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The Edison of Oberlin College
Written February 2019


Let us begin with a little Ohio history.

At Milan , Thomas Edison was born in 1847.

Also in 1847 at Barnesville ,  Elisha Gray's father died, and now the 12-year-old had to manage the family dairy farm.

Elisha was a bright boy, having already cobbled together a working model of a telegraph, but he wouldn't have time to attend high school until ten years later.

In 1857 he enrolled in the Oberlin Academy Preparatory School, 20 miles east of Milan.

Much later, at Curtis Ridge 18 miles south of Barnesville, Ann Buckingham was born in 1913.  She would become my mother.

So Elisha and I both had our roots in the hills of southeastern Ohio.  We both enrolled in Oberlin College, he in 1860 and in 1965.  We both studied physics there, although in his day it was called “natural philosophy.”

However, unlike me, former farmer Elisha had to labor to support his learning; he helped erect the Oberlin Gymnasium and later made and sold butter churns.  Also unlike me, he got engaged.

He proposed to a classmate, Delia Shepard, a piano student who likewise had lost her father.  Her home was on the west side of town (green symbol).

Elisha and Delia were both on track to graduate with the Class of 1864.  But on the stroke of midnight on January 1, 1862, they were married at First Church in Oberlin (red symbol).  Then the newlyweds dropped out of college to move in with the bride's mother, and Elisha became a dairy farmer again.

Nevertheless, he still tinkered with telegraphy at his former professor's lab.  Before the decade was out, he had co-founded a company in Cleveland that later would become Western Electric.

Let us now jump ahead a few years, when Elisha Gray made this drawing in his notebook of “apparatus for talking through a telegraph wire.”  Yes, it's a telephone!

And notice the date:  February 11, 1876.  Alexander Graham Bell didn't patent his telephone until February 14 of that year.  Years of litigation followed, and nowadays we remember Bell as the inventor.  But Gray was actually first!

Looking at the sketch, we wonder why Gray is “talking down” to his phone.  Below is a later drawing to which I've added a highly-exaggerated animation.

Two cylinders are depicted:  on top, a big metal can (B) into which a man is speaking, and below, a glass tube (G) filled with slightly acidic water.

The bottom of the can vibrates like a membrane (m, in red), moving up and down with the man's voice.  Attached to it is a steel needle (t, in blue) extending down into the water.  These metal parts are connected to a line leading to an electromagnet in the woman's distant receiver — and thence to ground.

Meanwhile, the bottom of the glass tube is pierced by a metal screw t which is wired to a battery — and thence to ground.

The circuit is completed by the acidic water, which provides quite a bit of electrical resistance.  The amount of resistance depends on the size of the water gap between the needle t and the screw t As the can's bottom vibrates, the needle alternately approaches the screw and moves farther away.

This comprises a “water microphone,” a variable resistor which varies the current in the circuit.  (Edison would patent a more practical carbon microphone the next year.)  At the far end of the line, the varying current modulates the strength of an electromagnet, causing a diaphragm next to it to vibrate and reproduce the voice.

Elisha Gray sketched his telephone on Friday, February 11.  Then came the weekend:  Saturday was Lincoln's Birthday, and Sunday was the Sabbath.  Therefore his attorney didn't file papers with the patent office until the first day of the week.  But so did Alexander Graham Bell's attorney. 

According to Gray, his patent caveat arrived soon after the office opened on Monday morning, February 14, 1876.  It was still near the bottom of the in-basket late that morning when Bell's lawyer showed up with his application and asked that it be taken to the examiner immediately.  On the questionable advice of his attorney, Gray didn't contest Bell's priority.  Three weeks later, Bell was granted U.S. Patent 174,465 for the telephone.

But Gray had other irons in the electromagnets.

At that year's Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia he demonstrated his method for “multiplexing.”  He sent eight messages at once (four in each direction) over a single telegraph wire, using not direct current but eight different alternating-current frequencies. 

He used twice as many frequences for his Musical Telegraph, which he demonstrated in 1877.  A pianist sitting before this keyboard in Philadelphia activated electromagnets which vibrated steel reeds.  Their oscillations traveled via telegraph to a concert hall in New York, where an audience of 2,000 heard melodies, even harmonies, emanating from the world's first loudspeaker (another set of tuned reeds resonating inside 16 wooden “organ pipes”). 

The next year, Oberlin awarded Gray an honorary Master's degree, whereupon he hosted another Musical Telegraph demonstration at First Church.

A hundred years after that, emeritus professor of ethnomusicology Roderic Knight wrote an article about Gray's accomplishments for the alumni magazine.  This page has more details about the 1877-78 concerts.

Named an Honorary Professor of Dynamic Electricity, Elisha Gray returned to Oberlin every spring for the next 20 years to conduct mini-courses for science students. 

And for general readers, he wrote the three-volume Nature's Miracles.  He warned about theories (conspiracy and otherwise) that are disconnected from reality.

Advocating familiarity with what we today would call the STEM subjects and echoing Acts 17:28, he wrote that anyone will be a better person “if he has some trustworthy knowledge of the laws under which this great universe, down to his own little part of it, lives, moves, and has its being.”

Gray's other inventions included the Telephote and the Telautograph to transmit images and signatures by wire (like fax machines).  And he devised large underwater bells activated by electromagnets to warn ships (like foghorns).

As part of Professor Knight's project, the Oberlin Science Center featured the 20-foot display shown below.  I viewed it during the 2018 Commencement/Reunion Weekend.

Evolutionists celebrate Charles Darwin's February 12 birthday as “Darwin Day.” We Oberlinians should likewise remember Elisha's notebook sketch.  We should observe February 11 as a “Gray Day!”  (The weatherman will usually agree.)



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