|Reis's Work, Lost in Translation
A misunderstanding of the German to English translation of the word tone is one of the major reasons Philip Reis has not received proper recognition and credit for his work today. Reis did not call his instrument "Reiss Musical Telephone" as George B. Prescott, the misinformed author of "The Speaking Telephone", named it. Nor did Reis call his device "The Telephone Musicax", as did Du Moncel in "Le Telephone Le Microphone Le Phonographe", Reis never named his device the "Tone Phone" as did "The Telegrapher" on May 22nd 1869. What Reis did call his device was "Das Telephon", translated "The Telephone", as seen in his own note from December 1861. Reis referred to and wrote about his device reproducing tones but it is imperative to understand that in German the word ton (plural-"tone") is equivalent to our English word sound and includes articulate as well as musical sound depending on the context in which the word is used. The breakdown in translation from German to English is what well-known scientific writers used to discredit Reis as the inventor of the telephone. These individuals claimed Reis did not invent an instrument for transmitting human speech nor was that his intent but rather developed a musical instrument and dubbed his device a "tone-telephone". The issue of semantics destroyed Reiss reputation and thus the struggle began for fame.
Others longed to be recognized as the mind behind the invention of the telephone. History of Reiss work as seen in his original memoirs and with his contemporaries as witnesses provides ample proof that Reis intended to transmit speech. Varley, Gray, and Bell, the very men who claimed Reiss phone was a "tone-phone", invented real musical phones to specifically send melodies through multiple telegraphy, which relied on the tuning fork system of vibration. It should be noted these were invented between 1870-1876, long after Reiss telephone. Reiss use of the tympanum meant he had intent to transmit sound that a human ear can hear. One of Reiss former pupils, Ernest Horkheimer, wrote that Reis intended to transmit speech, and that music was an after thought for public exhibition. In conclusion, Reis wrote in a letter that his telephone could transmit any sound that is appropriately loud. Reis himself recorded the fact that his telephone did transmit speech in 1861, in his memoir "On Telephony":
"The consonants are for the most part tolerably distinctly reproduced, but the vowels not yet in an equal degree."
Many gave strong testimonies that they had success in transmitting voice using Reiss telephone. These testimonies will be noted in detail. Silvanus, author of "Philipp Reis, Inventor of the Telephone", wrote: "The writer has tested every form of Reiss transmitter and has found them perfectly competent to transmit speech; provided proper precautions were taken; that the contacts were clean and in adjustment, that the tympanum was tightly stretched and that the speaker did not speak too loudly; in other words, that the instruments were properly used." (Silvanus, P 47). Many of the very scientists who doubted, questioned, and even slandered Reiss intentions of his telephone later retracted their statements of doubt and acknowledged him as the inventor of the telephone. Count du Moncel, author of a work on the telephone, who once classified Reiss instrument as a mere "tone-telephone", admitted that he was, until the year 1882, ignorant of some of Reiss instruments and of his original papers, and later reluctantly admitted Reis to be the inventor of the telephone. (Silvanus, P.42). It is also important to note that in Professor Graham Bells British patent he does not claim to be the inventor, but only to have improved the invention. The exact title of his patent is, "Improvements in Electric Telephony and Telephonic Apparatus. (Silvanus, p. 40). This all unfortunately came to light after Reis was deceased.
Bell did give credit to Reis by name in the paper entitled "Researches in Electric Telephony" which he presented at the Academy of Arts and Sciences in May of 1876 and then at the Society of Telegraphic Engineers, November, 1877. Bell also references Reis's work in an article written by Professor Bottger in Dingler's "Polytechnic Journal" 1863. The article printed in Karsten's Encyclopedia in 1878 goes on to describe Reis's device as follows- "While the similar number of the produced vibrations is reproduced by the receiver, their original strength has not yet been obtained by it. For this reason, small differences of vibration are difficult to hear, and during the practical experiments hitherto made, chords, melodies, &c. could be, it is true, transmitted with astonishing fidelity, while single words in reading, speaking, &c., were less distinctly perceived."
Blake is logged in on several of the conferences where Reis presented his theories and demonstrated his telephone. Blake, as we know, went on to invent the "Blake Transmitter".
Phillip Reis's Relationship to Thomas A. Edison
A detailed report about the Reis Phone by Wilhem Von Legat, was communicated to the Austro-German telegraph union in 1862, and then printed in the journal of that society then reprinted in Diglers Polytechnisches Journal for 1863; vol.clxix pg 29. In 1875 the translated version of this manuscript was given to Thomas A. Edison by Hon. William Orton, the president of the Western Union Telegraph Company. This was Edison's starting point of research on the telephone. This work would lead not only to a phone for Western Union but many other telphonic inventions such as the carbon transmitter, the microphone, short circuiting telephones, the Voltaic pile telephone, the mechanical telephone, the carbon rheostat, the micro tasimeter, the aerophone, the megaphone, the stethoscopic microphone, and the phonomoter to name a few. When we compare the Edison's first carbon phone side by side with the final form of the Reis phone they look identical. If fact the only difference between the two phones is the use of a carbon drum instead of a sausage skin drum for the vibrating membrane.
"I find it amusing that Bell is perceived as the man who spent his whole
fortune defending his patent on the phone, when in fact what he did do was
spend his whole fortune patenting Philip Reis's work!"
- Hon. William Orton, the president of the Western Union Telegraph Company.
Had Philipp Reis not become ill and died at the young age of forty in 1874, he would have participated in the race for the telephone patent.