Priority in the Invention of Radio
[2033 S. Augusta Place]
[Tucson, Arizona 85710]
March 30, 2002
I finally got
around to exploring your site for the Tesla reference you mentioned
earlier (see "Broadcast
History"). There is one item that you might want to
revise in that you wrote, "Tesla's electrical work also made
possible a major motor vehicle refinement--starter motors."
Some people have told me that I know a little bit about Tesla, but I
never heard that he invented the automobile starter motor.
I'm quite certain that you're mistaken in that regard. You might
recall that Tesla's claim to fame was in the elimination of the
commutator and brushes--rotating magnetic field, induction motor,
3-phase system and all that? Who ever spun you that starter-motor
yarn was probable thinking of Tesla's ELECTRICAL IGNITER FOR
GAS-ENGINES, U.S. Patent No. 609,250 Aug. 16, 1898, the automobile
ignition system. Nevertheless, I agree that Tesla shouldn't get
credit for inventing the automobile.
And then there are the
statements, "[Tesla's] ideas often outran his ability to actually
build a working device" and "Marconi developed what is
generally recognized as the first practical "generator" of
radio waves in Italy in 1895."
Here's what Wm.
Broughton, W2IR had to say about Tesla's demonstration of wireless
transmission by radio waves in 1893.
WM. G. BROUGHTON
1048 Parkwood Blvd.
Schenectady, NY 12303
W2IR DEDICATION SPEECH
Wm. G. Broughton, Licensee Schenectady Museum Feb. 6, 1976
Eighty-three years ago,
in St. Louis, the National Electric Light Association sponsored a public
lecture on high-voltage high-frequency phenomena. On the auditorium
stage a demonstration was set up using two groups of equipment.
In the transmitter group
on one side of the stage was a 5-kva high-voltage pole-type oil-filled
distribution transformer connected to a condenser bank of Leyden jars, a
spark gap, a coil, and a wire running up to the ceiling. In the receiver
group at the other side of the stage was an identical wire hanging from
the ceiling, a duplicate condenser bank of Leyden jars and coil--but
instead of the spark gap, there was a Geissler tube that would light up
like a modern fluorescent lamp bulb when voltage was applied. There were
no interconnecting wires between transmitter and receiver .
The transformer in the
transmitter group was energized from a special electric power line
through an exposed two-blade knife switch. When this switch was closed,
the transformer grunted and groaned, the Leyden jars showed corona
sizzling around their foil edges, the spark gap crackled with a noisy
spark discharge, and an invisible electromagnetic field radiated energy
into space from the transmitter antenna wire. Simultaneously, in the
receiver group, the Geissler tube lighted up from radio-frequency
excitation picked up by the receiver antenna wire.
Thus wireless was born. A
wireless message had been transmitted by the 5-kilowatt spark
transmitter, and instantly recieved [sic] by the Geissler-tube receiver
thirty feet away. There was the first public radio communication ever.
The world-famous genius who invented, conducted, and explained this
lecture demonstration was Nikola Tesla. (Now here is the punch line.)
Tesla's twenty-eight year old assistant on stage was my father.
So, the Museum Memorial
amateur radio station W2IR carries the name of a real old timer in ham
radio. You all are invited to come see the luxuriant new station
facilities the Museum has provided on the second floor over in the front
We've come a long way
That sounds fairly
practical to me. And consider this footnote found in Alfred
Morgan's book THE BOY'S FIRST BOOK OF RADIO AND ELECTRONICS (Charles
Scribner's Sons, 1954) p. 6, "Marconi gained his initial knowledge
of Hertz waves in much the same way that amateur wireless experimenters
acquired the same knowledge in later years. HE READ ABOUT THEM.
After he had become famous, Marconi related during an interview that in
1894 or 1895 he read an illustrated article in Wiedemann's Annalen
dealing with Hertz's announcements and that he also read a book called
Inventions and Researches of Nikola Tesla [Inventions, Researches and
Writings of Nikola Tesla] by T.C. Martin, published by 1894."
