Evidence of a 50-year-old cover-up to curb public debate over whether a German science teacher invented the first telephone rather than the Scot Alexander Graham Bell has been discovered in the Science Museum, London.
Tests conducted after the Second World War on a primitive German telephone that predates Bell’s by 13 years were suppressed by a prominent businessman, ensuring that there would be no debate over whether the Scot really deserved to be called the father of modern communications.
Previously unseen documents show how experiments conducted in 1947 on a range of phones revealed that a device developed by Philipp Reis (1834-1874) — from an earlier version based on sausage skin — actually worked, said John Liffen, Science Museum curator.
Engineers from the British firm Standard Telephones and Cables (STC) found that Reis’s 1863 “Telephon” could transmit speech, albeit faintly, and that his receiver would also “reproduce speech of good quality but of low efficiency”.
But Sir Frank Gill, chairman of STC, ordered that the tests be kept secret.
STC was at the time attempting to win a deal with the American Telephone and Telegraph company, which had evolved from the Bell Company, and Gill thought the results could wreck his plans by reflecting badly on STC.
The file, marked “confidential” and discovered by Liffen at the Science Museum a few weeks ago, reveals the extent of the cover-up.
One memo, dated March 18, 1947, from Gerald Garratt, Liffen’s predecessor as the museum’s curator of communications, describes how the STC reports were given to him “on the strict understanding that they will not be referred to publicly nor published without their permission”.
He added: “The immediate reason for this reticence is that a commercial agreement is in the process of negotiation at the present time between STC and ATT — and the mutual relations would not be improved by any suggestion originating from STC that Graham Bell did not invent the telephone.”
A subsequent letter from Garratt reveals how STC was so concerned about the results that it demanded all files relating to the Reis tests be returned.
Garratt wrote: “I am frankly uneasy at all this secrecy... I am left with the thought that there is something so secret about them as to be a matter of first class public interest.
“You must know as well as I the old controversy ‘Did Bell invent the telephone'’ and I have here an unpublished manuscript of over 400 pages which proves pretty conclusively that he didn’t.
“Does your anxiety to retrieve these reports rather suggest that you agree'”
All documents were eventually returned to the Science Museum in 1955 but their significance was only recognised when Liffen stumbled across them a few weeks ago.