Alexander Graham Bell is best known as the inventor of the telephone — the first to transmit the human voice by means of an electric current — but there was much more to this extraordinary man than his breakthrough in communications technology.
His grandfather Alexander Bell was an actor, photography enthusiast and elocution professor who may have been the model for Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion by playwright George Bernard Shaw. Alexander Melville Bell, Alec’s father, was an expert on the mechanics of speech who was a voice coach for those with speaking disabilities. Alec’s mother was an accomplished painter as well as pianist, despite her profound deafness; her son inherited his love of music from her, and he could play anything he heard by ear and distinguish variations of pitch and tone.
Born on March 3, 1847, in Edinburgh, Scotland, “Alec” Bell (as he was known to his family) was fascinated by sound from a young age, descending from two generations of what today would be called speech pathologists.
The middle of the Bells’ three sons, young Alexander invented a “speaking machine” when he was still in his teens. The machine’s imitation of a wailing baby crying “Mama” was so life-like that the Bells’ Edinburgh neighbor complained. The “speaking machine” was only one of several creations: while still a youth, on a challenge from a mill operator, Alexander developed a machine that removed the husks from grain. He was encouraged by his father to study and experiment with anything electrical, including telegraph technology. These illustrated the kind of learning he relished: hands-on discovery.
After studying at the University of Edinburgh and University of London, Bell became his father’s assistant. He taught the deaf to talk by adopting his father’s system of Visible Speech (illustrations of speaking positions of the lips and tongue to systemize speech). In London Bell studied physician and physicist Hermann Ludwig von Helmholtz’s experiments with tuning forks and magnets to produce complex sounds, as well as made scientific studies of the resonance or vibrations of the mouth while speaking.
But during this time, tragedy struck the Bell family: both of Alexander’s brothers died of tuberculosis, a dangerous lung disease that was endemic in Britain’s sooty industrial cities. Alexander himself probably contracted a mild form of the so-called “white plague,” so in 1870 his parents persuaded him to cross the Atlantic with them and settle in Canada’s healthier climate, in the prosperous little town of Brantford, Ontario. Their home is now the Bell Homestead National Historic Site.
By 1871 Bell was sufficiently recovered to move to Boston, Mass., to teach lip reading and oral speech at Sarah Fuller’s Boston School for the Deaf. This job reinforced his lifelong commitment to the interests of the deaf community. He also became a professor and president at the Clarke School for the Deaf, now the Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech, founded in 1872 in Northampton, Mass., became a professor of voice and speech at Boston University in 1873, and initiated conventions for teachers of the deaf. Throughout his life, he continued to educate the deaf, and he founded the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf, which became the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. He also tutored and mentored private students, including Helen Keller (1880–1968), and facilitated her introduction to teacher Annie Sullivan. Bell was a constant source of support for both teacher and student.
Inventing the Telephone
From 1873 to 1876, Bell spent his days teaching hearing-impaired children and his evenings experimenting with sound. The funds for his scientific experiments came from the fathers of two of his students. One of these men was the patent lawyer Gardiner Greene Hubbard, who was also the founder of the Clarke Institution; his daughter, Mabel, would become Alexander Graham Bell’s wife in 1877.
This was a period of intense interest in communications technology, with many inventors scrambling to invent an “electric speaking telephone.” Bell’s critical advantage sprang from his knowledge of the physiology of human speaking and hearing. To help deaf children, Bell had experimented in the summer of 1874 with a human ear and attached bones, along with materials including magnets and smoked glass. It was then that he conceived the theory of the telephone: that an electric current can be made to change its force just as the pressure of air varies during sound production. That same year he invented a telegraph that could send several messages at once over one wire, as well as a telephonic-telegraphic receiver While Bell supplied the ideas, Boston machinist Thomas Watson created the equipment. Working with tuned reeds and magnets to make a receiving instrument and sender work together, they transmitted a musical note on June 2, 1875. Bell’s telephone receiver and transmitter were identical: a thin disk in front of an electromagnet (a magnet created by an electric current).
