The ‘Musical Telegraph’ or ‘Electro-Harmonic Telegraph’, Elisha Gray. USA, 1876

Elisha Gray using a violin as a resonating amplifier for his Musical Telegraph
Elisha Gray using a violin as a resonating amplifier for his Musical Telegraph

Elisha Gray (born; Barnesville, Ohio, on Aug. 2, 1835, died Newtonville, Mass., on Jan. 21, 1901) would have been known to us as the inventor of the telephone if Alexander Graham bell hadn’t got to the patent office one hour before him. Instead, he goes down in history as the accidental creator of one of the first electronic musical instruments – a chance by-product of his telephone technology.

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Elisha Gray’s patent of the Musical or Harmonic Telegraph of 1876
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Elisha Gray’s earlier designs for the ‘Musical Telegraph’ 1875

Gray accidentally discovered that he could control sound from a self vibrating electromagnetic circuit and in doing so invented a basic single note oscillator. Using this principle he designed a musical instrument; The ‘Musical Telegraph’ or ‘Electro-Harmonic Telegraph’.

Elisha Gray's Musical Telegraph keyboard transmitter.
Elisha Gray’s Musical Telegraph keyboard transmitter.

My invention primarily consists in a novel art of producing musical impressions or sounds by means of a series of properly-tuned vibrating reeds or bars thrown into action by means of a series of keys opening or closing electric circuits. It also consists in a novel art of transmitting tunes so produced through an electric circuit and reproducing them at the receiving end of the line.

Elisha Gray; Patent notes No. 173,618,  Feb. 15, 1876.

Gray’s invention used and electro-acoustic principle whereby a set of tuned steel reeds where vibrated by an electro magnetic current the resulting self-oscillating current could then be transmitted over a telephone line as a musical tone. Gray also built a simple acoustic loudspeaker device in later models consisting of a vibrating diaphragm in a magnetic field to make the oscillator audible. Gray used a series of mechanical stops on each key to prevent inactive tines sympathetically vibrating thereby producing a clean monophonic tone:

Elisha Gray's patent of the Musical or Harmonic Telegraph of 1876
Elisha Gray’s patent of the Musical or Harmonic Telegraph of 1876 showing the electronically vibrating tines and stops to prevent sympathetic vibration in other keys
Elisha Gray's patent of the Musical or Harmonic Telegraph of 1876
Elisha Gray’s patent of the Musical or Harmonic Telegraph of 1876

After many years of litigation, Alexander Graham Bell was legally named the inventor of the telephone despite Gray’s allegations that Bell had plagiarised his ideas. Gray later founded the Western Electric Manufacturing Company In 1872 – parent firm of the present Western Electric Company – and two years later he retired to continue independent research and teaching at Oberlin College (Oberlin, Ohio, USA).

Performance of the Musical Telegraph
Elisha Gray gave the first public demonstration of his invention for transmitting musical tones at the Presbyterian Church in Highland Park, Illinois on December 29, 1874 and transmitted “familiar melodies through telegraph wire” according to a newspaper announcement– possibly using a piano as a resonating amplifier.

Elisha Gray’s first “Musical Telegraph” or “Harmonic Telegraph” contained enough single-tone oscillators to play two octaves and later models were equipped with a simple tone wheel control. Gray took the instrument on tour with him in 1874. Alexander Graham Bell also designed an experimental ‘ Electric Harp’ for speech transmission over a telephone line using similar technology to Gray’s.

Gray's patent for the Musical Telegraph
Gray’s patent for the Musical Telegraph

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Biographical Information:

Elisha Gray, the American inventor, who contested the invention of the telephone with Alexander Graham Bell. He was born in Barnesville, Ohio, on Aug. 2, 1835, and was brought up on a farm. He had to leave school early because of the death of his father, but later completed preparatory school and two years at Oberlin College while supporting himself as a carpenter. At college he became fascinated by electricity, and in 1867 he received a patent for an improved telegraph relay. During the rest of his life he was granted patents on about 70 other inventions, including the Telautograph (1888), an electrical device for reproducing writing at a distance.On Feb. 14, 1876, Gray filed with the U.S. Patent Office a caveat (an announcement of an invention he expected soon to patent) describing apparatus ‘for transmitting vocal sounds telegraphically.’ Unknown to Gray, Bell had only two hours earlier applied for an actual patent on an apparatus to accomplish the same end. It was later discovered, however, that the apparatus described in Gray’s caveat would have worked, while that in Bell’s patent would not have. After years of litigation, Bell was legally named the inventor of the telephone, although to many the question of who should be credited with the invention remained debatable. In 1872, Gray founded the Western Electric Manufacturing Company, parent firm of the present Western Electric Company. Two years later he retired to continue independent research and invention and to teach at Oberlin College. He died in Newtonville, Mass., on Jan. 21, 1901.”


Sources:

(Kenneth M. Swezey [author of “Science Shows You How”] The Encyclopedia Americana — International Edition Vol. 13. Danbury, Connecticut: Grolier Incorporated, 1995. 211)”

‘Whose Phone Is It, Anyway: Did Bell Steal The Invention?’ By Steve Mirsky Scientific American January 9, 2008

One thought on “The ‘Musical Telegraph’ or ‘Electro-Harmonic Telegraph’, Elisha Gray. USA, 1876”

  1. Thank you for giving Elisha Gray the publicity he deserves. As an Oberlin faculty member and organologist (sci. of musical instruments), I am especially appreciative of his Musical Telegraph. Can the item be seen somewhere?
    Rod Knight

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