Marcellus Bailey and the Telephone

Image of the telephone patent sketch

The Attorney

Marcellus Bailey was born in 1840 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and moved to Washington, D.C. with his family as a child. His father, Gameliel Bailey, was the editor of the National Era, a Washington, D.C.-based antislavery paper in which Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" first appeared. During the Civil War, Marcellus served as a major in the Union Army. When his army service ended, he enrolled in the Columbian College Law Department (now The George Washington University Law School), and graduated in its first class, in 1866.

Upon graduation, Bailey began to practice patent law, a practice which continued for almost fifty-five years, up until a week before his death on January 16, 1921. At the time Alexander Graham Bell was working on the telephone, Bailey was practicing in a partnership with another patent attorney by the name of Anthony Pollok. The Alexander Graham Bell Papers collection at the Library of Congress contain a number of letters from Bell to Pollok and Bailey regarding the telephone patent. Bailey signed, not only the telephone patent, but three other Bell patents, including the patent for the multiple telegraph, No. 161,739, a pioneer patent in expanding transmission capacity by using different frequencies, which is a principle still in wide use in such applications as fiber optic communications and DSL internet service.

Bailey prosecuted many other patents during his career, including a basic patent for arc welding, No. 363,320, issued on May 17, 1887 to Russian inventors Nicholas de Bernardos and Stanislas Olzewski and titled "Process of and Apparatus for Working Metals by the Direct Application of the Electric Current." Bailey was also a founding member of the Metropolitan Club, and President of the Alibi Club. He is buried in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown.

The Invention and the Patent

Few who read these words can be unaware of the significance of the telephone. Western Union, the leading telegraph company at the time Bell's patent issued, initially declined to accept an offer to sell the patent to it, but soon realized its error and established a telephone company of its own. Bell Telephone, then a fledgling company, sued the giant Western Union for patent infringement and won. Under the settlement agreement, Western Union gave up all of its patents, claims, network and inventory of telephones, in return for 20% of phone rental revenues over the next seventeen years, the remainder of the Bell patent term. From that start, Bell Telephone grew to be the dominant telephone company in the United States, successfully defending its patent about 600 other lawsuits.

The Inventor

Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in March 3, 1847, and emigrated to Canada in 1870 and then to the United States in 1871. He had a lifelong interest in sound and speech and in teaching the deaf, from which sprang his interest in transmitting voice across long distances by means of electricity. He also invented the photophone, a device for transmitting speech on a beam of light, recognized as the first wireless transmission of speech. Later in life he became interested in aviation, and obtained several patents in that area. In total, Bell is listed as inventor on 18 patents, and co-inventor on 12 others. Bell also was a co-founder of the National Geographic Society and of Science magazine, and was President of the National Geographic Society from 1896 to 1904. He died on August 2, 1922, and in his tribute all telephone traffic in the United States was stopped for one minute.