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Who Invented the Telephone?: Lawyers, Patents, and the Judgments of History


The question of who invented the telephone has long been a subject of both popular history and scholarly debate. This article shows that the question itself is a legal artifact. "Who invented the telephone?" became a famous point of controversy in the 1880s, thanks to Alexander Graham Bell's patent monopoly and the intense litigation that surrounded it. During this legal struggle, Bell's lawyers set the terms of inquiry that continue to define the telephone question today. The article explores the legal, economic, and political background of the telephone patent litigation. At the same time, it argues that the implications of the telephone cases reach beyond the history of this one technology. Patent contests were an important phenomenon in nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century America, and the article reflects more generally on how lawyers and the courts approached them.