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Alexander Graham Bell and the Invention of the Telephone

Updated on October 17, 2015
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Early Life

Alexander Bell (called "Alec" by his family) was born on March 3rd, 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was one of three children. His younger brother, Edward (Ted), died of tuberculosis in 1867. His older brother, Melville, died in 1870, also of tuberculosis, leaving behind a widow.

Alec's father, grandfather, and uncle were all early speech pathologists, or self-titled "professors of elocution". They not only helped people who had speech impediments such as lisps and stuttering, but they also helped people learn to speak "proper" English to help them fit in to a higher station in life.

His mother was very hard of hearing because of a childhood infection. Alec was very sensitive to his mother's increasing hearing loss. He would often sit by her side and spell things out to her using the English double-hand manual alphabet so she wouldn't feel left out of what was going on. This established a life-long interest in helping the profoundly hard-of-hearing integrate into society.

His father developed what was known as "Visible Speech". This was a series of written symbols that could be used to record any type of sound. Alec became proficient in Visible Speech and would often take part in demonstrations. While Alec was out of earshot, his father would use Visible Speech to write down words, often in other languages, suggested by members of the audience. When Alec returned to the lecture hall, he could read the Visible Speech and pronounce the words correctly, even though he had never heard them spoken and often didn't even know what language they were in.

While he was still young, Alec taught himself how to play the piano. He became the unofficial pianist during family gatherings. He was able to easily read sheet music and would play with such concentration that he would end up with a headache.

These early experiences helped cement Alec's fascination with sound. He experimented with different ways to make sound. At a young age, he developed a very basic artificial larynx that he could pump air through and produce some sounds similar to speech.

Voyage to the New World

Alec had frequent health issues when he was young, including symptoms that seemed related to tuberculosis, the disease that killed both of his brothers. In 1870, when he was 23 years-old, Alec's father decided to move the entire family from the dirty cities of Europe to the fresh, bracing air of Canada. They purchased a small farm near Brantford, Ontario.

Alec's health improved in the clean air. He gained strength, weight, and energy, but there wasn't much to stimulate his mind in the isolated environment.

He continued experimenting with sound. He had the idea of using tuning forks in conjunction with a telegraph. By having the forks tuned to different frequencies, he thought it would be possible to transmit multiple simultaneous messages across the same pair of wires. This would greatly increase the capacity of telegraph lines and would be a valuable invention.

Boston

In March of 1871, Alec received an invitation to teach deaf children in Boston for a few months. Eager to pursue his own interests and cease being a burden to his parents, he quickly accepted the invitation and hurried to Boston. He soon became a valued teacher of the deaf. In addition to teaching the children at the school, he also gave private lessons to adults who were deaf, had speech problems such as stuttering, or who simply wanted to speak proper English.

He spent his days teaching the deaf and his nights working on his experiments. Because he didn't have the money to get a patent, he had to work in secrecy to protect his telegraphy idea. Earlier experiments had given him some understanding of how the larynx functioned to produce sound. After he studied the eardrum, anvil, hammer, and stirrup bones of a human ear that he got from a Boston ear specialist friend, he began to understand how the ear processed sound into vibrations. He was suddenly struck by the idea that those vibrations, coupled with electromagnets, batteries, and wire, could make a fluctuating electrical signal that could carry the human voice. The telegraph would be obsolete!

Boston circa 1880
Boston circa 1880 | Source

The Hubbards

In October 1873, a new student, 15 year-old Mabel Hubbard came under the tutelage of Alec Bell. Like many people of that time, she had lost her hearing at a young age as a result of an infection. In her case, it was scarlet fever, but meningitis, diphtheria, and chicken pox also frequently left their young victims deaf.

Mabel's father, Gardiner Hubbard, who later became the first president of the National Geographic Society, was a well-to-do Boston lawyer. He had spent much of the prior two years lobbying Congress to break the monopoly on telegraph service held by Western Union. The so-called Hubbard Bill did not pass. The time and money Gardiner spent on his failed project left him short of funds. Not knowing about Alec's experiments, he started looking for an inventor to back to develop a way to send multiple simultaneous messages over one telegraph line. Being first to patent such an invention would be the answer to his financial problems.

In 1874, Alec Bell, being an effective teacher to Mabel Hubbard, was invited to a tea party at the Hubbard's. While playing the piano, he explained to the Hubbard family how the tones and frequencies of the strings interact. He also stated that the piano would react to a signal of the same frequency from a telegraph. This immediately caught Gardiner's attention and Alec further explained his theory of how to send multiple telegraph messages at the same time.

This was exactly what Gardiner had been searching for.

