Interview with Basilio Catania

Basilio Catania was born in Sicily in 1926 and moved to Milan at the age of three. He received a doctoral degree in electrical engineering from the Milan Polytechnical School in 1952. After completing his studies, he taught at both the Milan and Turin Polytechnical Schools and undertook a career in telecommunications research. He holds five US patents for inventions in the telecommunications field. In 1976 he was appointed director general of CSELT (Centro Studi e Laboratori Telecomunicazioni) in Turin, and worked there until his retirement in 1989. Since his retirement he has devoted his time to the subject of Antonio Meucci. He is the author of the four-volume work Antonio Meucci: The Inventor and His Times. Dr. Catania spoke to Accenti from his home in Fiano (near Turin).

ACCENTI: You are an electrical engineer and a scholar by profession, and not necessarily a writer or a historian. What compelled you to undertake the task of challenging the historical record and ultimately proving that Antonio Meucci, a Florentine immigrant to the United States, is the true inventor of the telephone?

Basilio Catania: I was a researcher in telecommunications for all my 40 years of professional life. It happened that on October 19, 1989 – the hundredth anniversary of Meucci’s death – there were no celebrations at all in Italy. This was in contrast to the USA, for instance, where a stone memorial was inaugurated in Meucci Square, Brooklyn. I wondered why Meucci was forgotten here, and I began researching the available literature to assess the value of Meucci as an inventor. I was soon confused by the (about equal) amount of literature that was in favour of Meucci and that which was against him – the latter even containing insults, such as that of the Bell Company’s lawyer, James J. Storrow, who defined Meucci as “the silliest and weakest impostor who has ever turned up.” Now, you must know that finding the truth in the midst of an unclear and confused mass is the main prerogative of a researcher.

ACCENTI: So you set out, in a truly objective fashion, to discover the truth.

Basilio Catania: Since I retired exactly on November 1, 1989, I immediately found a way to apply my well-proven research technique to the Meucci story. I must stress that, at the beginning, I was absolutely neutral as to his merits, if any. I remember that, when I went to the AT&T archives in Warren, New Jersey in 1990, I told them that, in case it would turn out from my investigation that Meucci was a crank, I would have no difficulty stating it. It was only in 1994 that I discovered a document – an affidavit sworn before the New York Public Notary Charles Taylor on September 28, 1885 – in which was described a technique, the so-called “inductive loading” technique, that was attributed to Michael Idvorsky Pupin, who patented it in 1900 and soon after sold it to the Bell Company. This affidavit turned out to be Meucci’s laboratory notebook, complete with drawings, translated into English by one Michael Lemmi and countersigned by Meucci as a faithful translation of his original notes. I was simply astonished: not only was this document notarized 15 years before Pupin’s patent, but the date that Meucci discovered this technique was May 20, 1862, with further improvements made by him on September 27, 1870. This meant Meucci’s discovery was made 30 years (if not 38 years) before the re-invention by Pupin!

ACCENTI: What was your reaction?

Basilio Catania: Of course, my view of Meucci changed completely to that of a giant of science. My stupefaction further increased when I discovered several other techniques from the laboratory notes, which demonstrate that Meucci was equally ahead of his times by dozens of years. There was no need to prove anything about Alexander Graham Bell having or not having gotten his ideas from Meucci, because all those events had happened before Bell could have the vaguest idea of what a telephone was.

ACCENTI: Your account of Meucci as “the” inventor of the telephone is very compelling, yet you never overtly deny that Alexander Graham Bell had a hand in the invention. Nor do you state unequivocally that Bell “stole” Meucci’s idea. What, in your view, was Bell’s role in the invention of the telephone?

Basilio Catania: As I said, Meucci’s discoveries were done so many years before Bell undertook his research on telephony that it was not necessary, in my mind, to investigate what Bell did, and whether he fished out ideas from Meucci or not. I do not say that this is a trivial matter. I only say that it may be worth researching as a separate issue. However, the question is: how many years of my life would be required to solve this dichotomy? I am not the kind of man who can make statements without proofs. I did not do it with Meucci and I do not see why I should do it with Bell. Who knows? Perhaps in the future I may do some more research. I can, however, state that the theoretical description of the electrical transmission of speech in Bell’s first patent is nearly perfect and appears to me as the first clear treatise ever written. It would have been a wonderful paper for a scientific magazine like Nature, but not actually suitable for a patent (and this is one of the reasons it was attacked by the US Government as well as by Bell’s competitors).

