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Sorry, wrong inventor

A new book casts doubt on Alexander Graham Bell's role as the telephone's creator.

The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell's Secret By Seth Shulman W.W. Norton & Co. 256 pp., $24.95

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How often does a detective story upend history? Probably about as often as a science and technology journalist pens a page-turner. But with this month's release of The Telephone Gambit by Seth Shulman both these unlikely events are coming to pass at the same moment.

This slender volume (252 pages, with notes and credits) is a work of nonfiction – although the strangeness of truth definitely overtakes fiction here as Shulman explains how he unraveled Alexander Graham Bell's claim to have invented the telephone. We may never be absolutely certain, but "The Telephone Gambit" presents compelling evidence that Bell snuck a look at rival inventor Elisha Gray's patent application, stole a crucial element from it, and then lived an uncomfortable lie for the rest of his days.

This is not the work of a muckraker. No one wanted to reach such a conclusion less than did Shulman, a longtime admirer of Bell's. But that's exactly why this book is such a good read. Shulman carefully spells out not only the steps he took to piece together his story, but also the reluctance he battled en route.

Why would Bell – a man whose good character was noted by all who knew him – behave so dishonorably? How could he have stolen from a rival he had never met? And is it even possible that such a high-profile crime could have gone undetected for so long?


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