Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell were among the hundreds of inventors who brought their inventions to the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. Between the creations of these soon-to-be titans sat the telegraph machines of Elisha Gray, also an accomplished inventor.

The first of the U.S.-based World’s Fairs, this event in Philadelphia was a coming-of-age for the partnership of Elisha Gray and Enos Barton, co-founders and namesakes of today’s Graybar.

It’s also a cautionary tale.

Early employees of Gray & Barton. Elisha Gray, in the front row, holds his automatic telegraph printer. Enos Barton appears in the third row at the far left.

Born in 1835, Gray spent his early years as a carpenter and boat builder before developing a passion for electricity at Oberlin College. Illness left him unable to do manual labor, forcing him “to rely upon his inventive imagination and ingenuity” and the partnership of manufacturer Enos Barton, who built Gray’s early patent models.

Gray received his first patent in 1867, and he later became a recognized expert in “the technological problems posed by further development of the telegraph industry.”

Barton, born in 1842, started out as a telegraph messenger and operator and knew these problems firsthand. When Gray’s typewriter-style printing telegraph opened up direct communication to people untrained in Morse code, it was a huge success. (What’s not to like about less effort and more productivity?)

The invention persuaded Western Union’s superintendent General Anson Stager to back Gray, allowing him to buy into Barton’s firm, renamed Gray & Barton in 1869.

Three years later, Western Union leaders bought a one-third interest in the firm, renaming it Western Electric Manufacturing Company.

Leading up to the Centennial Exhibition, Gray filed many more patents, including a “caveat” for his passion project, a “talking telegraph.” A pivotal decision was at hand: He could focus on improving existing telegraph technology—figuring out how to send multiple messages simultaneously and help Western Union eliminate the “jungles of wires [that] threatened to choke the air over city streets”—or else investigate the concept of the telephone.

Given the commercial value of the telegraph at the time, Western Union leaders convinced Gray that focusing on multiple telegraphy was the way to go.

Even though Gray “astonished the judges” of the Centennial Exhibition on June 25, 1876, by sending eight telegraph messages simultaneously, his success was short-lived once the wily Bell debuted his magnetoelectric telephones.

Despite a lengthy and controversial court battle over the telephone patent, the fact remains that industry experts were too focused on improving their existing system to see the technological transformation ahead.

Lesson learned. Throughout our 150-year history, Graybar has worked hard to strengthen our core business, while constantly transforming to meet the changing needs of the industry. In our current period of digital transformation, Graybar is drawing upon the successes (and the missteps) of our founders: the value of ingenuity and expertise, and the value of a fresh perspective that can see farther into the future to power a new era.