmi’s affidavit of 1885), Meucci suggested to treat the surface of the (copper) conductor in various ways (basically with graphite) to increase its surface conductivity.

Moreover, in his caveat of 1871, Meucci stated: “I believe it preferable to have the wire of larger area than that ordinarily employed in the electric telegraph.” Another note in his notebook, dated 17 August 1870, reads: “To be adopted, for having long distance, bundles of copper wire insulated with cotton or any other kind of wrapper; by this means I have obtained a distance of about one mile.” For this “bundle” of copper wires Meucci filed a US patent application “Wire for Electrical Purposes” on 2 July 1880.

In his scheme of 1858, Meucci adopted a telegraphic call signaling, simply effected by a Morse key, attached to each end of the line, momentarily short-circuiting the local transmitter. In this way, strong pulses of current were sent along the line, and the distant receiver would emit intermittent ticks, much louder than the ordinary speech. In his caveat of 1871, Meucci gave a detailed description of his call signaling, consistent with this scheme.

For what concerns the call signaling in the Bell system, we may first remark that no mention of it is found in the first Bell patent nor in Gray’s caveat of 1876. Only a vague mention of a (not better specified) “call bell” is found in Bell’s second patent of 1877. For several months after commercial telephone service was started, in 1877, the Bell subscribers resorted to either thumping the diaphragm or shouting into it, to call the other party. Less rudimentary call signaling was adopted in the years to follow, but Meucci must be credited for having identified the problem and offered an ingenious and inexpensive solution to it, many years before the Bell Co.

With early (electromagnetic) transmitters, received speech signals were quite feeble and noisy, therefore, quietness of environment was of paramount importance, especially for long-distance links. In his caveat of 1871, Meucci clearly stated: “When my sound telegraph is in operation, the parties should remain alone in their respective rooms, and every practicable precaution should be taken to have the surroundings perfectly quiet.” The need for a quiet environment was recognized by A. Graham Bell and his assistant, Thomas Watson, only in 1877, on the occasion of Bell’s public demonstrations in New York, when the first rudimentary soundproof booth, devised by Watson, was utilized.

An impressive number of patents for soundproof booths were applied for, starting from 1883. Antonio Meucci should, however, be credited for having identified the problem and suggested adequate countermeasures, in 1871. The Italian Historical Society of America sustains that Antonio Meucci, an immigrant from Italy who lived in Staten Island in new York City, invented the telephone, and has been denied fame and fortune only because he lacked $250 and because Bell himself rifled the files of a patent office, destroyng the evidence of Meucci’s invention.

The Society argues that Meucci filed a patent for a “telefono” on Dec.28,1871, a full five years before Bell filed his patent. “We can only credit Mr. Bell with commercializing the invention of Meucci”, said John La Corte, the president of the Italian Historical Society of America. “In the tradition of fair play and honesty, let Meucci have the honor to be recognized as the “Father of the Telephone” in the encyclopedia. Let Mr. Bell have the money.” According to the Society, in 1871 Meucci could not afford the $250 necessary to purchase a regular patent for his telefono, so he purchased a temporary patent for $10. In 1874, Meucci still did not have $250 and his temporary patent-number 3335-was aollowed to lapse.

Meucci was an enigmatic character, a man unable to overcome his own lack of managerial and entrepreneurial talent, a man tormented by his inability to communicate in any language other than Italian. The tragic events of his personal and professional life, his accomplishments and his association with the great Italian patriot, Garibaldi, should be legendary in themselves but, curiously, the man and his story are practically unknown today.

Antonio Meucci and Garibaldi were good friends. They were about the same age, Meucci being about one year older. Garibaldi, the adventurous, the brave, the audacious and the strategist. . . Meucci, the ingenious, the reflective, the methodical and the scientist. . . Both intelligent, generous, hard workers (and hard smokers), and always ready to fight for Italy as well as for the defense of the poor and the feeble. Their entire life was permeated by the military and political events connected with the Risorgimento and with the struggles for the unification of Italy, which struggles, to a large extent, identified with the Garibaldian undertakings. Meucci helped with money, when he was in wealthy conditions in Havana, and by recruiting volunteers and sending guns, when he was in New York. Both adhered to the Freemasonry movement (then, a strong supporter of Italy’s unification), reaching the highest Mason ranks.

