The Telephone Cases were a series of U.S. court cases in the 1870s and 1880s related to the invention of the telephone, which culminated in the 1888 decision of the United States Supreme Court upholding the priority of the patents belonging to Alexander Graham Bell. Those telephone patents were relied on by the American Bell Telephone Company and the Bell System—although they had also acquired critical microphone patents from Emile Berliner.
The objector (or plaintiff) in the notable Supreme Court case was initially the Western Union telegraph company, which was at the time a far larger and better financed competitor than American Bell Telephone. Western Union advocated several more recent patent claims of Daniel Drawbaugh, Elisha Gray, Antonio Meucci and Philip Reis in a bid to invalidate Alexander Graham Bell's master and subsidiary telephone patents dating back to March 1876. Had Western Union succeeded it would have immediately destroyed the Bell Telephone Company and then Western Union stood to become the world's largest telecommunications monopoly in Bell's place.
The U.S. Supreme Court came within one vote of overturning the Bell patent, thanks to the eloquence of lawyer Lysander Hill for the Peoples Telephone Company. In a lower court, the Peoples Telephone Company stock rose briefly during the early proceedings, but dropped after their claimant Daniel Drawbaugh took the stand and drawled: "I don’t remember how I came to it. I had been experimenting in that direction. I don’t remember of getting at it by accident either. I don’t remember of anyone talking to me of it".
In this case the court affirmed several other lower court cases: Dolbear et al. v American Bell Tel. Co., 15 Fed. Rep 448, 17 Fed. Rep. 604, Molecular Te. Co. et al. v American Bell Tel. Co. 32 Fed. Rep 214, People's Tel. Co. et al. v American Bell Tel. Co., 22 Fed. Rep. 309 and 25 Fed. Rep. 725. Well reversing American Bell Tel Co. et al. v Molecular Tel. Co et al. 32 Fed Rep. 214.
Bell’s second fundamental patent expired on January 30, 1894, at which time the gates were then opened to independent telephone companies to compete with the Bell System. In all, the American Bell Telephone Company and its successor, AT&T, litigated 587 court challenges to its patents including five that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, and aside from two minor contract lawsuits, never lost a single one that was concluded with a final stage judgment.
The Court's decision in the Telephone Cases is notable for the size of the opinions delivered; together, they occupy the entire 126th volume of the United States Reports.
Among the notable court cases involving the Bell Telephone Company, later renamed to the American Bell Telephone Company, were those related to challenges by Elisha Gray, a principal in Western Electric, as depicted in the Elisha Gray and Alexander Bell telephone controversy.
Additionally the Bell Company became embroiled in a number of challenges from those companies associated with Antonio Meucci, as shown in the Canadian Parliamentary Motion on Alexander Graham Bell, itself a response to the United States HRes. 269 on Antonio Meucci.
The Edison National Historical Park (ENHP) archives has seven bound volumes and one pamphlet of Patent Office proceedings relating to conflicting claims over who invented the telephone. Four of these volumes contain the record of a group of interferences entitled Cases A through L and Case No. 1. The disputant parties were Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Elisha Gray, A. E. Dolbear, J. W. McDonough, George B. Richmond, William L. Voelker, J. H. Irwin, and Francis Blake, Jr. Although Edison's preliminary statements were filed in September 1878, testimony was not taken until 1880. This record was printed in 1881. The second volume contains Edison's exhibits, including photo-lithographs of laboratory drawings, patents and patent applications, and newspaper and journal articles. The drawings have exhibit numbers corresponding to a page/volume numbering scheme used by Edison and his patent attorney Lemuel W. Serrell in 1880 when Edison's technical notes and drawings were numbered and examined for possible inclusion as exhibits in these interferences. Many of the documents in this numbered series were not selected as exhibits; they remain in the archives at the Edison National Historical Park....