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.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Innocenzo Manzetti - inventor

Made prototype telephone 33 years ahead of Bell


Innocenzo Manzetti was an inventor of such energy he could get by on minimal sleep
Innocenzo Manzetti was an inventor of such
energy he could get by on minimal sleep
The inventor Innocenzo Manzetti, credited by some scientific historians as having been the creator of a forerunner of the telephone many years ahead of his compatriot Antonio Meucci and the Scottish-American Alexander Graham Bell, was born on this day in 1826 in Aosta, in northwest Italy.

Manzetti's extraordinary catalogue of inventions included a steam-powered car, a hydraulic water pump, a pendulum watch that would keep going for a whole year and a robot that could play the flute.

But he was a man whose creative talents were not allied to business sense.  Like Meucci, a Florentine emigrant to New York who demonstrated a telephone-like device in 1860 - 16 years before Bell was granted the patent - Manzetti did not patent his device and therefore missed out on the fortune that came the way of Bell.

Research has found that Manzetti may have had the idea for a "vocal telegraph" as early as 1843, as a result of his success with his flute-playing automaton, which he constructed as a life-size model of a man sitting on a chair, inside which were concealed a system of levers, rods and compressed air tubes that enabled his lips and fingers to move on the flute.

This was linked to a program recorded on a cylinder much like those that would become the key component in the self-playing pianos, or pianolas, that were popular in the early part of the 20th century.

Manzetti's automaton
Manzetti's automaton
When Manzetti showed off his automaton in public, he went to great lengths to make it appear lifelike, programming it to stand and take a bow at the end of a performance.  He successfully devised a system of wires whereby he could transmit the sound of a piano being played out of view of the audience so that it would appear to come from his automaton.

The natural extension of this was to attempt to transmit his own remote voice, so that the automaton would seem to speak, and there are descriptions in newspapers of the time that spoke of a cornet-like device, containing a magnetized steel needle and a coil of silk-coated copper wire, into which Manzetti spoke.

However, he put the idea aside for two decades and concentrated on other projects.  It is thought that this was because there were imperfections in his system, which could transmit vowel sounds accurately but was not clear enough to make one consonant sound different from another, that he was unable to solve.

He revisted the idea in the 1860s and there were newspaper articles at the time proclaiming his invention of the télégraph parlant. But neither he nor Meucci could meet the high cost of patenting their devices and it was left to Bell to take the glory in 1876.

Nonetheless, there is no detracting from Manzetti's achievements as an inventor, the product of such enormous creative energy that he was said to exist during his most productive phases on only a couple of hours' sleep a night,

Manzetti's house in Aosta on Rue Xavier de Maistre
Manzetti's house in Aosta on Rue Xavier de Maistre
The hydraulic pump-like mechanism he devised in 1855 to remove water from the previously unworkable Ollomont copper mines of the Aosta Valley meant the mines were put back to use and remained in service until 1945.

The steam-powered car he built in 1864 came 27 years before Léon Serpollet built and demonstrated one in Paris.

Manzetti also built a wooden flying parrot for his daughter that could hover for two or three minutes before settling down again, created several instruments he used in his work as a land surveyor and invented a telescope based on three converging lenses that produced such magnification of images that the user could observe the movement of a small lizard, for example, at a distance of more than 7km (4 miles).

Nonetheless, he was not a wealthy man. Married to Rosa Sofia Anzola, he had two daughters, neither of whom survived beyond childhood, and himself died in impoverished circumstances in 1877, aged only 51.

The beautiful entrance facade to  the cathedral in Aosta
The beautiful entrance facade to
the cathedral in Aosta
Travel tip:

Aosta is the principal municipality in the Aosta Valley, an autonomous bilingual French-Italian region close to the Italian entrance to the Mont-Blanc Tunnel, about 110km (68 miles) northwest of Turin. Its position in relation to the Great and Little St Bernard passes made it a place of strategic importance and there are the remains of a Roman military camp and an amphitheatre as well as the Arch of Augustus.  The cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and San Giovanni Battista boasts a beautiful Renaissance facade decorated with frescoes and high reliefs dedicated to the Life of the Virgin.

The Centro Saint-Bénin in Via Jean-Boniface Festaz
Travel tip:

Since April 2012, there has been a permanent exhibition dedicated to Manzetti and his inventions in a hall of the Centro Saint-Bénin in Aosta, where his the automaton, which is still visited today by engineering scientists from all over the world, can be seen at close quarters.  The main square outside the town's railway station is named after Manzetti.

More reading:

Antonio Meucci's claim to be the true father of communications

How Marconi made the world's first radio communication

Alessandro Volta - creator of first electrical battery

Also on this day:

1861: The birth of the Kingdom of Italy

1939: The birth of brilliant football coach Giovanni Trapattoni



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