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Friday, 30 July 2010

Telephone inventor, Meucci, recognised after death

Dear Reader,

Who hasn't heard of Alexander Graham Bell? He is widely credited as the inventor of the telephone. However, if that is what you know, then you don't know enough about the telephone.

In June 2002, The Guardian reported that the US Congress had recognised that a poor immigrant from Florentine, Italy, was the true inventor of the telephone, and not Alexander Graham Bell as previously thought. (Ref: The Guardian, 11th June 2002. Bell did not invent telephone, US rules.) The media in Italy hailed the recognition which had been long overdue. The Italian media also went on to describe Alexander Graham Bell as a Scotsman who became rich by stealing the ideas of others. Here is an excerpt from the article:

Bell's immortalisation in books and films has rankled with generations of Italians who know Meucci's story. Born in 1808, he studied design and mechanical engineering at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, and as a stage technician at the city's Teatro della Pergola developed a primitive system to help colleagues communicate.

In the 1830s he moved to Cuba and, ... found that sounds could travel by electrical impulses through copper wire. Sensing potential, he moved to Staten Island, near New York City, in 1850 to develop the technology. ...

In between giving shelter to political exiles, Meucci struggled to find financial backing, failed to master English and was severely burned in an accident aboard a steamship.

Forced to make new prototype telephones after Ester sold his machines for $6 to a secondhand shop, his models became more sophisticated. An inductor formed around an iron core in the shape of a cylinder ... was used decades later for long-distance connections.

Meucci could not afford the $250 needed for a definitive patent for his "talking telegraph" so in 1871 filed a one-year renewable notice of an impending patent. Three years later he could not even afford the $10 to renew it.

He sent a model and technical details to the Western Union telegraph company but failed to win a meeting with executives. When he asked for his materials to be returned, in 1874, he was told they had been lost. Two years later Bell, who shared a laboratory with Meucci, filed a patent for a telephone, became a celebrity and made a lucrative deal with Western Union.

Meucci sued and was nearing victory - the supreme court agreed to hear the case and fraud charges were initiated against Bell - when the Florentine died in 1889. The legal action died with him.
(Source: The Guardian, 11th June 2002. Bell did not invent telephone, US rules.)

Sadly we must note that Meucci did not benefit from his invention during his lifetime. He seems to have had a string of bad luck: he failed to master the English language and suffered burns from an accident. Further, he not have the money to file the patent. Finally, he did not succeed in his court action against Mr Alexander Graham Bell. This was not due to any other factor than his death. He had a good case, but the good case perished when Mr Meucci expired.

Must this be the case for all court cases? Is it true that the death of the claimant brings with it an end of all his rights, including causes of action at court? In my opinion, his court action probably could not continue simply because of his financial situation.

Death of the Claimant: Cause of Action Survives!

For the interested reader, it must be noted that if a claimant had commenced his action in the Malaysian courts, the cause of action will survive even if he passes away. The cause of action will simply be continued by the legal representative of the estate of the deceased. This may be either the Administrator (of an intestate person) or his Executor (of a person who died leaving a will).

Here is an excerpt from a law article, Death of the Claimant and the Survival of Action for Dismissal without Just Cause or Excuse, by Dr Ashgar Ali Mohamad [2007] 2 MLJ lxxvii. (MLJ stands for Malayan Law Journal)

The estate of the deceased — the executor or administrator of the deceased plaintiff — may obtain an order of the court to carry on the proceedings for damages for wrongful dismissal under O 15 r 7(2) of the Rules of the High Court 1980 or O 8 r 7(2) of the Subordinate Courts Rules 1980. For example, O 15 r 7(1) of the Rules of the High Court 1980 provides; 'Where a party to an action dies or becomes bankrupt but the cause of action survives, the action shall not abate by reason of the death or bankruptcy'. Further, O 15 r 9(1) provides that if the plaintiff's personal representative does not apply for an order making them parties, the defendant may apply for an order that unless the action is proceeded within such time as may be specified in the order, the action be struck off.

Also, the Civil Law Act 1956 has a provision on this point. Section 8 deals with the effect of death on the cause of action. Section 7 deals with claims by dependants of a deceased person against the party causing the death of the deceased. Here is section 8 of the Civil Law Act 1956 reproduced in full.

8. Effect of death on certain causes of action

  1. Subject to this section, on death of any person all causes of action subsisting against or vested in him shall survive against, or, as the case may be, for the benefit of, his estate:

    Provided that this subsection shall not apply to causes of action for defamation or seduction or for inducing one spouse to leave or remain apart from the other or to any claim for damages on the ground of adultery.
  2. Where a cause of action survives as aforesaid for the benefit of the estate of a deceased person, the damages recoverable for the benefit of the estate of that person—
    1. shall not include any exemplary damages, any damages for bereavement made under subsection 7(3a), any damages for loss of expectation of life and any damages for loss of earnings in respect of any period after that person's death;
    2. in the case of a breach of promise to marry shall be limited to such damage, if any, to the estate of that person as flows from the breach of promise to marry; and
    3. where the death of that person has been caused by the act or omission which gives rise to the cause of action, shall be calculated without reference to any loss or gain to his estate consequent on his death, except that a sum in respect of funeral expenses may be included.

  3. No proceedings shall be maintainable in respect of a cause of action in tort which by virtue of this section has survived against the estate of a deceased person, unless proceedings against him in respect of that cause of action either—
    1. were pending at the date of his death; or
    2. are taken not later than six months after his personal representative took out representation.

  4. Where damage has been suffered by reason of any act or omission in respect of which a cause of action would have subsisted against any person if that person had not died before or at the same time as the damage was suffered, there shall be deemed, for the purposes of this section, to have been subsisting against him before his death such cause of action in respect of that act or omission as would have subsisted if he had died after the damage was suffered.

  5. The rights conferred by this section for the benefit of the estate of deceased persons shall be in addition to and not in derogation of any rights conferred on the dependants of deceased persons by section 7 and so much of this section as relates to causes of action against the estates of deceased persons shall apply in relation to causes of action under the said section as it applies in relation to other causes of action not expressly excepted from the operation of subsection (1).

  6. In the event of the insolvency of an estate against which proceedings are maintainable by virtue of this section, any liability in respect of the cause of action in respect of which the proceedings are maintainable shall be deemed to be a debt provable in the administration of the estate, notwithstanding that it is a demand in the nature of unliquidated damages arising otherwise than by a contract, promise or breach of trust.

Further Reading For interested readers, the following links may prove to be useful.
  1. Wikipedia's entry on Antonio Meucci
  2. Bob Estreich's Old Phones website, entry on Antonio Meucci
  3. Basilio Catania's website, entry on Antonio Meucci
  4. Telesanterno, 19th July 2010. 19 Luglio 1887: Meucci perde la causa contro Bell (Italian - click here for English translation)
  5. Wikipedia's entry on Invention of the Telephone
  6. Alexander Graham Bell's Patent no. 174,465.
  7. Washington Post, 26th February 2005. Accomplished, Frustrated Inventor Dies. (Mr Robert Kearns was the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper. His design was misappropriated by carmakers and he died frustrated, fighting to get his patent rights recognised.)
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