Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone invention changed the way the world communicates. Here’s how he did it.
You probably learned in school that it was Alexander Graham Bell who invented the telephone. You likely already know that Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone invention changed the world. But do you know the real story behind how the first telephone invention came to be?
Inspired by the Science of Sound
Alexander Graham Bell was born into a family that was preoccupied with sound. His father and grandfather were elocution experts, known today as speech pathologists.
When Bell was just a teenager, he and his brother invented a “speaking machine” that could mimic the voice of a baby saying “mama.” They studied their father’s anatomy books and recreated the elements of a human mouth and vocal cords.
The machine’s sound was so convincing that the landlady looked for a crying baby, only to find the boys admiring their invention in the stairwell.
This kind of intellectual curiosity foreshadowed Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone invention in 1876, among many others. His dedication and eagerness to create would eventually make him one of the defining inventors of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Improving the Telegraph
The telegraph was one of the most important inventions of its time. The idea of sending coded messages across long distances had been around in one form or another for centuries. But it wasn’t until the electric telegraph came about in the 1840s that the foundations of modern communication were laid.
By the 1870s, telegraph wire connected cities across the globe. But the technology was limited in its capacity because it could transmit only one message at a time. So before the genius idea for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone invention came along, he first set out to improve upon the telegraph.
From his laboratory in Boston, Bell applied his knowledge of phonetics to create a “harmonic telegraph.” He wanted to make a telegraph that could send several different notes simultaneously on the same wire.
The harmonic telegraph served as the basis for the modern telephone. Alexander Graham Bell’s observations about how sound traveled along a wire gave rise to his idea of transmitting a human voice in the same manner.
The race for an improved telegraph often overshadowed Bell’s idea for the first telephone. The telegraph was already in widespread commercial use, and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone invention was still just a great idea. But his work on the harmonic telegraph was hugely influential in his quest to transmit the human voice itself.
The Eureka Moment
Bell’s proximity to the hearing impaired informed his work in sound science. His mother and his wife were both deaf, and he was devoted to the cause of helping the deaf community. In fact, his tinkering and experimentation with the telegraph was just a passion project. His primary source of income was from his work as an elocution expert.
Alexander Graham Bell was particularly interested in developing technology to assist the deaf community. The result was a contraption that he dubbed “the ear phonautograph.” A person could speak into the machine, and a pen attached to a membrane would react by tracing a line.
Bell’s idea was that he could speak into it, and when his pupil mimicked him, they could compare the lines and help the deaf improve their pronunciation. Bell, however, was struck by how sound waves on a membrane could move the components of the machine. This revelation became the genesis for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone invention.
In inventing the phonautograph, Bell had essentially recreated the human ear. Bell understood that if sound could be transmitted as an electrical current, it would be possible for a “receiver” to interpret those vibrations. He realized it would be possible to convey the human voice across a wire.
Bell had employed an assistant by the name of Thomas Watson to help him with the harmonic telegraph. During their telegraphy experimentation, they had a breakthrough.
Alexander Graham Bell‘s Telephone Invention
In 1876, Watson plucked a spring in one room, and the sound came through on a receiver in the other. It was a bright twang, and it sounded the same on the receiver as when Watson plucked it.
This effect was of great importance to Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone idea. He sketched out a rudimentary diagram of the transmitter and receiver, and the very next day, he and Watson were experimenting on the world’s first telephone.
On the evening of March 10, 1876, Watson heard Alec’s voice emanating from the receiver in the next room, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you!”
Soon after filing their patents, Bell and Watson had perfected their new invention, and the telephone was ready for the public. The next step would be to find investors.
Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone invention amazed visitors at The Centennial International Exhibition of 1876. Though inventions like the Corliss steam engine seemed to be the mightiest, the telephone commanded attention for its utility to the average person.
As publicity mounted, so did the pressure to get the telephone into production. Finally, in 1877, Alexander Graham Bell and his business partners established the Bell Telephone Company and began manufacturing the device.
The Bell Telephone Company quickly established a commercial infrastructure that could support the booming demand. Engineers and inventors continued to improve Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone invention. By the turn of the century, there were more than 600,000 telephones in the United States alone.
The Bell Company became one of the most successful corporations of its time and eventually brought the telephone to almost every household in the United States.
Some had doubted Alexander Graham Bell’s idea in the beginning. The notion of transmitting a voice seemed too far-fetched and futuristic when the telegraph still reigned. But his knowledge of sound and the human voice gave him a unique perspective as an inventor. This depth of knowledge made Alexander Graham Bell one of the greatest inventors of all time.