four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
33-Mar-Apr-2008
By: 
Seth Shulman
user_rating: 
0

Chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret

A-The Telephone GambitMarch 10, 1876. An acid spill in a Boston laboratory. A quick shout for help. An unlikely response from the assistant, Watson. Alexander Graham Bell has invented the telephone. Settled history, right? Not so fast. In The Telephone Gambit, a historical whodunit combining intrigue, subterfuge, and love, Seth Shulman claims that the telephone’s invention might properly be credited to Elisha Gray, an unassuming, talented Ohio inventor who filed his patent for the device on the same day as Bell. Gray held a missing piece to the puzzle—a piece that his otherwise scrupulous and well-liked rival seems to have obtained through deception in what Shulman deems "a stunning fissure in the polished façade of Bell’s legacy."
Norton. 256 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0393062066

Christian Science Monitor 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The Telephone Gambit succeeds splendidly as an edge-of-your-seat historical tale. Yet it also manages to go somewhere deeper, leaving readers with intriguing questions about the ways in which truth may remain undiscovered, even when lying open in plain sight." Marjorie Kehe

Wall Street Journal 4.5 of 5 Stars
"As Mr. Shulman shows in this page-turner of a book, what we think we know about the past is not always true. … The Telephone Gambit is solid history, and Seth Shulman makes it as much fun to read as an Agatha Christie whodunit by using the techniques of historiography the way Hercule Poirot used his ‘little gray cells.’" John Steele Gordon

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"The historian’s role is to ask tough questions and doggedly follow the evidence. Seth Shulman provides a stellar example of historical investigation at its probing best." Chuck Leddy

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"This story has been told so many times that it seems heretical to question it. But science journalist Seth Shulman does exactly that in his smoothly written, impeccably researched book." Phillip Manning

Los Angeles Times 2 of 5 Stars
"The Telephone Gambit contains no suspense or surprise, no shadings of ambiguity. … And while Shulman deftly explains the intricacies of electrical currents in user-friendly prose, he’s a clumsy storyteller." Mark Coleman

Critical Summary

In Unlocking the Sky (2003), Seth Shulman showed his knack for historical detection by making credible claims that aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss deserves the same accolades for his work as the Wright brothers for theirs. In The Telephone Gambit, Shulman, who researched the book while a resident scholar in MIT’s Dibner Institute, sets his sights on Alexander Graham Bell. He comes away with a stunning and plausible conclusion as he discredits Bell’s claim to the world’s most valuable patent. Drawing on research from Bell’s own notebooks and other sources, Shulman combines deft sleuthing and a nose for a good story with what every critic except the reviewer for the Los Angeles Times deems lively, compact prose. The Telephone Gambit is a necessary addendum to textbook history.