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This Week in Illinois History provides a 90-second snapshot of an event significant to Illinois history. Join Host Clint Cargile as he covers big events while also exposing little-known pieces of Illinois history.

This Week In Illinois History: Elisha Gray, Inventor Of The Telephone? (August 2, 1835)

Elisha Gray
Elisha Gray

In his lab in Highland Park, Illinois, Elisha Gray developed prototypes of the telephone, the electronic music synthesizer, the fax machine and other electric wonders.

Born August 2, 1835, in Barnesville, Ohio, Elisha Gray was a technological whiz with a strong interest in telegraph technology. He attended Oberlin College, and although he never graduated, he taught classes there in electricity and science.

His received his first patent in 1865 for the self-adjusting telegraph relay. In 1869, he and Enos M. Barton formed Gray and Barton, Co., which supplied telegraph equipment to Western Union Telegraph Company. Gray and Barton, Co. moved to Chicago, and in 1871 their small plant narrowly avoided the devastating Chicago Fire.

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A later model of Elisha Gray's "Electro Harmonic Telegraph" transmitter. Gray's invention is credited as the first electronic synthesizer. This model is located in the Smithsonian.

Gray retired in 1874 to focus on his own inventions. He created the first electronic music synthesizer by combining a small piano keyboard with electromagnetic circuits. The device sent notes by telegraph wire that were played by a speaker box at the other end. His first public demonstration was at Highland Park’s Presbyterian Church on December 29, 1874. In 1877, he staged a concert in Philadelphia that played live, via the telegraph, in New York City.

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Elisha Gray's original patent filing for the telephone. Some historians believe Alexander Graham Bell, or his lawyers, were given access to the filing and copied some of Gray's ideas.

On February 14, 1876, Elisha Gray’s lawyer filed a caveat for his invention of a telephone. (A caveat was an official intent to file a patent.) A few hours later, Alexander Graham Bell’s lawyers filed a patent application for Bell’s telephone design. The ensuing conflict over who deserves credit for inventing the telephone is controversial and is the subject of many books.

Ultimately, the patent went to Bell. Some historians suggest Bell’s lawyers had access to Gray’s caveat, realized Bell’s telephone would not work without some of Gray’s ideas and copied his technology.

Although Bell got the glory, Gray received over 70 patents in his lifetime and his design is now credited as the first successful telephone prototype. His historic home in Highland Park, the building that housed his first telephone exchange and electric generating plant, can still be seen today. The company Gray and Enos M. Barton founded is now called Graybar and is on Fortune 500’s list of largest US corporations.