Alexander Graham Bell and his rival, Elisha Gray, invented the telephone independently of each other and filed their patents on the exact same day, March 13, 1876. The patent examiner, Zenas Wilber, had served with Bell’s lawyer in the Civil War and was heavily indebted to him for money loaned to cover his drinking habit. To absolve his debt, Wilber granted the patent to Bell instead of Gray. Ten years later, Wilber had a pang of conscience and admitted his guilt in a sworn affidavit. He wrote: [At that time] I was afflicted with and suffering from alcoholism, and [the patent’s approval] was obtained from me when I was so suffering. . . . I am convinced that, by my action while Examiner of Patents, Elisha Gray was deprived of proper opportunity to establish his right to the invention of the telephone, and I now propose to tell how it was done.
. . . I was in debt to [Bell’s lawyer] Maj. Bailey at the time the application for Bell was filed in the office; in addition, I was under obligations to him for a present to my wife—a very handsome and expensive gold hunting case lady’s watch. . . . I consequently felt under many and lasting obligations to him, and necessarily felt like requiting him in some degree at least by favoring him in his practice whenever and however I could.
Alexander Graham Bell’s legacy today is the result of an alcoholic’s debt to his benefactor.