Alexander Graham Bell: Spirit of Innovation 100 Years Later

alexander graham bell achievements

A century after his death, we want to take a deeper dive into the remarkable man behind the spirit of innovationAlexander Graham Bell.

When Alexander Graham Bell passed away one hundred years ago in 1922, the telephone was forty-six years old. If somehow he were still here today, he would surely marvel at the many advances his society-changing invention has gone through since its birth in 1876.

From calling the operator to break through a busy signal to cell phones and Apple watches—we think he would enjoy the way his invention changed communication as we know it! 

A century after his death, we want to take a deeper dive into the remarkable man behind the spirit of innovation—Alexander Graham Bell. 

Alexander Graham Bell’s Childhood

While living in a Georgian-style townhouse on St. Charlotte Street in Edinburgh, Scotland, on March 3, 1847, Professor Alexander Melville Bell, a phonetician, and Eliza Grace Bell had their second boy. Though his older brother Melville James and young brother Edward “Teddy” Charles were both given middle names, Alec was not. 

On his eleventh birthday, he was permitted to adopt the middle name, Graham, chosen in honor of Canadian Alexander Graham, one of his father’s former students and a family friend.

Eliza Bell encouraged Alec to teach himself how to play the piano—a skill he mastered and used to entertain for the remainder of his life. He is described as a kind and somewhat shy boy who showed talent for poetry and art. By the time Alec entered Royal High School, he was interested in little beyond science. 

Alec completed his high school education at fifteen. His father’s passion for physiological phonetics research grew roots in young Alexander Graham Bell, and he was well on his way to becoming one of the most influential scientists in world history.

Becoming the Great Communicator

By the time Alec was twenty-three, his father was very active on the lecture circuit in London. Alec entered the London phase of his life with great enthusiasm. However, his unrelenting full schedule caused a near-crisis-level deterioration of his health.  

Fearing for their last living son’s health, his parents relocated the family to Canada. While living with his parents, Alec would use his superpower—a desire to improve life for others —to invent the early makings of a phonetic contraption that would forever change how all of humankind communicates.

Honorary Mohawk Chief

Alec’s health improved rapidly upon his arrival in Brantford. He enjoyed Canada’s seasonal environment and continued his studies on the human voice. As he became more familiar with his environment, he wandered to the Grand River and Onondaga, where he discovered the Six Nations Reserve and the Mohawk Tribe. 

Their language was unwritten, so Alec learned and translated it into visual speech symbols. His work was so important to the tribe they thanked him by making him an Honorary Chief and allowing him to wear a Mohawk headdress during the ceremony.  

Alexander Graham Bell—The Dreamer

One hundred and twenty-four years before Jeff Bezos’s 1994 launch of Amazon out of his parent’s garage, Alec converted his parents’ carriage house into his laboratory. He quickly and comfortably settled in, having improved a pump organ called a melodeon, where he improved the distance the sound of the organ traveled via electricity.

Alec and his father were now professional peers and interacted as such, supportive and entrepreneurial as they planned to set up a teaching practice together. When Melville was invited to teach his System of Visible Speech in Montreal, Alec joined him. 

Recognizing that Alec was healthy again and seeing an opportunity for his brilliant son Melville encouraged him to travel to Boston to lecture about and teach visible speech to educators of the deaf. Alec obliged, and he was off to his next adventure in Boston.  

By this time, it was April 1871, and it is not hard to guess how quickly Alec became an expert voice in educating the deaf in and around Boston. Little did anyone know, Alexander Graham Bell the dreamer was about to morph into one of the most prolific thought leaders of all time.

The First Patent

By 1872 Alec was back in Brantford working on experiments to improve the harmonic telegraph. His time in Boston was a success, and he left the door open for a return, which happened later that year when he opened the School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech in Boston.  

Also in 1872, Alec met Gardiner Greene Hubbard,  a Boston lawyer and financier, who provided financing to accelerate Bell’s work in sending messages and sounds over wires.  In 1873, Hubbard’s daughter Mabel became one of Bell’s students, and a few years later they fell in love.  With Mabel’s encouragement, Bell completed the fundamental experiments that proved he could send sound over wires.  

On March 7, 1876, a twenty-nine-year-old Alexander Graham Bell received a patent for the technology that sends sound over a wire. Thomas Watson was Alec’s assistant. A determined Alec Bell must have been thrilled to achieve this incredible feat!

On March 10, 1876, Alec called Thomas from a separate room and said, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” 

The Rise of the Telephone

While Mabel and Alec were engaged to be married, Mabel encouraged Alec to attend The U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, which featured Alec’s newly minted telephone. Alec was awarded a Gold Medal for Electrical Equipment and a Gold Medal for Visual Speech.

Alec married Mabel in 1877, and founded the Bell Telephone Company with his father-in-law Gardiner Greene Hubbard, his assistant Thomas Watson, and Thomas Sanders. His company endured many lawsuits over the telephone patent. However, Alec vigorously defended his patent throughout his lifetime.

The Assassination of James Garfield

When an assassin shot President James Garfield in 1881, Alec was horrified upon hearing the news. Garfield did not die immediately, and Alec believed he could create some metal detector so that his doctor, Willard Bliss, MD, could remove the bullet lodged in his abdomen. 

When he arrived at Garfield’s bedside, he detected what he presumed to be the bullet in Garfield’s gut. Dr. Bliss insisted the bullet was on the other side of Garfield’s body and refused to do anything more than sticking his unsanitized fingers repeatedly in the wound.  

Garfield died seventy-nine days after he was shot on September 19, 1881. When his body was autopsied, the bullet was found in the location the metal detector indicated. Garfield ultimately died from sepsis and infection—and had Bliss removed the bullet successfully from the location Alec indicated, Garfield may have survived the assassin’s bullet.  

Birth of American Telegraph and Telephone

In 1877, Alec established The Bell Telephone Company with his father-in-law, Gardiner Greene Hubbard.  1n 1885, the two men established The American Telephone and Telegraph Company—the world’s first long-distance telephone network. However, Massachusetts slowed down the company’s growth because of its restrictive corporate laws. 

After restructuring, American Bell transferred its assets into American Telegraph and Telephone. By the end of the 19th century, AT&T was the parent company of American Bell and the Bell System, which was ultimately broken up due to antitrust laws in 1983.

A Legacy of Innovation

When Alec died on August 2, 1922, at his home in Nova Scotia, his beloved Mabel was at his side. By the time he died, he held eighteen patents for his work in communications.  

On the one-hundredth anniversary of his death, we remember Alec for being a devoted son and brother. The influence of his parents planted the seeds of science, culture, and humanity that never stopped growing. He was a devoted and loving husband and found a kindred spirit in his spunky and equally intelligent wife, Mabel. 

Alec shared his teaching with educators and innovated because he genuinely wished to help improve lives. In that process, he served the good of all humankind. We hope this look at Alexander Graham Bell helps inspire our readers towards continuous improvement on the one hundredth anniversary of his death.  

To learn more about Alec and his achievements, explore the rest of our resources.

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