It turns out the 1893 National Electric Light Association lecture in St.
Louis (U.S.A.) was published in that book.
And, here are Leland
Anderson comments on a 1998 ANTENNA article "Misreading the Supreme
Court," which questions Nikola Tesla's priority in the invention of
The attachments are an
article by Professor A. David Wunsch attempting to diminish Nikola Tesla
as the inventor of the basic radio system patent(s), based on a
superficial examination of the 1943 U.S. Supreme Court decision
invalidating the Marconi patent, and a rebuttal by Wallace Edward Brand
effectively dismissing it, both appearing in ANTENNA (1), November, 1998
and May, 1999 issues. I an gratified that my early attempt (2) to
explain the Court's ruling caught Brand's attention arousing interest to
fully examine the case.
Wunsch's article invited
rebuttal. The force of his argument, valuing the weight of number of
pages in the Court's decision devoted to John Stone Stone versus Tesla,
is ludicrous. The four-tuned system description in Tesla's patents are
rather simply expressed, whereas volumes have been written through
decades on tuned coupled-circuit selectivity with Stone's analysis
prevailing. It is worthy to note that Stone never claimed the invention
of radio. (3)
It would appear that
Wunsch had as an objective reducing Tesla as the inventor by employing
reference notes as 4), the New England Wireless and Steam Museum's
founder has been an antipathetic critic of Tesla, and 6), a denigrating
out-of-context quote from a hand-writing analyst biographer having no
formal education in the technical sciences.
June 11, 1999
1. Published by the
Mercurians. Special Interest Group in the Society for the History of
2. Priority in the Invention of Radio -- Tesla vs. Marconi, A. W. A.
Monograph (New Series No. 4) Mar. 1980.
3. Stone's acknowledgement to Tesla initially appeared in Radosavljevic,
Paul R. Who Are the Slavs (Boston: Richard Badger, 1919). The full text
of Stone's tribute appears in Anderson, L.I.,
"John Stone Stone on Nikola Tesla's Priority in Radio and
Continuous-Wave Radiofrequency Apparatus," The A. W. A. Review,
Misreading the Supreme
A Puzzling Chapter in the History of Radio
by David Wunsch
On the night of January
18, 1903, Guglielmo Marconi and his associates gathered at the Marconi
Wireless Station near South Wellfleet, Massachusetts. A message of
greeting in Morse code was sent from President Theodore Roosevelt to
King Edward VII of England. The event made the front page of the New
York Times as the first transatlantic wireless message from an American
president to a European head of state. Although the station was
dismantled about eighty years ago, its site, now within the Cape Cod
National Seashore, is marked by a nearby National Park Service
information center. Available there is a Park Service leaflet that tells
visitors that the inventor Nikola Tesla "proposed the essential
elements of radio communication in 1892 and 1893" prior to Marconi,
and that "the U.S. Supreme Court in 1943 decided that Marconi's
basic patents were 'anticipated' and therefore were invalid."1
The Supreme Court case
referred to is Marconi Wireless Telegraph Corporation of America v.
United States, 320 US 1 (1943), which was argued in April and decided on
June 21, 1943. References to this case are not uncommon and repeat the
Court's finding that Tesla, not Marconi, invented the first radio. For
example, writing in the New York Times of August 28, 1984, science
reporter William Broad noted that: "It was Nikola Tesla, not
Marconi, who invented radio.2 Indeed in 1943 the Justices of the Supreme
Court of the United States overturned Marconi's patent because they
found it had been preceded by Tesla's practical achievements in radio
Tesla's priority over
Marconi in the invention of radio is not the only conclusion often drawn
from that court case. The following, for example, is from a letter sent
by the inventor Lee de Forest to the radio historian George Clark in
July of 1943: "You will be tickled as I am . . . to know that at
long last, the U.S. Supreme Court has held the Fleming Valve Patent to
be invalid. . . . Also that John Stone Stone, and not Marconi, was the
first inventor of the so-called 4-tuned circuit."4 In addition,
radio historian Hugh G. J. Ailken observed: "in 1943, . . . in a
decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, [Oliver] Lodge's patent was the only
one of the three principal Marconi Company patents to be completely
upheld, the Marconi tuning patent, once the keystone of the
Corporation's patent structure, being declared invalid."5
of this court case have differed greatly. The lengthy opinion is
technical and not light reading, so to resolve differing historical
claims, we must study it for ourselves. An examination reveals that the
Court did not rule on who invented radio: "Marconi's reputation as
the man who first achieved successful radio transmission rests on his
original patent . . . which is not here in question."
