3Alexander Graham Bell Didn't Invent the Telephone (But Did Defraud the Patent System)
The invention of the telephone is one of those storybook legends everyone learns as a schoolkid. You know how it goes -- Alexander Graham Bell is tinkering with his newfangled magic talking machine and says the legendary first words ever spoken into a phone: "Mr. Watson, come here." Then Watson probably picked up his phone and burned it for witchcraft.
Bell did look a lot like a wizard.
Except That ...
If you read Cracked frequently, you already know that Alexander Graham Bell was an idea thief on Inception-type levels. In fact, even if we were able to give all the credit back to the people from whom he stole his greatest innovations, we would probably still celebrate Bell for all the crazy inventive ways he went about stealing inventions. For instance, he stole the idea for the first telephone from an Italian inventor named Antonio Meucci.
Alias: Santa Claus.
But then you have another victim, named Elisha Gray, and some impressive levels of legal fuckery that Bell used to screw him out of a patent. Gray developed one of the very first methods for a voice-transmission system using a revolutionary liquid transmitter that allowed voice to be clearly and intelligibly heard over the phone, a vast improvement over the tinny gibberish that other inventors (like Bell) were able to produce. And unlike Meucci, Gray had the money and wherewithal to keep his patent from expiring.
And, apparently, to afford a barber.
However, unbeknownst to Gray, Bell and his attorney had been bribing a patent examiner named Zenas Wilber to alert them any time someone was patenting any idea even remotely related to a phone, because they wanted to ensure that no one would end up beating them to the punch with a finished product. When Gray let the patent office know of his impending filing, Wilber quickly alerted Bell. Bell's lawyer then intercepted Gray's papers and saw that the guy had actually figured out how to make a working telephone ahead of Bell. Hurriedly, the lawyer scribbled a few lines on Bell's patent application, stealing Gray's liquid-transmitter design, and submitted them later that same day.
That's not just speculation, either -- Wilber confessed to his crime in detail when Gray launched a patent suit. In a sworn affidavit that was published in The Washington Post, Wilber said that he was a drinker and needed the money Bell was offering to support his habit, which meant that Alexander Graham Bell was basically caught in the act of thievery. So, how come no one has ever heard of Elisha Gray? Well, despite the fact that Gray's application arrived faster than Bell's, and despite the fact that a man confessed to being a drunken bribe taker, Bell still managed to win the battle and Gray slipped into obscurity.
On the left is Gray's original patent application, and on the right is Bell's doodled ripoff.
2Betsy Ross Didn't Make the First American Flag
One of the first things kids learn about U.S. history, aside from the fact that George Washington was the first president and that it was illegal to be a general in the Civil War without some sort of creative facial hair, is that Betsy Ross created the first American flag. The story goes that one day a congressional flag committee, of which George Washington was a member, kicked through the wall of Ross' shop to commission the creation of a new flag (Washington hated doors and refused to use them).
Ross, ever the brutally honest patriot, wasted no time in telling Washington that his flag design was a piece of shit, and instead sketched a new flag with 13 red and white stripes, a blue field, and 13 five-pointed white stars. Washington, humbled by Ross' graphic design prowess, entrusted her with the creation of the new flag.
"Are you sewing a condom? Because that won't be nearly large enough for Mr. Washington."
Except That ...
The Betsy Ross story didn't become public folklore until about 100 years after it supposedly occurred. Oh, and the source of the story was Ross' grandson, William Canby. Canby presented the tale to the Pennsylvania Historical Society, along with ironclad proof in the form of signed affidavits from family members who swore that they had, indeed, heard that story before. The Ross family was so adamant about spreading the story that they went so far as to have a painting made of the alleged meeting, thus satisfying the adage "Pics or it didn't happen."
"There goes my design career. Guess there's nothing to be but president now."
The truth is that there isn't really any historical evidence that Ross had anything to do with the design or manufacture of the first American flag at all. There are no congressional records of a flag committee ever being formed, and since George Washington was the commander-in-chief of disemboweling redcoats at the time, he likely had better things to do than listen to a Philadelphian widow tell him how bad his flag sucks.
Instead, the most likely candidate for the first flag design was a man by the name of Francis Hopkinson. In addition to being a representative of New Jersey and a Declaration signatory, Hopkinson designed a number of seals and logos for the government. As far as actual evidence, there isn't much ... well, except for congressional journals that explicitly name Francis Hopkinson as the true creator of the first flag. But it's understandably more fun to picture an old lady in the back of a shop shaking her head at the childlike drawing made by America's first forefather before crumpling it up and promptly outdoing him.
This guy doesn't look like anyone's grandma.