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Alexander Graham Bell

inventor of the telephone

Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on March 3, 1847, the second of three sons born to Alexander Melville and Elisa Grace (Symonds) Bell. His mother was a portrait painter and accomplished musician, and his father taught deaf-mutes to speak and wrote textbooks on correct speech. His grandfather, Alexander Bell, also specialized in good speech, having acted for several years and later giving dramatic readings from Shakespeare. In 1858, young Alexander adopted the middle name Graham out of admiration for Alexander Graham, a family friend, and was called "Graham" by family and friends thereafter.

Early Career

Graham inherited his mother's musical ability, and was able to play by ear from infancy, but it was his father's career that would lead him to the invention for which he is known. In 1862, the elder Bell developed what he called "Visible Speech," a code of symbols which indicated the position of the throat, tongue, and lips in making sounds that could be used to help deaf people learn to speak, and all three sons assisted their father in public demonstrations of how Visible Speech worked.

Alexander Melville Bell's Visible Speech
Alexander Melville's Visible Speech

In 1863, Graham enrolled as a student-teacher at Weston House Academy, a boys' school near Edinburgh, where he taught music and speech in exchange for instruction in Latin and Greek. He became a full-time teacher there in 1865, following a year of study at the University of Edinburgh. In 1868 he moved to London, where he studied at the University of London and used Visible Speech to teach a class of deaf children at Susanna Hull's school.

In 1866, Bell carried out a series of experiments to determine how vowel sounds are produced. His idea of "telegraphing" speech began taking shape about this same time, thanks to a book describing experiments in combining the notes of electrically driven tuning forks to make vowel sounds. In 1868, Bell took charge of his father's work while the latter lectured in America. He became his father's partner in London the following year, and also specialized in the anatomy of the vocal apparatus at University College in London at the same time.

Move to America

Edward, the youngest of the Bell sons, died of tuberculosis in 1867, followed by Melville, the oldest son, in 1870. Fearing that Graham could be next, Alexander Melville Bell sacrificed his career in London and, in 1870, moved the family to Brantford, Ontario, Canada.

In 1871, Sarah Fuller, principal of a school for the deaf in Boston, asked Alexander Melville Bell to show her teachers how to use Visible Speech in teaching deaf pupils to talk. The elder Bell could not go, so he recommended his son. Graham moved to Boston and began teaching at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes that same year, opened the School of Vocal Physiology, a school for teachers of the deaf in 1872, and became a professor in speech and vocal physiology at Boston University in 1873.

One of Bell's private pupils was Mabel Hubbard, the daughter of attorney Gardiner Green Hubbard. Mabel had been deaf since being stricken with scarlet fever at the age of 4, and she and Bell developed a close relationship. The two were married on July 11, 1877, much to the delight of her father, who by then considered Bell a close friend. Bell also developed a close friendship with Thomas Sanders, a successful Boston merchant who had brought his son to Bell as a private pupil. When Sanders and Hubbard learned in 1873 that Bell had been conducting electrical experiments at night the two men got together and agreed to jointly finance the costs of those experiments.

The Telephone

At this time, Bell was not attempting to transmit sounds electrically. He was instead trying to send several telegraph messages over a single wire at the same time. He initially developed his idea for the telephone while visiting his father in Brantford in 1874, but continued his experiments with telegraphy. Lacking the time and skill to make all the necessary parts for his experiments, he went to an electrical shop for help, and it was there that he teamed up with Thomas A. Watson. The two men became fast friends, and Watson eventually received a share in Bell's telephone patents as payment for his early work.

As Bell continued his experiments, he became convinced that it would be possible to pick up all the sounds of the human voice on the harmonic telegraph. Then, on June 2, 1875, while Bell was at one end of the line and Watson worked on the reeds of the telegraph in another room, Bell heard the sound of a plucked reed coming to him over the wire, at which time he ran to Watson shouting "Watson, what did you do then? Don't change anything." After an hour or so of plucking reeds and listening to the sounds, Bell gave Watson instructions for making "the first Bell telephone," which transmitted the sound of Bell's voice to Watson the next day. The instrument only transmitted recognizable voice sounds, not words, however, and the men spent the rest of the summer conducting further experiments and refining the design. Bell began writing the specifications for his first telephone patent in September, and Patent #174,465 was issued to him on March 7, 1876. The telephone carried its first intelligible sentence three days later in the rented top floor of a Boston boardinghouse, when Watson clearly heard Bell exclaim "Mr. Watson, come here I want you" after Bell spilled battery acid on himself.

