Number 5. Meucci, Forgotten Italian Genius.

Meucci, Forgotten Italian Genius.

Published by Bridge Apulia USA N.5, 1999;
Re-published by L’IDEA N.74, 1999

Italian immigration to the States has often been permeated by burdensome anguish and adumbrated by the erroneous perception of its powerful ethnic background. Many of our colonists have been greeted as ignoramuses even when highly educated. Many of our fellow countrymen have been discriminated against, insulted, mistreated.

Our heritage, which has oftentimes been misunderstood and derided, is our strength and it has always allowed us to bypass the obstacles that ignorance and greed placed in front of us. On and on goes the list of Italian surnames that have left a mark in the New World against all the adversities created by intolerance and bigotry.

Unfortunately, there is one name that has deserved an outstanding recognition, but that the American society as a whole has decided to ignore to the utmost: Antonio Meucci.

Many associations have tried to grant Meucci the rightful place in the annals of Science, but the hegemony of the large corporations over many aspects of today’s society has permitted these efforts to be obstructed and to terminate in vain.

Antonio Meucci is the forgotten genius whose inventions precede and usher every significant transformation in communication technology which was attained during this century. He was a prolific inventor, with profound knowledge of engineering, design and practical chemistry. His downfall was to be an Italian immigrant at the wrong time in history, and obviously to be poor, a fault that frequently can be neither forgotten nor forgiven.

In a brief sojourn in Havana, Cuba, induced by the restrictive immigration laws of the times that did not allow Europeans to even come near the North American ports, Meucci developed many devices to control the application of electrical impulses for medical purposes. Each researcher in this field of medicine independently rediscovered the Meucci Electro-medical Method to alleviate an ample series of ailments.

Deplorably, most medical bureaucrats of the time, fearing the elimination of their own pharmaceutical monopolies, coveted to dispel these revolutionary electro-medical arts. An initial restraint quickly mounted into a full-scale assault on these methods and Meucci, thorn between the needs to make a living and the impulse to investigate further in this fascinating field chooses a compromise. He dedicates his energy to further study the communication of sounds through the body, product of a casual discovery in one of his electro-medical applications.

It is in such a matter that physiophony was born. This is his greatest discovery, and only twenty-five years later an ecstatic Elisha Gray would rediscover the phenomenon. Long after this date, the same experimental evidence, taken first from Meucci, then from Gray, eminently appears in Bell’s letters, copied to the smallest detail.

Meucci recorded his findings on physiophony and acoustic telephony in 1849, when Alexander Graham Bell was just two years old. He fancied that American industry would yield extensive production of his new technology. A telephonic system would revolutionize any nation which managed its proliferation.

Lack of funding alone precluded large-scale demonstrations of his revolutionary communication systems. Furthermore, prejudices tied to his ethnic background prevented New York financiers from even being aware of his operation. Meucci turned to his fellow countrymen for help. It was 1860 and Italy was thorn by the Independence War, which absorbed the unconditional attention of every citizen involved. His fantastic demonstration of the Teletrofonic System, with songs transmitted across several miles of line, attracted substantial attention, but the possibility of funding fizzled soon.

Italian production of the Teletrofono having never begun, Meucci became extremely resentful over both the unconcluded affair and his own contingency in America. Meucci was cautioned by supportive compatriots to avoid bringing any inventions to American industrial firms without legal protection: he needed a patent. Patents were never an inexpensive proposition. It was clear that an independent inventor could not, even then, obtain a patent without financial assistance from someone wealthy. Meucci, unable to obtain a patent, secured a caveat, a legal document that declared the invention to be successfully developed, a more economical alternative to the patent. The Meucci caveat remains to this day on public record, but during the lengthy trial proceedings, it “could never be found at all in the patent records”. It is clear that without the help of some unnamed friend at the Patent Office, Bell would never have succeeded in defeating Meucci caveat. Reading the transcripts of the Meucci court battle is witnessing the awe that such large conglomerate as the Telephone companies uphold on common people. Meucci was publicly and ethnically labeled by leading journalists as “that old Italian, that old…candlemaker”. No technical proofs presented by Meucci to the Court could satisfy and convince it to change the predetermined judgment. With no hopes of financial reward and the impossibility to keep up with the rising legal fees, Meucci desisted from continuing the fight.

The fact remains that Meucci was the first to invent the telephone. Through the years, the name of Meucci was not even mentioned in the history of telephonics, but the truth is that information regarding the subject has been provided to school text companies by Bell Labs…

An Italian to be proud of, an Italian American forgotten, erased from the annals of science by the omnipotence of the telephone monopolies. A man who could serenely assert “The telephone, which I invented and which I first made known…was stolen from me”.