On February 14, 1876, Bell’s future father-in-law Gardiner Hubbard filed for a patent, or a document guaranteeing a person the right to make and sell an invention for a set number of years. The exact hour was not recorded, but on that same day Elisha Gray (1835–1901) filed his caveat (intention to invent) for a telephone. The U.S. Patent Office granted Bell the patent for the “electric speaking telephone” on March 7. It was the most valuable single patent ever issued. It opened a new age in communications technology.
Bell continued his experiments to improve the telephone’s quality. By accident, Bell sent the first sentence, “Watson, come here; I want you,” on March 10, 1876. The first public demonstration occurred at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences convention in Boston two months later. Bell’s display at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition a month later gained more publicity. Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil (1825–1891) ordered one hundred telephones for his country. The telephone, which had been given only eighteen words in the official catalog of the exposition, suddenly became the “star” attraction.
Establishing an Industry
Repeated demonstrations overcame public doubts. The first two-way outdoor conversation was between Boston and Cambridge, Mass., by Bell and Watson on October 9, 1876. In 1877 the first telephone was installed in a private home; a conversation took place between Boston and New York using telegraph lines; in May the first switchboard (a central machine used to connect different telephone lines), devised by E. T. Holmes in Boston, was a burglar alarm connecting five banks; and in July the first organization to make the telephone a commercial venture, the Bell Telephone Company, was formed. That year, while on his honeymoon, Bell introduced the telephone to England and France.
The first commercial switchboard was set up in New Haven, Conn., in 1878, the same year Bell’s New England Telephone Company was organized. Charles Scribner improved switchboards, with more than five hundred inventions. Thomas Cornish, a Philadelphia electrician, had a switchboard for eight customers and published a one-page telephone directory in 1878.
The Bell Company
The Bell Company built the first long-distance line in 1884, connecting Boston and New York. Bell and others organized The American Telephone and Telegraph Company in 1885 to operate other long-distance lines. By 1889 there were 11,000 miles of underground wires in New York City.
Alexander Graham Bell far preferred the challenge of invention to the demands of business. In 1880, France awarded him its prestigious Volta Prize; Bell used the $10,000 award to establish the Volta Laboratory in Washington, D.C. Here, he and two associates focused on various projects on the transmission of sound, including the photophone, induction balance, audiometer and phonograph improvements. The photophone transmitted speech by light. The induction balance (electric probe) located metal in the body. When President James A. Garfield was wounded by an assassin in 1881, Bell and his induction balance were summoned to the White House to locate the bullet, but it was too deeply imbedded. The invention later went on to be used by military hospitals behind the lines of battles, including the First World War. The audiometer was used to test a person’s hearing. The first successful phonograph record was produced, and the Columbia Gramophone Company made them profitable. With the profits Bell established an organization in Washington to study deafness.
Bell’s Later Interests
By now, Alexander Graham Bell was one of the most famous people in the world. For the rest of his life, he continued to concentrate on his scientific work. But frequently he found himself distracted from his inventions by requests to head organizations, address scientific meetings and publish papers.
In 1880, the magazine Science (later the official publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) was established because of Bell’s efforts. As the National Geographic Society president from 1896 to 1904, he contributed to the success of the society; he insisted that the society’s magazine, National Geographic Magazine, should be a popular publication with lots of “pictures of life and action…pictures that tell a story!” He also coined its slogan: “The world and all that is in it.” In 1898 Bell became a member of a governing board of the Smithsonian Institution. He was also studied hydrodynamics (the study of the forces of fluids, such as water) and built speed record-breaking hydrofoils, or hydrodromes, as he called them. His research was the foundation for the development of naval prototypes after the Second World War, as well as sailboats for the most recent America’s Cup.
Aviation was Bell’s primary interest after 1895. He first emphasized the singular strength of the tetrahedral for kites, and his research is reflected today in the construction of the Space Station. He worked with physicist and astronomer Samuel Langley (1834–1906), who experimented with heavier-than-air flying machines; invented a special kite (1903); and founded the Aerial Experiment Association (1907), bringing together aviator and inventor Glenn Curtiss, Casey Baldwin, Douglas McCurdy and Lt. Thomas Selfridge. Curtiss provided the motors for Bell’s aircraft, including the Silver Dart, which flew February 23, 1909 and became the first manned flight in the United Kingdom. He also achieved the first public flight in the U.S. with the “June Bug” flown by Curtiss, which won the Scientific American Cup, the first aeronautical prize ever awarded in the United States, and preceded Wilbur Wright’s first public flight.
