Elisha Gray: The Author
After the Supreme Court settled the patent fight, the Bell people were free to pursue their goal of universal telephone service. In another of history’s ironies, Bell selected Western Electric – the company co-founded by his former rival Elisha Gray – to be the exclusive manufacturer of Bell telephone equipment.
Under the skillful management of Gray’s partner, Enos Barton, Western Electric had built a reputation for being the best communications manufacturer in the business. It was soon to become one of the largest manufacturing and distributing companies the world had ever seen.
The Gray family lived for many years in Highland Park, on the far north side of Chicago. They built a large home that still stands at 461 Hazel Street. Mr. and Mrs. Gray were active in the community’s civic affairs, and were devout Presbyterians. Gray was active in the American Electrical Association. He also was active in a variety of business ventures. He served as an officer in a company that buried telegraph and telephone wires in underground conduits. He also helped form the Postal Telegraph Company, which used his multiplex telegraph systems and became a competitor of Western Union.
He received an honorary MA degree from Oberlin College in 1878, along with similar honors from other institutions, including the French Legion of Honor.
In the 1890’s, Elisha Gray turned to writing, and published a three-volume work entitled, Nature’s Miracles: Familiar Talks on Science. In 1892, he perfected the “Teleautograph,” a machine that reproduced anything written at the transmitter, even when the receiver was located several hundred miles away. It was used in offices, banks, and courtrooms. With the invention of the Teleautograph, the forerunner of facsimile transmission, Professor Gray was many years ahead of his contemporaries.
The Gray family moved from Highland Park to Boston in 1899, where the inventor stayed active until the very last days of his life. He and his son David worked with the inventor Arthur Munday on a device to transmit signals underwater to protect ships from running aground in fog or at night. This device was first tested on December 31, 1900.
That was to be the inventor’s last experiment. Three weeks later, on January 21, 1901, Elisha Gray collapsed from an apparent heart attack and died on the street in Newtonville, Massachusetts, outside Boston. Gray left behind a world that had been irrevocably transformed in his lifetime by communications technology, the technology that he himself had done so much to advance.
This article was republished from the Spring 1994 Graybar Outlook magazine.