The 1943 Supreme Court
ruling began as a lawsuit initiated by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph
Company of America. Marconi invoked title 35 of the U. S. Code, section
68, and sued the U.S. government for patent infringement in the U.S.
Court of Claims. This section of the U.S. Code permitted patent holders
to sue if they believed that the government had bought or used equipment
that infringed on their patents. The Supreme Court case resulted from
appeals of both the government and Marconi Wireless of decisions from
the Court of Claims.
In the Court of Claims,
Marconi Wireless asserted that the government had infringed four U.S.
patents, among which were No. 763, 772 and reissue patent No. 11,913.
Both had been issued to Guglielmo Marconi himself. Additional Marconi
company patents alleged to be infringed were one issued to Oliver Lodge,
No. 60,9154, and Ambrose Fleming's patent No. 803,684. In its 1935
decision, the Court of Claims ruled that the radio equipment used by the
government had not infringed on the Marconi patent.
The reissue patent No.
11,913 was a modification of Marconi's original radio patent granted in
1897 and covered the invention that gained the young Marconi his initial
fame over the period 1896 to 1900. That equipment lacked any means for
tuning either the transmitter or the receiver. Attempts to devise tuning
circuits began as early as the 1890s. The goal was to create
transmitters and receivers that operated at a single, well defined
frequency. Notable in this effort was Marconi's British patent No. 7,777
for the use of two tuned circuits at the transmitter and two at the
receiver. The American counterpart of this patent was No. 763,772,
granted in 1904, and one of the patents said to be infringed in the 1943
Supreme Court case.
In its 1943 decision,
however, the Supreme Court rejected the broad claims of this Marconi
patent, for the most pan declaring it invalid. Indeed, the majority
Supreme Court opinion stated that Marconi 's work had been anticipated
by John Stone Stone (patent No. 714,756) and Oliver Lodge (patent No.
609,154). The Supreme Court also examined Tesla's patent No. 645,576 and
noted that Tesla had used four tuned circuits before Marconi. In
addition, the Court observed that Lodge had provided a means for varying
the tuning frequency, which was lacking in Tesla's patent.
Thus, while the Supreme
Court declared the Marconi patent invalid, it affirmed prior work and
patents by not only Tesla, but by Lodge and Stone as well. As for the
Lodge and Tesla patents, the Supreme Court's opinion discussed Tesla's
and Lodge's work in two pages and three pages respectively, but devoted
a full twenty pages to Stone's work. What was so important about Stone's
radio patent? "Stone's [patent] application," the Court wrote,
"shows an intimate understanding of the mathematical and physical
principles underlying radio communication and electrical circuits in
The Supreme Court also
ruled on Ambrose Fleming's patent, issued in 1905, for a diode vacuum
tube capable of "converting alternating electric currents and
especially high-frequency alternating electric currents or electric
oscillations, into continuous electric currents for the purpose of
making them detectable by and measurable with ordinary direct current
instruments." The Supreme Court ruled the Fleming patent invalid
because of an improper disclaimer. In November of 1915, the Marconi
Corporation issued a disclaimer to the Fleming patent that restricted
the invention to use with high frequency alternating electric currents
such as are used in wireless telegraphy. The Court maintained that using
the diode for rectification of low frequency currents, as stated in the
original patent, was known art at the time Fleming filed his patent
application and therefore ruled that the original patent was invalid.
