Gray was born in 1835 in a Quaker family in Ohio. He went to Oberlin College but he did not graduate. However, he experimented with and taught electricity in the science departments. In 1865, he invented a self-adjusting telegraph and received a patent. This was the first of a series of more than ninety patents that Gray would receive in his lifetime. In 1869, Gray co-founded a telegraph equipment supply company, named the Gray & Co. in Cleveland, Ohio. They mainly serviced the Western Union Telegraph Company, who also financed their company. Gray soon gave up his administrative role to focus more on inventions and became the chief engineer. His sponsors directed him to focus on the potentially lucrative field of acoustic telegraph rather than the unpromising field of the telephone. Mainly because of this, Gray did not disclose to anyone his invention for transmitting voice sounds until February, 1876. But it was too late as Alexander Graham Bell’s lawyers had submitted Bell’s patent application on the same morning. Bell is sometimes accused of stealing Gray’s idea. However, Bell used an improved magnetic transmitter, not Gray’s water transmitter for both public demonstrations and commercial use.
Despite losing out the telephone patent to Bell, Gray made many other inventions. In 1870, Gray invented a needle annunciator for hotels and elevators and also a microphone printer. In 1872, Western Union bought a third of Gray and Barton Co. and changed the name to Western Electric Manufacturing Company and Elisha Gray continued to invent for them.
By the age of forty, Gray retired to do independent research. He invented and gave public demonstrations of one of the world’s first electrical musical instruments, the ‘Musical telegraph’. This harmonic telegraph created oscillations of steel rods using electromagnets and this was transmitted over a telegraph wire. In 1875, he received patent for acoustic telegraphy. Gray is widely acknowledged as the father of the music synthesizer. In 1887, Gray invented a device to remotely transmit handwriting through telegraph wires, called teleautograph. These teleautgraph machines were used by banks, railways and also by the military. Gray also conceived of a closed-circuit television and he called it the telephote. Towards the end of his life, Gray worked on underwater signalling systems and was officially recognized as the inventor of the underwater signalling device after his death in 1901.