Can barnacles fly? And who really invented the telephone?

-August 09, 2011

It turns out that it wasn’t Alexander Graham Bell, but one Antonio Meucci, “An erratic, sometimes brilliant Florentine inventor,” who invented the telephone.

In that one statement, “The Book of General Ignorance,” by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, had my attention, and continued to shatter hundreds of foundational ‘common knowledge’ beliefs and outright lies that had petrified in my brain. They also ‘downgraded’ my view of Bell, as an inventor, and a man, from ‘AAA’ to an ‘AA-‘.

The book caught my eyes while waiting for the kids to pick a souvenir from the Museum of Natural History’s visitor center here in New York. While they were busy picking out magnetic rocks and fossil replicas, I was busy restructuring my sense of the world as I thought I knew it.

In the case of the telephone, it turns out that Meucci filed a caveat (a stopgap patent) for a working device called the teletrofono in 1871, five years before Bell’s telephone patent.

Now, here’s where it gets murky, then plain ugly. That year, as the book tells it, Meucci fell ill and didn’t file the $10 needed to renew his caveat in 1874, so when Bell registered his patent in 1876, Meucci sued.

It turns out, that Meucci had sent his original sketches and working models to the lab at Western Union. “By an extraordinary coincidence,” the book tells it, “Bell worked in the very same lab, and the models had mysteriously disappeared.”
Meucci died before the suit was settled and Bell got the credit for the invention. However, in 2004, the U.S. House of Representatives provided redress by officially acknowledging Meucci’s contribution to the invention of the telephone.The suspicious circumstances surrounding the disappearing sketches, call into question Bell’s character, but Lloyd and Mitchinson don’t stop there. In the classic critic’s tool of ‘damning with faint praise,’ they describe how he taught his dog to say, “How are you, grandmamma?” and how he continued to strive as inventor, but his metal detector failed to find the bullet in body of the stricken President James Garfield.

However questionable his inventions, it turns out he was more adept at teaching the deaf: both his mother and wife were deaf, and he taught Helen Keller, who dedicated her autobiography to him.

If you like MythBusters and Penn & Teller’s completely irreverent myth-debunking series, you’ll like this book, a lot.

I paid $19.95 for it at the store, but you can get it for the Kindle here  for $11.99. It’s published by Harmony Books.

As for the barnacles, the book had upended so many beliefs that when I came to the question about whether or not barnacles could fly, I was ready for anything. Thankfully, they can’t. At least one belief was left intact.
But don’t get so cocky: It’s only recently been discovered that they can’t. “For hundreds of years people thought the feathery-legged shellfish were the embryos of geese.” As to how that belief came about, I’ll let Lloyd and Mitchinson explain that one.

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