Bell saw knowledge, technology and invention as the means to empower the individual and better humanity. In 1878, Bell envisioned a future when “a man in one part of the country may communicate by word of mouth with another in a distant place.” By the time Bell died in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, Canada, on August 2, 1922, his most famous invention had allowed for the transmission of the human voice, easily and safely, and had profoundly impacted the interdependence of personal relationships and the social fabric of society. Today, it is nearly inconceivable not to have voice communication anywhere in the world.
But Bell was far more than the telephone. As he often told his first grandchild, Melville Bell Grosvenor, “I could no more stop inventing than breathing.” Bell’s extensive laboratory notebooks demonstrate that he was driven by a genuine and rare intellectual curiosity that kept him regularly searching, striving and wanting always to learn and create. He will also be remembered for these other significant inventions:
Bell and his colleagues developed the hinged flight control surface usually forming part of the trailing edge of each wing of a fixed-wing aircraft, which was adopted by the Wright brothers and is still used on aircraft today.
Graphophone and Cylinder Record
While Edison invented the principle of the phonograph using tinfoil, Bell improved on Edison’s invention with new recording methods and media—especially wax cylinders and disc records—making sound recording practical. His graphophone was a commercial success and led to the Dictaphone and Columbia Records companies. Produced on an experimental wax disc, this is the only confirmed recording of Bell’s voice.Bell made this recording in 1885 to test the kind of clarity that recording could capture with spoken numbers. On the recording, after several minutes of counting, Bell concludes: “This record has been made by Alexander Graham Bell in the presence of Dr. Chichester A. Bell—on the fifteenth of April, 1885, at the Volta Laboratory, 1221 Connecticut Ave., Washington, D.C. In witness whereof—hear my voice. Alexander Graham Bell.”
AudiometerBell invented this apparatus to test hearing ability. Because it was the first device to accurately measure levels of sound, the scientific community named the “decibel” in Bell’s honor.
Metal DetectorWhen President James Garfield was dying from an assassin’s bullet that doctors could not locate, Bell hurriedly invented a device to detect metal objects when they came in contact with an electromagnetic field. While the metal springs in Garfield’s bed hampered this first attempt to use what later become the metal detector, the device would later save many lives before the introduction of the x-ray machine.
RespiratorWhen the Bells’ son, Edward, was born prematurely and died from weak lungs, Bell designed a “vacuum jacket” to facilitate breathing. The apparatus was the forerunner of the iron lung, and of respirators used in hospitals around the world to save the lives of premature babies, accident victims, and others with impaired breathing.
Bell would continue to test out new ideas throughout his long and productive life. He also pursued other scientific and humanitarian endeavors, including work with tetrahedral structures, sheep-breeding, desalinization and water distillation, hydrofoils, as well as energy recycling and alternative fuels, coining in a 1911 speech, the phrase “greenhouse effect.”
But Bell was reluctant to move his ideas from the lab to the marketplace. His other technologies – such as the photophone, vacuum jacket (respirator), tetrahedral construction, hydrodrome, flying machine adaptations, disc record and graphophone – were exploited by others after his patents had expired. As biographer Charlotte Gray observed, Bell’s genius as an inventor was “his creative leaps of imagination.” And Bell’s imagination, “like his spirit,” Gray continued, “knew no bounds.”
For More Information:
- Bruce, Robert V. Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and The Conquest of Solitude. Cornell University Press. 1973, 1990.
- Gray, Charlotte. Reluctant Genius and the Passion for Invention. Arcade Publishing. New York. 2006, 2011.
- Grosvenor, Edwin S., and Morgan Wesson. Alexander Graham Bell. New York. Harry Abrams. 1997, 2016.
- Weaver, Robyn M. Alexander Graham Bell. San Diego. Lucent. 2000.