Bell's design sketch of the telephone
Bell's design sketch of the telephone

right: model of Bell's first telephone
model of Bell's first telephone

Bell exhibited his telephones at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in June 1876. One of the judges, Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil, was impressed by the exhibit, as was British scientist Sir William Thomson. The Bell Telephone Company was organized by Hubbard, Sanders, Thomas Watson on July 9, 1877, and Bell personally introduced his telephone to England that same month. By 1878, Bell had set up the world's first telephone exchange in New Haven, Connecticut.

Bell moved to Washington, D.C. in 1878. He did not actively participate in the telephone business that bore his name, but was frequently called upon to testify in lawsuits brought by men claiming to have invented the telephone before Bell. Several lawsuits reached the Supreme Court of the United States, which upheld Bell's patent rights in every case. In 1892, Bell inaugurated long-distance telephone service between New York and Chicago by placing the first call himself , and on January 25, 1915 he took part in the formal opening of the first transcontinental telephone line by talking on the telephone in New York to Watson in San Francisco. Aside from these two public occasions, Bell rarely used the telephone he had invented, and refused to have one in his study because it could easily distract him from his work.

Bell inaugurating long distance from New York to Chicago (he is in New York)
Bell inaugurating long distance from New York to Chicago (he is in New York)

Later Life

Graham and Mabel's first child, daughter Elsie May, was born on May 8, 1878; their second, daughter Marian "Daisy," was born on February 15, 1880.

In 1880, the French government awarded Bell the Volta Prize of 50,000 francs (~$10,000) for his invention of the telephone. Bell used the prize money to help establish the Volta Laboratory for research, invention, and work for the deaf. There he and associates Chichester Bell (a cousin) and Charles Sumner Tainter developed the method of making phonograph records on wax discs. Bell sold those patents in 1886 and used his share of the profits to establish the Volta Bureau, a branch of the laboratory, to carry on his work for the deaf. In 1890, he founded and financed the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf (now the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf).

In 1881, Bell successfully tested the "photophone," a device that enabled sound to be trasmitted on a beam of light; he never capitalized on this device, however. After President James Garfield was shot on July 2, 1881, Bell quickly developed an "induction balance" device that he then used to try and locate the bullet that remained lodged in the President's body. The device failed to find the bullet however, because Garfield's doctors had him laying on a bed with metal springs. Although Bell's device failed to help save the President's life, a refined version of it was used in surgery for several years before being superseded by x-ray machines. The death of Bell's infant son Edward on August 15 of that same year spurred him to design a device similar to the "iron lung." (Another infant son, Robert, died on November 17, 1883.) He also worked on a method of locating icebergs by detecting echoes from them, on methods to make fresh water from vapor in the air for men adrift at sea in open boats, and spent 30 years directing breeding experiments in an attempt to develop a strain of sheep that would bear more than one lamb at a time.

In 1898, Bell was elected to succeed his late father-in-law as president of the then small, almost unheard-of, National Geographic Society. Bell and his son-in-law, Gilbert Grosvenor (who married Elsie in 1900), took the society's dry journal and added beautiful photographs and interesting writing -- turning National Geographic into one of the world's best-known magazines. Bell was also one of the founders of Science magazine.

Interested in flying for much of his life, Bell helped finance S.P. Langley's experiments with heavier-than-air machines and used his influence on Langley's behalf. He also conducted a long series of experiments with man-lifting kites to test the lifting power of plane surfaces at slow speeds. In 1907, he, Glenn Curtiss, William Naldwin, Thomas Selfridge, and J.A.D. McCurdy (with funding from Mabel Bell) organized the Aerial Experiment Association. The group produced four powered aircraft by 1909, including the Silver Dart, which on February 23, 1909 became the first powered heavier-than-air machine to fly in Canada. In 1919, Bell and Baldwin built a hydrofoil that set a world water-speed record on September 4 that was not broken until 1963.

Alexander Graham Bell became a U.S. citizen in 1882. He spent most of his later life at his Beinn Bhreagh estate on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada, and died there on August 2, 1922.

The World Book Encyclopedia Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, 1978

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This page was last updated on December 05, 2018.