ACCENTI: Your account of Meucci’s life, Antonio Meucci: The Inventor and His Times reads like a novel. You recount events, for example, Meucci’s baptism in the Battistero di S. Giovanni in Florence in 1808 or Meucci’s days at the Accademia di Belle Arti where he was a student, as though you were there. What made you decide to write Meucci’s biography using this technique?

Basilio Catania: The reason for adopting this technique is simple. I divided each volume into two parts: main text and appendices. I drafted the main text in a way that anyone who reads it could possibly imagine “living” in the places and times where the events take place. The appendices contain technical information. For topics that are not sufficiently “large” to justify an appendix, I added sidebars in the main text. Though the style of the main text is that of a novel, the names, dates and places are not fictitious.

ACCENTI: You sifted through literally tens of thousands of pages of archival material in different parts of the world. What was it like transporting yourself almost 200 years into the past?

Basilio Catania: I must confess that, given my frame of mind, I would have been absolutely unable to write a single line of my book if I could not relive, moment by moment, all the events, breathe the same air, be immersed in the same environment, even hear the voices of the characters, as in a movie. I therefore needed to study the history and customs, gather some 1,500 old photographs, read some 5,000 newspaper clippings of the times, read books describing the old Manhattan, the old Staten Island, the old Havana, the old Florence and the customs in which Meucci must have engaged. I think I worked ten hours a day for about thirteen years. And … I would do it again.

ACCENTI: To what degree do you think your work has vindicated Meucci’s name and by extension his Italian heritage.

Basilio Catania: My work has shown that there are incontrovertible proofs of Meucci’s invention of very advanced telephone techniques, and this has been accepted by scientific bodies all around the world. Also, in the US Government vs. Alexander Graham Bell trial, the US Government fully supported Meucci’s priority.

ACCENTI: The US House of Representatives recently passed a resolution recognizing Antonio Meucci as the inventor of the telephone. This prompted Canadian Heritage Minister Sheila Copps to propose a motion, passed by the Canadian Parliament, which states that “Alexander Graham Bell of Brantford, Ontario, and Baddeck, Nova Scotia, is the inventor of the telephone.” What do you make of Minister Copps’ action?

Basilio Catania: The Canadian reaction to an unfortunate passage in Resolution No. 269 of the US House of Representatives is quite understandable. In my opinion the insinuation against the morality and scientific stature of Alexander Graham Bell, in the above resolution, was both unnecessary and unproven, though there had been suspicions that Bell might have fished something from Meucci’s ideas. Personally, I would have refrained from stating anything that is not fully proven. I do, however, appreciate that, in the Canadian motion pro Bell, nothing is said against Antonio Meucci. I also appreciate what was published by The Toronto Star on June 20, 2002, where it was reported, among other things, that Brian Wood, curator of the Bell Homestead Museum in Brantford, was surprised to hear of the US resolution, but declared: “If this can be proven, then Meucci certainly deserves recognition as contributing to the realm of telephony.” It is another confirmation of the well-known Canadian fair play.

ACCENTI: In your recent lecture tour of Canada which took you to Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, you discussed both the way you went about researching your subject – that is, gathering the evidence – and the evidence itself. How did Canadian audiences respond to your presentations?

Basilio Catania: Magnificently. Besides the great success at Concordia University in Montreal and at the University of Toronto, I should like to mention Ottawa’s Communications Research Centre, where a number of eminent researchers in telecommunications, working for the Canadian Government, were deeply interested in the explanation of the scientific proofs in favour of Meucci.

ACCENTI: What aspects of the subject of Antonio Meucci need further research in your view? In other words, on what aspects would you like to see present and future Meucci researchers and scholars concentrate their efforts?

Basilio Catania: There are plenty of issues that I was not able to cover, because of limited time or insurmountable difficulties. One is to find the issue of L’Eco d’Italia, of sometime in early 1861, where Meucci’s invention was published. Up to now, no libraries in the USA possess that issue. However, more than new research, I think that an effort should be made towards bringing the results of my research to schools at all levels as well as to encyclopedias and to history books. This should avoid that such fundamental issues rapidly fall into oblivion and the old, wrong history about the invention of the telephone be perpetuated.

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 3.

Share this post

scroll to top