Alexander Graham Bell
Born: March 3, 1847, Edinburgh, Scotland
Died: August 2, 1922, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada.
Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922) was a teacher, scientist, and inventor. He was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on March 3, 1847. As a child, he developed a love of language by reading Shakespeare and studying theater. Bell moved to Canada with his family when he was twenty-
There he worked with his father, teaching deaf students to speak. In 1871, Bell moved to Boston, where he opened a school for teachers of the deaf. He began a series of experiments using electronic devices to copy human speech. Bell discovered that speech could be transformed into electricity, transmitted by wire, and converted back into spoken words. On March 10, 1876, he spoke the first complete sentence ever transmitted by telephone: “Watson, come here. I want you.” Although other inventions would follow, Bell will always be remembered for his invention of the telephone. Bell died on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada, on August 2, 1922.
Alexander Bell (the middle name “Graham” was added later). He was the second of three sons born to Alexander Melville Bell and Eliza Grace Symonds. The study of sounds and speech might be called the Bell “family business.” Bell’s father and grandfather were both experts on the subject of human speech. His father invented a met hod of teaching deaf people to speak and published a book, Standard Elocutionist. His mother, who was partially deaf and an accomplished pianist, encouraged young Alexander’s interest in musical sounds. Alexander and his brother discovered that they could manipulate their pet dog’s voice box to make his barks sound like words. Young Alexander played the piano beautifully, but he was shy and not a very good student. His father, frustrated by Alexander’s poor performance in school, sent him to live with his grandfather. There, young Alexander, a timid middle child, grew into a confident young man. He developed a love of language by reading Shakespeare and studying theater. He returned to his parents, filled with excitement about sounds and speaking in a strong and powerful voice.
Bell attended Edinburgh University and the University of London. But his college studies ended before he could graduate because his family decided to move. His two brothers had died of tuberculosis, and his parents felt they needed to move far away from the tuberculosis epidemic to keep Alexander safe. In 1870, the Bell family moved to Brantford, Canada. In Canada, Alexander became his father’s assistant, teaching the deaf to speak using the elder Bell’s “visible speech” method.
This method used illustrations of the lips and tongue forming words and sentences to teach both hearing and deaf people how to create the sounds of language. At this time, Bell also became interested in a device designed by the German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz. Helmholtz used tuning forks to conduct experiments in sound. He invented a device that used an intermittent electrical current to activate an electromagnet. This in turn kept the tuning fork vibrating. The device spurred Bell to start working with telegraphic instruments and batteries. He told his friends, “Someday, someone will find a way to transmit speech and music by telegraphy.”
Moving to Boston
In April of 1871, Bell moved to Boston. There he opened a school for teachers of the deaf that popularized his father’s universal phonetic alphabet. In 1873, Bell was made a professor of vocal physiology at Boston University. In 1874, Bell applied for U.S. citizenship. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1882. Bell’s move to Boston was fortunate. The city, like Edinburgh, was a center for science and technology. It was also a financial and academic center. Boston revived Bell’s interest in science and technology. It set him on a course that resulted in his greatest invention, the telephone.
Inventing the Telephone
The invention of the telephone was a by-
But Bell did not believe, at first, that ordinary speech would have enough force to cause an armature to vibrate, thus reproducing words. Bell put the idea aside. He preferred to work on his harmonic multiple telegraph. This was a telegraph capable of sending several messages over the same wire, at the same time. One of Bell’s students, Mabel Hubbard, spurred Bell on in his work. He and Mabel later married. In early 1875, Bell hired Thomas A. Watson as his assistant. Both men worked on the harmonic multiple telegraph. In February of that year, Bell submitted his application for a patent.
However, Bell found out that a Chicago inventor, Elisha Gray, had beaten him by two days. Still, all was not lost. Bell was the first person to file patent applications covering a number of important parts for such a telegraphic system. However, Bell decided to change direction. He acted under the advice of Joseph Henry, head of the Smithsonian Institution and a famous American scientist. Henry encouraged Bell to pursue his idea for a telephone.
In June 1875, Bell and Watson made a key discovery. The act of removing a steel reed stuck on an electromagnet caused another reed to make an audible sound. Bell and Watson succeeded in transmitting a musical note by wire. More important, the receiver and the transmitter were the same: a metal disk in front of an electromagnet.
On February 14, 1876, Bell filed for a patent. It was granted on March 7. Three days later, Bell spoke the first complete sentence ever transmitted over a wire: “Watson, come here. I want you.” He said this because some battery acid had accidentally spilled on his clothing. Bell’s telephone was demonstrated at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On July 9, 1877, Gardiner Hubbard, Bell’s father-
Was Bell First?
When technological progress has advanced to a certain stage, it is common for multiple people at the same time to independently grasp the implications of that progress. Those implications often lead to new ideas, discoveries, and inventions by various people working independently of each other.In other words, Bell was not the only person to have the idea of sending speech through a wire. In 1860, German inventor Johann Philipp Reis created a lowfunctioning machine that transmitted inexact noises at limited frequencies. It could transmit tones and some vowels, and so it is often referred to as the “musical telephone.” Many Germans like to think that Reis was the inventor of the telephone.
In America, an Italian immigrant by the name of Antonio Meucci began developing a device he called the “telectrophone” in 1849. In 1871, he filed for a patent caveat (a one-
On February 14, 1876, Gray applied for a patent caveat for the telephone. It was the thirty-
Bell did not rest on his laurels after inventing the telephone. He was impressed by Thomas Edison’s work at his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Bell sought to duplicate Edison’s efforts by creating his own laboratory. See also Edison, Thomas Alva. Bell produced many inventions there. He invented the photophone (1880), which was able to transmit speech by light. He invented the spectrophone (1881), which used sound to detect the colors of the spectrum. And he invented the telephone probe (1881) to locate foreign metals (such as bullets) in the human body. Bell also contributed to the development of phonograph recording on wax discs.
In 1888, Bell was a founding member of the National Geographic Society. His fatherin-
Teacher of the Deaf
Bell maintained many friendships over his lifetime, including an especially close one with Helen Keller. Keller was a remarkable woman who gained the admiration of America. A serious illness had deprived her at the age of nineteen months of sight and hearing and, it was assumed, of speech. Most people believed she was unteachable. Her parents, however, were optimistic. When she was seven years old, they took her to meet Bell. He recommended Anne Mansfield Sullivan (1865–1936) once partially blind herself as a teacher for the child.
Sullivan came to live with her pupil and began her work on March 2, 1887. By the end of the month, she had taught Helen to communicate by touch. Keller progressed rapidly, learning to read, write, and later converse, proving that she possessed a powerful intellect. In 1904, she was graduated from Radcliffe cum laude and began the many philanthropic works for which she became famous. The story of her own life in her lectures and books proved inspirational to thousands. Bell took a lasting interest in Keller and her pursuits, and the two maintained a close thirty-
Bell was awarded many medals and honorary degrees. In his later years he spent much of his time at his estate on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada. Bell died there on August 2, 1922. Bell earned a reputation as an inventor, but he was most proud of his early work. Throughout his entire life, Bell always listed “teacher of the deaf” as his profession. When the New York Times published his obituary on August 3, 1922, it ended with the line, “Personally he was one of the most attractive of men.”