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The Telephone Gambit – Seth Shulman ****

If there’s one thing that common knowledge is particularly poor on, it’s who invented what. Edison, for instance, only shared joint honours on the light bulb, and didn’t invent the gramophone (yes, he did invent the phonograph, using a cylinder, but not the gramophone). But we all know Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone… didn’t he?
Seth Shulman’s book sets out to explore who really did invent it, and why after all these years, Bell still has the laurels. While Bell did win the patent battles (unlike Edison over the light bulb), there was already plenty of evidence back in the nineteenth century that Bell wasn’t the first to the telephone, and wasn’t even the first to submit his patent – but skulduggery and commercial manipulation seems to have triumphed.
It’s a good story, and well told here. It’s something of a meta history – rather than plunge us into Bell’s time, Shulman tells us the story of his own discovery of a key similarity between the diagram in Bell’s notebook and the (at the time supposedly secret) drawings of his competitor, already lodged with the patent office. It’s very much a story of detection and unweaving the tangled record, rather than straight history. I found this very interesting, though there is a slight danger of giving us too much archival content and not enough well-crafted narrative.
If you thought you knew the story of the telephone, think again. Seth Shulman will change you view (reluctantly, I suspect – Bell is something of a hero figure) on what really happened back in the 1870s.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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