When Garibaldi was also exiled from Italy, he reached New York in 1850, two months after Meucci, who hosted him, together with other Italian exiles, to whom he gave work in his candle factory in Clifton. Garibaldi too helped in the candle factory, calling Meucci “Principale” (Boss), even many years after he had left America. In his spare time, he often went fishing and hunting. Meucci purchased a small cat boat which was restored by Garibaldi to perfect conditions. They made up a sail bearing the three colors of the Italian flag, and baptized the boat “Ugo Bassi,” after the chaplain who was executed by the Austrians during the 1849 campaign. Though Garibaldi was an expert seafaring man, he called Meucci “Capitan Buontempo” (Good-weather Captain), because Meucci used to watch the weather, to see whether it was “good” for sailing and fishing.

Garibaldi, in addition to watching events in Italy, being ready to sail and fight there, was always attentive to any independence movements, anywhere in the world. Being acquainted with the political situation of the Cuban population, mostly through the reports of his friend Meucci, who had lived in Havana about fifteen years, he most probably met with Cuban irredentists, such as Narciso Lopez, Gaspar Betancourt Cisneros (nicknamed El Lugareno), Cirilo Villaverde and others, at the Ventura’s Restaurant in New York, talking about Cuba’s revolutionary ideas. His answer to an observation about the Cubans not having any arms, was: “A brave man can always find a weapon!”

Meucci’s cottage, renamed “Garibaldi Homestead”

After Garibaldi died, on 2 June 1882, Meucci practically transformed his cottage in a sanctuary dedicated to his great beloved friend. He placed a marble tablet above the entrance door of his cottage, with an inscription “Here dwelled, exiled, from 1851 to 1854 – Giuseppe Garibaldi, The Hero of the Two Worlds – 8 March 1884 – Placed by a few friends”, and also renamed the entire cottage as “Garibaldi Homestead”, placing a large slab high in the attic of his cottage.

Antonio Meucci in his old age, 1887

Floods of Italians went to the “Garibaldi Homestead” every anniversary of Garibaldi’s death or of Garibaldian many victories. Humble Meucci escorted the visitors up to the room which was Garibaldi’s, lovingly preserved by him with all its original furniture. Some visitors even thought that he was the janitor of the cottage! In his modesty, he preferred to be remembered as Garibaldi’s best friend, rather than as the inventor of the telephone. In a photograph of 1887, Meucci posed with the many rememberings of his friend: a portrait, a book, a cap similar to Garibaldi’s, and the famous parrot, who used to shout “Viva l’Italia! Fuori lo straniero!” (Long live Italy! Out with the foreigners!), which Garibaldi had brought from South America and left with his friend Meucci when he left America for Italy, in January 1854.

Antonio Meucci, 1885

In 1861, victim of dishonest speculators, he lost his house and all his money. From then on, he would always live in destitute conditions. In 1866, in the imminence of the third independence war of Italy, he was appointed president of a committee in New York, to form a military corps of volunteers to fight in Italy. On 30 July 1871, he was heavily scalded during the explosion of the boiler of the Staten Island ferry Westfield and remained three months in despair of his life. He lost his job and, thereupon, was bound to live on the charity of his friends. From 1878 to 1880 the overseers of the poor of the county helped him with small sums of money and goods for his necessities of life.

On 21 December 1884, his wife, Esther, passed away. On 18 October, 1889, Antonio Meucci died in his cottage, at the age of 81.

Meucci’s cottage in 1890, one year after his death

After Meucci died, in 1889, his cottage became a sanctuary dedicated to both great Italians, Meucci and Garibaldi, now honored together, in the place where their friendship was even more fortified. Flood of Italians as well as Americans went visiting the cottage on the anniversaries of both men’s birth and death, and this tradition is still preserved today. On 4 July 1907 the cottage was moved to a nearby location in Tompkins Avenue, in Rosebank (Staten Island), NY, where it stands still today.

On 16 September 1923, a monument to Antonio Meucci was inaugurated in the yard in the new location. The monument was sculpted in Italy by Ettore Ferrari, in marble and bronze. The marble was offered by the Rome Municipality and the bronze, coming from the Austrian cannons captured by the Italian Army in Vittorio Veneto, was offered by the Italian Ministry of War. Meucci’s ashes were placed in an urn beneath the bust.

Today in Bensonhurst, New York, there is an iron-fenced triangle of land with fresh sod, some trees, and a small monument that reads: “ANTONIO MEUCCI, 1808-1889, FATHER OF THE TELEPHONE. FIRST US PATENT CAVEAT 3335.”

Antonio Meucci was also memorized in an Italian postal stamp.


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