Monday, April 14, 2008

Lost in History vol. 59: Happy Birthday, Mr. Teletrophono!

Celebrations come and go in New York City. With so much history, so many events to commemorate and remember throughout the five boroughs, it’s easy to forget a brilliant human being or their spectacular accomplishments. That’s why we weren’t all that surprised to learn that we were some of the only people who arrived at the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum in Rosebank, Staten Island yesterday to celebrate the 200th birthday of Antonio Meucci, the true inventor of the teletrophono in 1849!What the hell is a teletrophono? A teletrophono is an invention, resembling two tin cups attached via an electrically charged wire that enabled two persons to communicate while standing in entirely separate rooms! Mr. Meucci discovered this incredible modern marvel while living in Cuba and treating sick patients through “electrophonic” experimentation, where he would send small electric shocks through charged wires from his mouth to the mouth of the afflicted. Once, while standing in a separate room, he heard & felt the shout of pain inside his own mouth, coming from the gentleman in another room being treated, Meucci realized he’d discovered something great – namely that sound can travel short distances through electric wires. In 1849, as Meucci started work on what would become the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell (booo!) celebrated his second birthday.
In 1850, Meucci and his wife emigrate to New York, settling in the bucolic farming community of Rosebank, Staten Island. Meucci patents smokeless candles and produces them in a little factory in his backyard.
Slowly, Ester Meucci’s body succumbs to arthritis, and she is relegated to her second-floor bedroom. So Meucci creates a mini-telephone system hooked up around the house in order to speak with her as he continues his candle production and works on various inventions. In order to keep up rent on the property, the Meuccis take in boarders, most legendarily Giuseppe Garibaldi, “Hero of Two Worlds” and subject of a previous L.I.H.Over the next 20 years, a series of extraordinarily bad luck, fraudulent investors, popular anti-Italian sentiment, court cases ruling against his inventions and one steamboat explosion (the Westfield, in 1871) prevent Antonio Meucci from renewing patents and holding onto important documents proving him the true inventor of the telephone. (After the Westfield explosion, Meucci was so badly burned that Ester had to sell the original teleptrophono models to a second-hand dealer for six dollars in order to pay the hospital bills.) In 1872, Meucci submits his plans to the District Telephone Company of NY for assistance in proving his invention; after two years of persistent visits to the Company, he learns the papers are lost. Twenty days after this injustice, Bell applies for his patent in the creation of the telephone. Meucci’s remaining years are spent in his cottage in Staten Island, tinkering on inventions and engaged in futile court cases trying to prove his primacy in the telephone patent. He dies penniless in 1889, ever confident that “the telephone, which I invented and which I first made known and which, as you know, was stolen from me.”
Although popular culture and the history books tell us about Bell’s invention as the first telephone, there is a marvelous little museum, owned and operated by the Sons of Italy, chock full of artifacts and displays proving otherwise. So when better to go, then on the man’s 200th birthday!? We sang “Happy Birthday Dear Antonio,” watched an inspirational film about his life and times, took a private tour of the collection with the wonderfully informative (S.I. native) Robin Cocozza (and her awesome Staten Island accent), and we snapped pictures like crazy. Highly recommended for any fans of homegrown museums and / or teletrophonos.

(first published on 4/14/8 in