Moreover, it decided that the disclaimer filed in November 1915 could
not prevent the patent's invalidity unless it occurred "through
inadvertence, accident, or mistake, and without any fraudulent or
deceptive intention." The Supreme Court also judged that Fleming
had delayed an unreasonable length of time in making his disclaimer.
Therefore, because U.S. patent law holds that an invalid disclaimer
automatically invalidates the patent to which it refers, Fleming's
patent was invalid.
From this examination of
the actual 1943 Supreme Court documents, we see that the statements
about the Supreme Court ruling by the Park Service flier, the New York
Times, Lee de Forest and Hugh Aitken are, in varying degrees,
inaccurate. The Supreme Court never determined that Tesla invented
radio. Contrary to Aitken's account. The validity of the Lodge patent
was not in dispute before the Supreme Court; it was upheld in the Court
of Claims where it was ruled that the government had infringed the
patent. The matter was not appealed. Lee de Forest, though, came closest
to the actual Court documents, but he did not acknowledge that Tesla was
ahead of Stone in using four tuned circuits, even if Tesla failed to
provide a variable inductance for adjusting them.
What can we learn from these discordant interpretations? A court opinion
in a patent case can be difficult reading, and historians should be
mistrustful of secondhand analysis. In particular, historians should be
skeptical about claims made for Nikola Tesla as an inventor by zealous
devotees. As a recent Tesla biography states, he is "Revered as a
demigod by some in the New Age community."6
Finally, we might
question whether the Court was correct in largely rejecting the Marconi
tuning patent. The judgment in this matter was not unanimous. Chief
Justice Harlan Stone wrote the majority opinion for five justices. One
justice abstained and three, including the distinguished Felix A.
Frankfurter, dissented. Both Justices Frankfurter and Rutledge argued in
favor of the Marconi patent and against the importance of John Stone's
invention. Historians might well continue to scrutinize this case.
1) Glen Kay, Marconi and
His South Wellfleet Wireless (National Park Service) no date.
2) I am using "radio" in the most general sense to include
wireless telegraphy as well as broadcasting.
3) See also Margaret Cheney, Tesla: Man Out of Time (New York: Dorset
Press, 1981), p. 176.
4) Quoted in Thorn Mayes, Wireless Communication in the United States
(E. Greenwich, RI: New England Wireless and Steam Museum, 1989), p. 222.
5) Hugh G. J. Aitken, Syntony and Spark: The Origins of Radio
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), pp. 167-8.
6) Marc J. Seifer, Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla (Secaucus,
NJ: Carol Publishing Group, 1996), p. xiii.
A David Wunsch is a
Professor of Electrical Engineering at the University of Massachusetts
Lowell. He teaches courses on antennas, complex variable theory, and the
history of radio.
Rereading the Supreme
Tesla's Invention of Radio
by Wallace Edward Brand
Editors' note: We are
struck, once again, with how the importance of communication
technologies inspires continuing debate regarding their invention and
development. The complex evolution of these complicated devices and
systems makes the process of attribution exceptionally difficult. This
essay responds to "Misreading the Supreme Court: A Puzzling Chapter
in the History of Radio" by A. David Wunsch in the November 1998
issue of Antenna.
As regular readers of
this newsletter know, on June 21, 1943, the Supreme Court affirmed a
1935 ruling of the United States Court of Claims which essentially
invalidated Marconi's claim of having invented radio, and clarified
Tesla's role in inventing radio.
The granting of a patent
in itself does not help to establish priority of invention. Unlike an
infringement action, in a patent grant application no one but the
examiner goes out of his way to dig up facts that provide a basis for
the rejection of the patent. The patent examiner tries to do this, but
is limited to papers on file in the patent office or available to him
without great effort or expense. The applicant's attorney is supposed to
bring to the examiner's attention all the adverse information he runs
across, but he doesn't waste his client's money trying to find data
which will help the examiner find grounds to deny the patent.
