At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Antonio Meucci - inventor of the telephone

Engineer from Florence was 'true' father of communications



Antonio Meucci, the Florentine scientist and engineer who lived in New York
Antonio Meucci, the Florentine scientist
and engineer who lived in New York
Antonio Meucci, the Italian engineer who was acknowledged 113 years after his death to be the true inventor of the telephone, was born on this day in 1808 in Florence.

Until Vito Fossella, a Congressman from New York, asked the House of Representatives to recognise that the credit should have gone to Meucci, it was the Scottish-born scientist Alexander Graham Bell who was always seen as father of modern communications.

Yet Meucci’s invention was demonstrated in public 16 years before Bell took out a patent for his device. This was part of the evidence Fossella submitted to the House, which prompted a resolution in June, 2002, that the wealth and fame that Bell enjoyed were based on a falsehood.

It has even been suggested that Bell actually stole Meucci’s invention and developed it as his own while the Italian died in poverty, having been unable to afford the patent.

Meucci’s story began when he was born in the San Frediano area of Florence, which was then part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the first of nine children fathered by a policeman, Amatis Meucci, and his wife, Domenica.  A plaque marks the address in Via dei Serragli where he grew up.

At the age of 15, Meucci gained a place at the Florence Academy of Fine Arts as its youngest student, studying chemical and mechanical engineering. He had to leave after two years because he needed to find work but continued to study part-time.

A plaque marks the house in Florence's Via dei Serragli,  where Antonio Meucci was born in 1808
A plaque marks the house in Florence's Via dei Serragli,
where Antonio Meucci was born in 1808
He worked as a stage technician at the Teatro della Pergola in Florence, where he constructed a type of acoustic telephone to communicate between the stage and the theatre’s control room. He married costume designer Esterre Mochi, who worked at the same theatre, in 1834.

A year after they were married, Meucci and his wife emigrated to Cuba, largely because Meucci was fascinated by research being conducted in Havana into treating illnesses with electric shocks. In helping to further this research, he discovered by accident that sounds could travel by electrical impulses through copper wire.

Realising there was commercial potential in what he had stumbled upon, he moved to the United States in 1850, acquiring a house at Staten Island, near New York City, where he set up a workshop in the basement.  He had considerable savings from his time in Cuba, which he invested in a tallow candle factory.

His personal circumstances changed, however, when severe rheumatoid arthritis left his wife paralysed and in need of care.

There is a monument to the memory of Meucci in a park in Staten Island
There is a monument to the memory
of Meucci in a park in Staten Island 
In one respect, this provided an opportunity. He devised a system, using copper wire, whereby Esterre could communicate with him by a rudimentary telephone linking to his workshop.  It was this device that he demonstrated in public in 1860, attracting sufficient interest that New York's Italian-language newspaper carried the story.

But events conspired against Meucci.  He improved and developed his device but his candle factory went bankrupt, which meant he had no funds to invest. His limited English made it difficult for him to find American backers, while most of his Italian friends, including the unification hero Giuseppe Garibaldi, were not from moneyed backgrounds.

It did not help that he was badly burned in an accident aboard a steamship, which further impacted on his ability to earn money. Meanwhile, needing to pay for treatment for her illness, Esterre sold his prototype machines to a second-hand goods shop for $6.

Meucci quickly made another device but could not afford the $250 needed for a definitive patent. Instead, in 1871, he filed a patent caveat - one-year renewable notice of an impending patent. Three years later he could not even find the $10 for the patent caveat.

He sent a model and technical details to the American District Telegraph Company, a subsidiary of Western Union based in New York, but failed to generate much interest. When he asked for his materials to be returned, in 1874, he was told they had been lost.

Two years later Bell, said to have worked in the laboratory where Meucci’s notes, diagrams and prototype devices were stored, filed a patent for a telephone. He subsequently struck a lucrative deal with Western Union, which made him wealthy, and a celebrity.

Suspecting that Bell had hijacked his ideas, Meucci sued. He appeared close to winning when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and proceedings against the Scot to annul the patent were begun in January 1887.

However, by this stage Meucci was in failing health and he died in 1889 before the process could reach a conclusion, the legal action dying with him.

The church of San Frediano in Cestello in Florence
The church of San Frediano in Cestello in Florence
Travel tip:

The parish of San Frediano is the part of the Oltrarno section of Florence that forms the neighbourhood around the Chiesa di San Frediano in Cestello, a church dedicated to St Fridianus, an early Christian Irish pilgrim who became bishop of Lucca. He is said to have miraculously walked across the surface of the Arno river near where the church was built.  Work began on the church in 1460 and it was rebuilt between 1680 and 1689. Although rather plain on the outside, the church contains many fine frescoes and paintings by Florentine artists.

Florence Hotels by Expedia

Teatro della Pergola in central Florence
Teatro della Pergola in central Florence
Travel tip:

Primarily a court theatre used by the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, it was only after 1718 that the Teatro della Pergola, in Via della Pergola, was opened to the public. A highly prestigious theatre in its heyday, it was at La Pergola that the great operas of Mozart were heard for the first time in Italy. Donizetti’s Parisina and Rosmonda d'Inghilterra, Verdi’s Macbeth and Mascagni’s I Rantzau all made their debuts at the theatre.

Check out Florence hotels with TripAdvisor

More reading:


How Marconi made the world's first radio communication

Alessandro Volta - creator of the first electrical battery

What Luigi Galvani did to add a new word to the language


Also on this day:


1920: The birth of Roberto Calvi, the man they called 'God's banker'

(Picture credits: Meucci plaque and Teatro della Pergola by Sailko; Staten Island monument by Jim.henderson; San Frediano in Cestello by Amada44; all via Wikimedia Commons)



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