Abstract: The Telephone Patents: Intellectual Property, Business, and the Law in the United States and Britain, 1876-1900

Christopher Beauchamp


This dissertation reconsiders the nineteenth century's most famous intellectual property rights: Alexander Graham Bell's fundamental patents for the telephone. Bell's contested claim to the invention of the telephone has entered popular history as a controversy over inventive credit. At root, however, the struggle over the telephone's origins reflected a battle for patent control—one that resulted in an industry profoundly shaped by law and by the relationship between business strategies and national legal regimes. By employing the telephone as a case study, the dissertation seeks to make three main historical contributions. The first is to offer an international perspective on the role of patents during the "second industrial revolution," showing how the development of new industries related to the form in which intellectual property was produced and reproduced across borders. A second aim is to open the "black box" of patent litigation in Britain and the United States, in order to compare how the two countries' legal systems interpreted and enforced property rights over a new technology. The third theme of the dissertation is the role of patents in creating corporate monopolies. Contrary to arguments that patents played little part in shaping business structure during this period, I find that they were an important formative influence on the organization of British and American telephone companies and on the development of the telephone industry as a whole.