Column #309  –  October 23, 2004


Elisha Gray Deserves Top Billing 

In Brownsville History

 by Glenn Tunney  



            While attorneys battled in court to determine which man, Elisha Gray or Alexander Graham Bell, would be declared the official inventor of the telephone, Elisha Gray continued his research on other electrical innovations, acquiring nearly 70 patents over 34 years.  Despite the court’s eventual awarding of the telephone patent to Bell, it is estimated that Gray earned over $5 million during his lifetime on his own patents.  His most successful invention was the “telautograph,” a predecessor to the modern fax machine.

            During Gray’s climb to scientific prominence, his boyhood friend at Bridgeport High School, Boyd Crumrine, was surprisingly unaware of his former classmate’s fame.  In an unpublished biography of Elisha Gray that Crumrine wrote in 1902, he described how he learned that the quiet fellow whom he and fellow classmate Henry Bennett had known as a carpenter’s apprentice had become a celebrity.

            “In 1860, we all graduated,” Crumrine wrote, “they [Henry S. Bennett and Elisha Gray] at Oberlin and I at Jefferson.  From that time Gray was lost to me for many years.  But Bennett studied theology and became a Congregational minister, and I studied the law.

            “[After the Civil War, Bennett] became Vice President of Fisk University, serving as such during his whole life thereafter.  I settled in the practice of my profession at Washington, Pa., where I remained with an occasional letter from Mr. Bennett, but without meeting him or even hearing from or about Gray until 1884.

            “In the summer of 1884, Bennett, then on a visit to his friends at Brownsville, paid a visit to me at Washington.  I asked him, ‘Mr. Bennett, what became of young Gray, our comrade of the Hardscrabble High School?’

            “‘Is it possible,’ he replied, ‘that you don’t know who Gray is?  Do you remember the time when we three were together in Seaborn Crawford’s grocery one evening after school hours, and Mr. Crawford put down our names in the back of his large ledger, saying that he would put us there together, and see if any of us would ever amount to anything?’

            “‘I said to him I had an indistinct recollection of the matter . . .’

            “‘And don’t you know who Gray is?  Don’t you know that Elisha Gray is the real inventor of the Bell Telephone, and lives at Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago, worth perhaps his millions, and is one of perhaps but two men in the United States who have received the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor of France?’

            “‘What!’ said I, ‘I have been reading about that Elisha Gray in the newspapers and magazines for many years, and until this moment I never knew that he was the Elisha Gray who had to work at the carpenter’s bench with Carver, Wood & Co. at Bridgeport, to enable him to attend the High School with you and me.’”

            Three years later in 1887, Crumrine wrote an article for the Washington Reporter in which he recounted the tale of the three Bridgeport High School classmates.  He sent a copy to Bennett, who forwarded it to Gray in Highland Park.  Shortly thereafter, Crumrine received a letter from Elisha Gray, his first contact with Gray since the two college graduates had parted company in 1860.

            “Well my dear old friend,” Gray wrote to Crumrine, “there has been a deal of history made since you and I met . . . I am at my old tricks again and I like it, devoting my whole time to science and invention.  Just now I am bringing out an invention for writing at a distance by telegraph.  So you can sit in your own room and give your own signature 100 miles away.  I call it the ‘telautograph.’”

            Gray had invented the precursor to the modern fax machine.  In an 1888 interview published in Manufacturer & Builder, Gray described his invention in layman’s language.

            “By my invention,” he explained, “you can sit down in your office in Chicago, take a pencil in your hand, write a message to me, and as your pencil moves, a pencil here in my laboratory moves simultaneously, and forms the same letters and words in the same way. What you write in Chicago is instantly reproduced here in fac-simile. You may write in any language, use a code or cipher, no matter, a fac-simile is produced here. If you want to draw a picture it is the same, the picture is reproduced here. The artist of your newspaper can, by this device, telegraph his pictures of a railway wreck or other occurrences just as a reporter telegraphs his description in words.”

            How much of a success was Gray’s telautograph?  After he demonstrated it at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, it became a very popular device for the transmission of signatures and documents over great distances.  In 1915, its manufacturers, Gray National and Gray Electric companies, reorganized as the Telautograph Corporation.  After changing hands several times during the twentieth century, it is now part of the Omnifax Division of Xerox Corporation.     

