Showing posts with label Antonio Meucci. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Antonio Meucci. Show all posts

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 revisited 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.

Hotels in Aosta by

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.

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.

A replica of the handsets Meucci created for his prototype telephone, which he unveiled in 1860
A replica of the handsets Meucci created for his
prototype telephone, which he unveiled in 1860
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.  

This consisted of two wooden cylinders, each containing an electromagnet and a soft iron membrane, which converted the vibrations made by voice soundwaves into electrical impulses that travelled along a length of connecting wire, which were in turn reproduced as the same sounds at the other end of the line.  With handles attached, the two components resembled hand bells.

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 from

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. Gaetano Donizetti's Parisina and Rosmonda d'Inghilterra, Giuseppe Verdi's Macbeth and Peitro Mascagni's I Rantzau all made their debuts at the theatre.  Today, the theatre presents primarily 250 drama performances, by authors ranging from Molière to Neil Simon. Opera productions are hosted only during the annual Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. The theatre is about 10 minutes' walk from the Duomo.

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:

(Picture credits: Meucci plaque and Teatro della Pergola by Sailko; prototype telephone courtesy of the Milan Museum of Science and Technology; San Frediano in Cestello by Amada44; all via Wikimedia Commons)