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Legacies: Collecting America's History at the Smithsonian, by Steven Lubar and Kathleen M. Kendrick
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Photophone invented by Alexander Graham Bell and Sumner Tainter, 1880
Photophone invented by Alexander Graham Bell and Sumner Tainter, 1880

In 1880 Bell established the Volta Laboratory in Washington, D.C., to undertake inventions beyond the telephone. That year he and his associate Sumner Tainter deposited at the Smithsonian two sealed tin boxes containing models and documentation of a device they called a photophone, which transmitted sound over a beam of light, and other apparatus. The inventors hoped that the sealed boxes would prove their priority in invention; they did not want to file a patent for fear of giving away secrets that would help competitors. When the boxes were finally opened in 1937, long after Bell's death, the inventions inside were historical relics, not technological breakthroughs.

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