When I was growing up, I had a class taught by Mr. Reusch called the History of Haverhill and there were so many things I could teach you that I still remember. Out of that class a few “fun facts” stuck with me over the year that put my hometown on the map of the world:
- The first Macy’s Day Thanksgiving parade was in Haverhill.
- Archie’s Comics was based off Haverhill people (this was most recently in the news because of the new royal baby)
- Alexander Grahm Bell made his first phone call in Haverhill.
Today, I have to strike the last one of those off that list, because it’s a liieee. A lie that went on for over one hundred years and I had no idea about it until now. This moment of enlightenment and restructuring history is brought to you by a sample Italian test I was taking online to prep for my official Italian language test I have to pass next month to be granted Italian citizenship. In one of the exercises, I had to read a paragraph then answer questions about Italian inventors – Da Vinci, Galileo, I read through them as if it were a script I’d read a thousand times, but then they stuck in Antonio Meucci right at the end. He’s why we have telephones, it says.
So I go down the rabbit hole of the Internet for a few hours and I come out with a whole new perspective on who made this terrible thing I now hold in my hand every day. I’ll give credit to the Soprano’s for calling everyone out in 1999, but apparently, it wasn’t enough to make the info go viral. Oddly enough, my life has taken me from the fake birthplace of the telephone to the real one. I just visited the building that inspired the telephone this past Christmas and I still had it in my head that Bell was the man that brought it all together.
Long story short, Meucci absolutely was the original inventor and that’s now backed with a US Congress backed-decision in 2002 that rightfully gives credit to Meucci and not Bell. Why? Basically, because Bell was an asshole and he knew it, everyone knew it, but the Florentine Meucci died before he or anyone else could actually prove it. (Also let us just take a moment to acknowledge that both of these people were immigrants and I definitely also believed that the telephone was an AMERICAN invention by an “AMERICAN” man – US education big-time fail).
Let’s backtrack a second though so I can give you the whole story. Meucci was born in 1808 and grew up across the river on Via Serragli (number 44 if you’re in the city center and want to visit – I’ll have to the next time I’m over that way as well). He studied as a mechanical engineer, and in the 1830s, found a job as a stage technician at La Pergola, the theater in the center, built in 1659, where Rami and I went to see the Nutcracker just this past winter.
Back in the 1830s, the theater was the show to see, and there were ridiculous amounts of scene changes and pulley systems and around 150 people working backstage all just yelling instructions up to the those working in the rafters to change the backdrops during the opera or the orchestra or the play. Meucci hated it, and he was an engineer, so he invented tubes in the wall to carry voices from below to above without screaming and all of a sudden we have our first telephone. What Mr.Bell was doing at that time, I have no idea. (Nothing, he wasn’t born until 1847.) You can still see the original telephone in the walls of La Pergola and now I absolutely need a tour so I can see them for myself. It’s been said that they were still used up until a few years ago.
The theater gave Meucci inspiration and love – he married one of the costume designers, Maria Ester Mochi. They were both recruited for theatre work in Cuba, so they left Florence in 1835 for a five-year contract. That was renewed a few times and while in Havana, Meucci also studied electrotherapy, water purification, and rebuilt half the theater, and through these studies, realized how to make voices travel over electric signals. (I am realllly summing this up here, though now I’m interested and want to do a longer piece on it. Stay tuned.)
Meucci and his wife moved to New York in 1850 (Bell is THREE!) and he continues his experiments and successfully creates an intercom that allowed him to communicate with his wife as she was sick in bed and he, allegedly was working in his factory of smokeless candles. What an incredibly awesome husband. Throughout the next decades, Meucci would build a ton of prototypes but in other areas of life, he was running out of money. Now here’s where the story gets complicated and I’ve already spent too much time obsessing over this story today – but it seems that Meucci had this almost singlehandedly worked out, and then “Americans” got involved when he was looking to patent the invention and then “all of a sudden” all of his prototypes disappeared, his money disappeared, and when it came around that his patent had expired, Bell was there to swoop in and pick up the pieces and apply for his own (after working with Meucci for years with access to his ideas) in 1876.
And that is where my US education kicks into gear and most of us know the rest – except while Bell was swimming in fame, he was also getting sued by Meucci and it dragged on for years, without ever being finalized – until 2002 when the US Congress decided now would be a good time to set things right? I’d like to see if they’ve rewritten the history books in accordance.
Meucci died mostly unknown (except by Florentines and maybe most Italians?) in New York, but he kept his head about him even though his incredible inventions completely changed the world. In a great article that sums up this whole thing, they quote him even in his last days as stoic and as stubborn (rightfully so) as most Fiorentini I’ve come to know.
“…the telephone, which I invented and which I first made known and which, as you know, was stolen from me.”
Here’s this American’s apology for letting a Scotsman steal your thunder, Antonio. You should be up there in the history books with your famous neighbors DaVinci and Michelangelo. I hope someday that’ll happen. For today, I’m honoring you for the invention that makes my crazy international life possible. From the floor to the ceiling of the theater down the road, from my hand to my mother’s oceans away. Telephones are crazy awesome, and apparently, so was the man that invented them. I just never knew.