The Western Union Telegraph Company, which in the early days had looked upon the telephone as negligible, suddenly awoke one morning to a realization of its importance. This Corporation had recently introduced its "printing telegraph," a device that made it possible to communicate without the intermediary operator. When news reached headquarters that subscribers were dropping this new contrivance and subscribing to telephones, the Western Union first understood that a competitor had entered their field. Promptly organizing the American Speaking Telephone Company, the Western Union, with all its wealth and prestige, proceeded to destroy this insolent pigmy. Its methods of attack were unscrupulous and underhanded, the least discreditable one being the use of its political influence to prevent communities from giving franchises to the Bell Company. But this corporation mainly relied for success upon the wholesale manner in which it infringed the Bell patents. It raked together all possible claimants to priority, from Philip Reis to Elisha Gray, in its attempts to discredit Bell as the inventor. The Western Union had only one legitimate advantage--the Edison transmitter--which was unquestionably much superior to anything which the Bell Company then possessed. Many Bell stockholders were discouraged in face of this fierce opposition and wished to abandon the fight. Not so Vail. The mere circumstance that the great capitalists of the Western Union had taken up the telephone gave the public a confidence in its value which otherwise it would not have had, a fact which Vail skillfully used in attracting influential financial support. He boldly sued the Western Union in 1878 for infringement of the Bell patents. The case was a famous one; the whole history of the telephone was reviewed from the earliest days, and the evidence as to rival claimants was placed on record for all time. After about a year, Mr. George Clifford, perhaps the best patent attorney of the day, who was conducting the case for the Western Union, quietly informed his clients that they could never win, for the records showed that Bell was the inventor. He advised the Western Union to settle the case out of court and his advice was taken. This great corporation war was concluded by a treaty (November 10, 1879) in which the Western Union acknowledged that Bell was the inventor, that his patents were valid, and agreed to retire from the telephone business. The Bell Company, on its part, agreed to buy the Western Union Telephone System, to pay the Western Union a royalty of twenty per cent on all telephone rentals, and not to engage in the telegraph business. Had this case been decided against the Bell Company it is almost certain that the telephone would have been smothered in the interest of the telegraph and its development delayed for many years.
Soon after the settlement of the Western Union suit, the original group which had created the telephone withdrew from the scene. Bell went back to teaching deaf-mutes. He has since busied himself with the study of airplanes and wireless, and has invented an instrument for transmitting sound by light. The new telephone company offered him $10,000 a year as chief inventor, but he replied that he could not invent to order. Thomas Sanders received somewhat less than $1,000,000 and lost most of it exploiting a Colorado gold mine. Gardiner Hubbard withdrew from business and devoted the last years of his life to the National Geographic Society. Thomas Watson, after retiring from the telephone business, bought a ship-building yard near Boston, which has been successful.
In making this settlement with the Western Union, the Bell interests not only eliminated a competitor but gained great material advantages. They took over about 56,000 telephone stations located in 55 cities and towns. They also soon acquired the Western Electric Manufacturing Company, which under the control of the Western Union had developed into an important concern for the manufacture of telephone supplies.