The radio litigation
discussed here arose in the Court of Claims, in a claim for taking
intellectual property that was basically the same as an infringement
action. Marconi filed a claim against the U. S. government for taking
four patents. The patents were: reissue No. 11,913 of patent No.
586,193, granted to Marconi on June 4, 1901, for a two-circuit system
for transmitting and receiving signals (one circuit in the transmitter;
another in the receiver); patent No. 763,772, granted to Marconi on June
28, 1904, for a four-circuit system of wireless telegraphy; and two
patents granted to Oliver Lodge and John Fleming, but assigned to
Marconi. The total claim was for $6,000,000, a lot of money in 1916, and
justified full development of the facts by the parties to the
litigation. It was worthwhile to the government to spend the money to
determine whether there was prior art that would invalidate Marconi's
I will first summarize
the rulings of the Court of Claims and the Supreme Court, which took the
case on petition, then provide more detail on their decisions. I focus
on the decision of the Court of Claims, because unless the upper court
says it is reversing or vacating the decision below, or affirming it on
other grounds, the opinion of the upper court should be read as
additional to the opinion of the trial court, not in lieu of it. In
fact, more attention should be paid to the affirmed lower court's
opinion, because the trial court is closer to the facts. Its decision
recites a view that has been accepted by two courts, not just one.
The Court of Claims
decided that the government did not infringe Marconi's two-circuit
patent. That patent was not an issue before the Supreme Court, which had
no jurisdiction to rule on the patent, because the Constitution limits
the Supreme Court to ruling on cases in controversy. Furthermore, even
if the two- circuit system were found to be a viable system of radio
communication, the four-circuit system made it obsolete. The focus of
the Court of Claims litigation thus was on the four-circuit patent.
Fifteen of the twenty
claims made in the four-circuit patent application were the subject of
the litigation. The Court of Claims found for Marconi only one, claim
16, which the Supreme Court sent back for reconsideration. It never was
reconsidered; Marconi settled all claims for about $34,000 plus
As for the validity of
Marconi's four-circuit patent, No. 763,772, the Court of Claims noted
the great difficulty Marconi had in obtaining the patent Marconi
repeatedly filed new specifications and claims, but these were rejected
because of prior art. After J. P. Morgan became one of Marconi's
backers, Marconi presented another petition for revival on February 19,
1904. The Commissioner of Patents granted it. A new examiner acted on
the case and allowed all claims formerly rejected for reasons stated in
a brief letter.
The Court of Claims,
however, disagreed with the new patent examiner. The initial examiner
had disallowed Marconi's patent based on, among several others, two
patents of Tesla that preceded Marconi's, numbers 645,576 and 649,621,
in which he used four tuned circuits. Although Tesla had not specified
how to tune the circuits, one of the patent examiners stated that it was
fair to assume Tesla intended to use either of the two available
methods. Furthermore, Tesla's earlier patent No. 645,576 of March 20,
1900, referred to tuning no less than six times.
In the opinion of the
Court of Claims, Tesla had shown the advantage of all four circuits
being tuned. Oliver Lodge had taken the two-circuit system and tuned the
open circuits in the same way used later by Marconi. Stone described a
four-circuit system with the closed circuits tuned together." A
consideration of these three systems," the Court decided,
"would naturally suggest to one skilled in the art the tuning of
all four circuits together by the use of the adjustable self-inductance
method in the manner proposed by Lodge, and Stone put this suggestion
into practice when he filed the amendment to his specifications. Marconi
used the suggestion earlier in the application for his patent, but under
the circumstances we think neither Stone nor Marconi was entitled to
credit for it." That is because Stone had acknowledged Tesla's
In summary, I read the
Court of Claims' opinion as deciding that the four-circuit system was
invented by Tesla, based specifically on the above statement of the
Court of Claims. Also persuasive is the reading of the Court of Claims
opinion in the same way by Marconi's attorney. Specifically, in his
brief to the Supreme Court in 1943, he stated: "It is not quite
clear whether the Court [of Claims] thought that the Tesla patents alone
fully anticipated the Marconi claims, or whether a combination of Tesla,
Lodge and Stone made the Marconi claims invalid "
Does the Supreme Court's
considerable reliance on the work of Stone in their opinion detract from
Tesla's deserved priority of invention? I think not for at least four
First, the Supreme Court
affirmed the Court of Claims rejection of Marconi's claims under the
four-circuit patent (all except the lower court's ruling in favor of
Marconi on claim 16, which the Supreme Court vacated).