            The same year that he invented the telautograph, Elisha Gray visited Boyd Crumrine at his home in Washington County.  They had not seen each other since graduating from college 28 years earlier.  They would never see each other again.

             “In an extended drive through the valleys and over the hills about the town of Washington one Sunday afternoon,” Crumrine wrote years later, “the heart of the silent student was opened to the memories of our boyhood days together.

            “He had brought with him for my pleasure two articles of the greatest interest to my family and others to whom they were exhibited.  One of them was the medal he had received from the Paris Exposition of 1878 for his electrical inventions shown then together to the world of sightseers in attendance.  The other was the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor presented to him on the same considerations by Marshall McMahon, President of the French Republic, by order of the French Parliament.”

            During the 1890s, Elisha Gray turned his attention to the study of underwater communication.  In December 1900, after two years of experimentation in Boston on signaling devices for submarines, he and his associates succeeded in transmitting signals underwater without wires for a distance of 12 miles. 

            It was a great scientific triumph, leading to the formation of the Submarine Signal Company in 1901.  But the time for jubilation was all too brief.  Less than a month later on January 21, 1901, the genius who went to school on Scrabbletown Hill died unexpectedly in Newtonville, Massachusetts, at only 65 years of age.  He was buried at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago. 

            The following autumn, Boyd Crumrine wrote a letter to 77-year-old L. F. Parker, Professor Emeritus of History at Grinnell College, Iowa.  Crumrine was writing to his former teacher at Bridgeport High School to thank him for sending three small books in memory of Mrs. Parker, who had also taught at the Bridgeport school. 

            “I was delighted to receive the three little books you sent me,” Crumrine wrote to his aging mentor.  “In that three-story brick school building, I got my start, and received the impulse toward the sturdy life I have tried to lead.”

            Crumrine described to his former teacher his final visit with Elisha Gray in the summer of 1888.  “He was then in his prime, and what a time we had for the week or so he was with me.  Of course he told me everything about his telephone invention and controversy, and was then obtaining patents for his Telautograph, and believed himself to be very, very wealthy.”

            Crumrine concluded sadly, “Bennett passed away before either of us, then Gray.  Of the trio in the back of Seaborn Crawford’s ledger, wherever that may be, I am the sole survivor.”

            And so, dear reader, what shall we make of the career of Elisha Gray, the scientific genius who was educated at Bridgeport High School? 

            Shall we remember him as a frustrated and forgotten inventor of the telephone?  A week after his death, Scientific American said of him, “He was a man of marvelous talent and ingenuity, and in the opinion of many who have calmly weighed all the evidence, it is likely that he will receive justice at the hands of future historians by being immortalized as the inventor of the speaking telephone.”  Although Bell had won in court, “many persons hold that victory was a technical and corporate one, rather than one based on science.”

            But Elisha Gray’s story is not a tragedy of unfulfilled potential.  It is the glorious tale of an ingenious inventor and savvy businessman whose legacy is still evident today in the corporate world of electronics and communications. 

            The company that Elisha Gray and Enos Barton founded in 1869 (Gray and Barton) became Western Electric, the largest electrical manufacturing company in the United States, and has evolved into Lucent Technologies. 

            Gray’s telautograph company became the Telautograph Corporation, which is now part of the Xerox Corporation. 

            Yet another Fortune 500 company, employee-owned Graybar, is currently the nation’s leading electrical distribution company.  The firm is the former supply department of Western Electric, and it is named for its founders, Elisha Gray and Enos Barton.    

            It is unfortunate that the name and accomplishments of Elisha Gray have been forgotten in Brownsville, the place where he was educated and from which he ventured forth to become a true giant in the scientific world.  The final word on this great inventor’s life shall belong to the late McCready Huston, a respected chronicler of Brownsville’s history.  Many years ago, Huston offered his judgment on the career of the carpenter’s apprentice-turned-inventor.  

            “Elisha Gray,” Huston wrote, “belongs with Brownsville’s John Brashear in the pantheon of scientists.”


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