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The Telephone: Invented by Italian Immigrant, Antonio Meucci

Do you like stories? Especially hidden history stories? We’re happy you’re here!

Here at Inside Out Tours we inform, explore, and activate through storytelling. 

We especially love what we call “hidden histories” – the stories that our history books either left out or got totally wrong

Each blog, we’ll share with you a true story and we hope you’ll join us on a tour where we dive deeper, you can ask questions, and you can see, feel, hear, smell, touch, and explore the real-life places where these stories lived, breathed, and unfolded! Our first story is about the incredible Antonio Meucci. 

Did you know that the telephone was invented by an Italian immigrant in Staten Island?

You read that right, folks. About 150 years ago, in the house at 420 Tompkins Avenue, Antonio Meucci developed the telephone. He created it so he could communicate with the love of his life, who was bound to her bedroom upstairs, while he worked long hours downstairs. He developed dozens of different models of his “telettrofono” over the course of 13 years, figuring out the best way to transmit speech over electrical currents, through different materials and contraptions, to check on his wife. But this is not the romantic tale it sounds like. Let’s rewind.

Antonio Meucci was always passionate about engineering and creative problem-solving. He was born in 1808, the first of 9 siblings, only 5 of whom survived past childhood. He grew up in Italy, and got into the Florence Academy of Fine Arts when was just 13. He Wass their youngest student and a promising engineer.

He studied there for 2 years, and then he could no longer afford to be a full-time student. He continued his education part-time, and worked as an assistant gatekeeper to pay for it. At his next job, Antonio started inventing stuff right away…

He got a gig as the stage technician at a major theater in Florence. There, he invested the “acoustic telephone” (like those used on ships, but for control rooms at the theater!), and he fell in love with the costume designer. He and Ester Mochi got married and moved to Cuba to work at the Gran Teatro.

Antonio and Ester thrived in Havana. Antonio was the chief engineer, Ester was the costume director, Antonio kept inventing. He loved exploring methods and building devices to solve problems. He ultimately engineered the first prototype of a telephone in 1849, and it would only get more meticulous from there.

Ester and Antonio moved to New York City in 1850. They used the money they earned in Havana to open a candle factory and shop, in their home. Then Ester got sick; Rheumatoid Arthritis suddenly kept her confined to her bedroom. To communicate with his wife upstairs, he invented a way to call her through electrical currents.

It was unlike anything that had been done before. Meucci kept modifying the teletrrofono, adjusting it, through more phases and sketches and prototypes. Though he couldn’t afford to make large-scale demonstrations of all his inventions, he worked tirelessly to improve it. People advised him to protect the telettrofono with a patent, but that would cost $250 that he simply didn’t have.

Antonio asked a prominent telegraph company to test his invention across their lines. He waited two years for them to test his model, and when he finally inquired, they told him they’d lost all his work. He fell into poverty, and the bankruptcy, in the 1860s.

And then, 1871, things got worse…Antonio was commuting on the Staten Island Ferry when an explosion occurred. He was badly injured, burned, and in a hospital bed for several months. To cover her husband’s medical expenses, Ester sold his notebooks and models for six dollars. When he went to the pawn shop to retrieve his work, he was told they’d already been sold to someone else.

And in 1876, Meucci heard that Alexander Graham Bell had received the patent for the telephone. Meucci tried to defend his work in court, but did not have powerful litigators nor money behind him, nor enough records/evidence to prove that he’d invented the first telephone nearly 30 years prior. Meucci presented one book of his drawings, but the prosecution accused him of doctoring them. The judge, known for his anti-immigrant sentiments and rulings, sided with the prosecution; Meucci was accused of fraud and left penniless, without any credit. Antonio Meucci died on State Island in 1889. 113 years later, in 2002, the US House of Representatives acknowledged “that the life and the achievements of Antonio Meucci should be recognized.”

Inside Out Tours is a New York sightseeing company with a mission to inform, explore, and activate through storytelling. We especially love hidden histories–stories that our history books left out, or got all wrong. Each month, we’ll post a story here. We’re glad you’re here! We want to see you on one of our NYC tours or our Virtual Experiences, and to hear your feedback in the comments on our Facebook and Instagram.