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Saturday  October 19  2002

 

Does name Meucci ring any Bell?

"It has been proven that Meucci was the inventor of the telephone."

 

BILL BROWNSTEIN

 

The Gazette


Saturday, October 19, 2002

Franco Gucciardo is holding up a replica of the 1857 model of Antonio Meucci's telettrofono.

 

 

To many Montrealers, it was a splendid, crisp, sun-soaked autumn day. To Franco Gucciardo, though, yesterday was the dawn of an era.

As you, too, may be aware, yesterday marked the 113th anniversary of the death of Antonio Meucci. And Gucciardo wasn't about to let the occasion go by unnoticed. No, Meucci, in life and in death, had endured far too many indignities. Basta!

So, Gucciardo officially inaugurated the Antontio Meucci Centre at the Casa d'Italia community centre in the heart of Little Italy on Jean Talon St.

On that note, should you happen to be strolling through the area this weekend, don't be flying your Alexander Graham Bell flags, if you catch my drift.

It is the contention of Gucciardo, an information-systems analyst, and many other wise men around the world, that Meucci and not Bell was the father of the telephone. And they have scads of compelling documents and diagrams to prove their point.

Like most scientifically challenged Canucks, I was led to believe by my flag-waving elders, teachers and politicos that Bell, actually a Scottish-born American citizen who spent time in beautiful Brantford, Ont., and more beautiful Baddeck, N.S., was the inventor. Otherwise that would be a Meucci calling card in my wallet, right?

Gucciardo, bookish, bearded and bespectacled, suggested it was only a coincidence that yesterday's conference was taking place across the street from a Bell office building. "No matter. The Casa d'Italia was here first," he joked. "Just like Meucci."

Gucciardo loves irony. But he loves "pursuit of truth" more.

It is generally conceded that Meucci, who was born in Italy in 1809 and moved to the U.S. in 1850, was a brilliant inventor, but a bad businessman. Having tinkered with telephone technology since 1849, Meucci apparently took steps to patent the device in 1871 - five years before Bell did. His defenders say Meucci couldn't raise the cash for the patent rights.

It should be said that other scientists had also toyed with the technology. But then as today, it's the entrepreneur who gets to the market first who gets all the glory. One distinguished-looking gent at yesterday's briefing had a theory why Meucci is being denied his due. "It's always the same," he said. "To many, Italians are all Al Capone."

Regardless, Bell's immortalization has rankled not just Italians. Indeed, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution in June "to honour the life and achievements of the 19th-century Italian-American inventor Antonio Meucci and his work in the invention of the telephone."

And wouldn't you know that just 10 days later, the House of Commons adopted a motion, proposed by Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, to officially recognize Alexander Graham Bell as the inventor of the telephone?

Gucciardo insists he's not trying to stir anything up. He believes Bell, because of a superior publicity machine, gets all the credit. "But today there exists new information to prove otherwise, to prove that Antonio Meucci first developed the telephone. In Europe, Meucci is already acclaimed as the inventor."

Gucciardo does allow that perhaps cultural pride is at play here. What's not at play, however, is a lawsuit. There are no Meucci descendants to file a claim.

It turns out, though, that it's not only the Italians, Americans and Canadians laying claim to the invention. Even the Cubans are getting into the act. That's because it was in Havana, back in 1849, that Meucci noted how a human voice can travel and be heard along an electric wire.

So let's cut to the chase here. Was old Alex a thief?

Gucciardo dodges - although he does point out that the U.S. government had once taken Bell to court on fraud charges.

But Gucciardo doesn't want you to take only his word. To that end, he arranged a tele-conference with Basilio Catania, a retired fibre-optics pioneer and Meucci supporter in Turin.

"My goal is not to discredit the memory of Bell," Catania said. "I just want to show it has been proven that Meucci was the inventor of the telephone."

Gucciardo was ebullient as the conference wrapped. As fate would have it, we were standing in front of a bust of one Christoforo Colombo. So, while still on the theme of propriety, I asked him who really discovered America.

"Why, Columbus did, on Oct. 12, 1492," a smiling Gucciardo responded without missing a beat.

That's what it says in our history books, right?

bbrownst@thegazette.southam.ca

 Copyright  2002 Montreal Gazette