Elisha Gray (August 2, 1835 – January 21, 1901) was an American electrical engineer who co-founded the Western Electric Manufacturing Company. Gray is best known for his development of a telephone prototype in 1876 in Highland Park, Illinois and is considered by some writers to be the true inventor of the variable resistance telephone, despite losing out to Alexander Graham Bell for the telephone patent.
Gray is also considered to be the father of the modern music synthesizer, and was awarded over 70 patents for his inventions.
Biography and early inventions
Born into a Quaker family in Barnesville, Ohio, Gray was brought up on a farm. He spent several years at Oberlin College where he experimented with electrical devices. Although Gray was not a graduate of Oberlin College, he taught electricity and science at Oberlin and built laboratory equipment for Oberlin science departments.
In 1862 while at Oberlin, Gray met and married Delia Minerva Shepard.
In 1865 Gray invented a self-adjusting telegraph relay that automatically adapted to varying insulation of the telegraph line.
In 1867 Gray received a patent for the self-adjusting telegraph relay and in later years he received patents for more than 70 other inventions.
In 1869, Elisha Gray and his partner Enos M. Barton founded Gray & Barton Co. in Cleveland, Ohio to supply telegraph equipment to the giant Western Union Telegraph Company. The electrical distribution business was later spun off from Western Electric and organized into a separate company, Graybar Electric Company, Inc.. Barton had been employed by Western Union to examine and test new products.
In 1870 financing for Gray & Barton Co. was arranged by General Anson Stager, a superintendent of the Western Union Telegraph Company. Stager became an active partner in Gray & Barton Co., which moved to Chicago. Gray moved from Ohio to Highland Park near Chicago and remained on the board of directors. But he gave up his administrative position as chief engineer to focus on inventions that could benefit the telegraph industry. Gray’s inventions and patent costs were financed by a dentist, Dr. Samuel S. White of Philadelphia, who had made a fortune producing porcelain teeth. White wanted Gray to focus on the acoustic telegraph which promised huge profits to the exclusion of what appeared to be unpromising competing inventions such as the telephone. It was White’s decision in 1876 to abandon Gray’s caveat for the telephone.
In 1870, Gray developed a needle annunciator for hotels and another for elevators. He also developed a telegraph printer which had a typewriter keyboard and printed messages on paper tape.
In 1872 Western Union, then financed by the Vanderbilts and J. P. Morgan, bought one-third of Gray and Barton Co. and changed the name to Western Electric Manufacturing Company of Chicago. Gray continued to invent for Western Electric.
In 1874, Gray retired to do independent research and development. Gray applied for a patent on a harmonic telegraph which consisted of multi-tone transmitters, each tone being controlled by a separate telegraph key. Gray gave several private demonstrations of this invention in New York and Washington, D.C. in May and June 1874.
Gray was a charter member of the Presbyterian Church in Highland Park, Illinois. At the church, on December 29, 1874, Gray gave the first public demonstration of his invention for transmitting musical tones and transmitted “familiar melodies through telegraph wire” according to a newspaper announcement. This was the first electric music synthesizer using self vibrating electromagnetic circuits that were single-note oscillators operated by a two-octave piano keyboard. The “Musical Telegraph” used steel reeds whose oscillations were created by electromagnets and transmitted over a telegraph wire. Gray also built a simple loudspeaker in later models consisting of a vibrating diaphragm in a magnetic field to make the oscillator tones audible and louder at the receiving end.