Second, it is reasonable
to expect the Supreme Court to emphasize the work of Stone to buttress
the Court of Claims opinion. Marconi's lawyer attacked the Tesla patent
before the Supreme Court as being science fiction worthy of Jules Verne.
It therefore was reasonable for the Supreme Court to respond to the
argument by showing that Stone, a distinguished scientist, had priority
over Marconi (based on Stone's letters to Butler), but not Tesla.
Third, as the Supreme
Court mentioned, Stone, in a letter to his friend Butler, acknowledged
that his four-circuit apparatus basically was the same as Tesla's.
Fourth, the Court of
Claims said it was unnecessary to find that Stone had priority because
of Tesla's priority.
All that is left is the significance of the Court of Claims' marginal
award of invention to Marconi for the two-circuit system. The
government's lawyer claimed that Marconi's two-circuit system
essentially was the same as that used by Hertz to verify the theories of
James Clerk Maxwell. Furthermore, Marconi's own lawyer said that the
two-circuit system "would operate, but only at short distances,
because there was too much waste of energy."
Even Justice Frankfurter,
who dissented bitterly in favor of Marconi, acknowledged that the
two-circuit patent was not a significant factor in the innovation of
Finally, there are the
two portions of the Supreme Court Opinion sometimes cited as preserving
Marconi's priority of invention. The first is the sentence in the
majority opinion that declares: "Marconi's reputation as the man
who first achieved successful radio transmission rests on his original
patent, which became reissue No. 11, 9013, and which is not here in
question." The pronoun "which" has an ambiguous
antecedent. Is it Marconi's reputation or the validity of the patent
that is "not here in question"? I interpret it as referring to
Marconi's reputation, as neither party sought review of the Court of
Claims decision on the reissue patent. Even if it did refer to the
patent, the statement would be significant only if Marconi's combination
of elements invented by others played an important role in the progress
of radio. It did not, because the two-circuit system could transmit only
a few miles.
The second citation is to
Justice Frankfurter's dissenting opinion. It is clear that he found it
difficult to understand the facts, because he failed to cite a single
one in support of his view that those prior to Marconi lacked "the
flash--that begot the idea in Marconi." Perhaps it was for that
reason that he failed to persuade the majority.
Marconi deserves great
credit for his vigorous commercialization of wireless telegraphy and
radio. He recognized the business advantages of a claim to invention of
the products and services he marketed as a check on his competition. In
those days, most monopolies were formed by merging or buying up the
competition, or by driving smaller competitors out of business through
costly patent litigation where possible. In sum, though, the evidence
available from historical documents simply does not support Marconi's
claim of invention; it does clarify Tesla's role in inventing radio.
Wallace Edward Brand
worked as a federal government lawyer in several jobs, principally as a
trial lawyer, including as lead government counsel in the seminal cases
under the 1970 revision of the Atomic Energy Act which served to promote
competition among electric utilities. From 1974 to 1999 he has been
engaged in the private practice of energy law, principally cases
involving electric power, representing small municipal and cooperative
electric utilities in actions against larger ones. He is currently
writing a book about the electric power business.
Tesla Wardenclyffe Project, Inc.
P.O. Box 8041
Breckenridge, CO 80424-8041
Phone: 970-453-9293 Fax: 970-453-6692
Note: Here is a
request found on Barry's site "The Broadcast Archive - Radio
History on the Web!" (www.oldradio.com):
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