Patent law informs our ideas about who to credit for key inventions and discoveries. Patents are not always reliable indicators, however — sometimes an original inventor is unable to obtain a patent.
The invention of the radio is a good example. It is commonly believed, though mistakenly, that Guglielmo Marconi was the inventor of the radio. The true inventor was Nikola Tesla. Here’s the story:
Tesla in New York, Doesn’t Patent
In New York, a young inventor named Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) discovered he could use his Tesla coils to receive radio signals. Tesla tuned his coils to a particular frequency in order to magnify incoming electrical energy. By 1895, Tesla was transmitting a signal fifty miles away!
However, he did not patent his invention. In fact, that same year, disaster struck: A fire destroyed his lab along with his transmitting coils.
Marconi Patents in England
Across the Atlantic Ocean, another young inventor, Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), was building a device that utilized two circuits to transmit messages wirelessly. In 1895 Marconi sent his first radio signal. In 1896, Marconi received a patent on his invention.
Later, when Marconi wanted to transmit a signal across the English Channel in 1899, he utilized the Tesla oscillator to do it. In 1902, Marconi completed his first transatlantic radiotelegraph from England to Newfoundland.
Tesla Wins Early Patent Victory
Tesla quickly recovered from the fire damage. In 1898 he invented a radio-controlled robot-boat and patented it. Tesla demonstrated his radio device by remotely controlling the robot-boat in front of a crowd at the Electrical Exhibition in Madison Square Garden.
Tesla received his first patent in 1900 for his radio communications device. Marconi filed his first American patent application on November 10, 1900 for a similar device. Because Tesla got to the patent office first, Marconi’s application was rejected.
Over the next three years, Marconi’s American patent applications were repeatedly rejected because Tesla’s applications had priority, and because Marconi’s device used Tesla oscillators to perform.
The Rise of Marconi
Despite Tesla’s earlier victories, Marconi made a substantial comeback. The Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company received international attention, mostly due to Marconi’s family connections and the company’s skyrocketing stock value. On December 12, 1901, Marconi transmitted signals across the Atlantic Ocean.
In 1904, the US Patent Office reversed its previous patent awards to Tesla for the wireless radio and gave Marconi a patent instead. The reasons for this sudden change of heart are still a mystery. Marconi and Ferdinand Braun went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1909 for their contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy.
Tesla Fights For His Patent
In 1915, a furious Tesla sued the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company for infringement. The suit didn’t go far, though, as the Marconi Corporation had deep pockets to withstand a long-term lawsuit. Tesla didn’t have the funds to pursue the action, and eventually dropped it.
Just a few months after Tesla died, the US Supreme Court upheld his patent for his radio communications device.
The court ruling was controversial. The Marconi Company was suing the US government for infringement of some Marconi patents during World War I. The court resolved the situation by reinstating Tesla’s patents.
There is a lesson to be learned here: patent law is fickle, so be sure to translate your patents and file in multiple countries for extra security.
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