There was soon a partnership agreement between Alec Bell, Gardiner Hubbard, and Thomas Sanders. Gardiner and Thomas would provide the financial backing and Alec would provide the inventions. Although he now had financial backing, the funds that Hubbard and Sanders provided were meager. Alec had to continue to teach to make ends meet.

Distractions

Over the next half-year, Alec and Thomas Watson, his new assistant paid for with Hubbard/Sanders funding, made some progress. Watson was a skilled machinist from Salem who had the ability to translate Alec's ideas and instructions into working models. Alec was distracted by his idea of transmitting voice messages instead of telegraph messages. More importantly, he was also very distracted by his now 17 year-old student, Mabel.

Mabel's parents were not enthusiastic about Alec's attention towards their daughter at first. She was too young. Alec, while skilled at teaching the deaf, still had no commercial success as an inventor and did not have sufficient means to support a family. Mabel herself, although flattered by the attention, was ambivalent at first. After months of getting to know one another better, they became engaged on Mabel's 18th birthday.

Alec continued to be distracted by many different ideas and spent little time working on his multiplexing telegraph invention. This caused great tension with Gardiner Hubbard, who was still financing Alec's research and still needed a commercially successful invention. Mabel was able to use her influence to get Alec to pursue his inventions more diligently.

Bell telephone in use.
Bell telephone in use. | Source

Patents

In April 1875, Alec Bell was granted Patent Number US161739 titled "Improvement in transmitters and receivers for electric telegraphs". This was the device for sending multiple messages on a single telegraph line and was what Gardiner Hubbard had been pushing him to complete.

In March, 1876, Alec was granted Patent Number US174465 titled "Improvement in telegraphy". This was the idea for the telephone. Just a few days later, on March 10th, 1876, the words "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!" were clearly transmitted by wire for the first time. (These words were not planned to be the first transmitted; Alec had spilled battery acid on himself and needed Tom's help cleaning up.)

Alec Bell now had a working model. However, he would need more than a model for a commercial success.

Further Development

At Gardiner's urging, Alec reluctantly demonstrated his invention at the World Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. The highly impressed judges awarded him a gold medal for electrical equipment. He also received a gold medal for his Visible Speech display.

Alec Bell and Tom Watson continued improving the telephone. In May of 1876, they began giving public demonstrations of the device to fascinated audiences over increasing distances. Even though Alec charged a fee to perform these public demonstrations, the income was small and unreliable. After a while, audiences began losing interest as new inventions vied for their attention.

Commercializing the Telephone

The business world finally started to realize the potential of voice communication over long distances in 1879. That year, an experimental telephone exchange was set up in Boston connecting a few banks and businesses. Gardiner Hubbard used his law experience to legally form the Bell Telephone Company.

Hubbard, Thomas Sanders, Tom Watson, and Alec Bell were the shareholders. In early July, there were about 200 telephones. By the end of August, that number had increased to 1,300. By 1880, there were more than 54,000, and by 1890 there were more than 233,000 telephones in service. (Source - Table 2, Page 5, Department of Commerce and Labor, Special Reports, Telephones and Telegraphs 1902)

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Marriage

With his financial future finally looking brighter, Mabel's parents gave Alec permission to marry their daughter. They married on July 11, 1877. As a wedding present, Alec gave Mabel all but ten of his shares of Bell Telephone company. They traveled to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon and then on to Brantford in Ontario, Canada to visit Alec's parents.

After a brief return to Boston for a shareholders meeting, they boarded a ship and steamed across the Atlantic to Scotland. They spent a year in Europe visiting different cities and demonstrating the telephone. This included a demonstration to Queen Victoria at her residence on the Isle of Wight.

The Bell's return to America was delayed by the news of Mabel's pregnancy. On May 10, 1878, she gave birth to a daughter who they named Elsie May. Years later, the Bell's had another daughter (Marian Hubbard) as well as two sons (Edward and Robert) who both died in infancy.

Challenges

Although the telephone was becoming popular, it still wasn't generating much income. While in Europe, Alec learned that Thomas Edison and Elisa Gray had both challenged his patent. William Orton, the president of Western Union, began illegally manufacturing and selling telephones despite the patent protection. Other people in Europe were selling telephone kits which didn't work and were tarnishing the reputation of Alec's invention.

Gardiner tried to get Alec to return to America to dispute these patent challenges and infringements, but Alec, who didn't like confrontation and abhorred paperwork, was very reluctant. His year in England was a failure from a business perspective. He talked about abandoning the telephone so he could go on and work on new things. He was determined to return to the New World and go back to Visible Speech and teaching the deaf. In October 1878, he boarded a steamship headed to Canada.

Tom Watson met him on the dock at Quebec City. After much effort, he got Alec to agree to come to Boston to give a preliminary statement in the patent lawsuit after he safely delivered his wife and daughter to his parents in Brantford.

After several lengthy court battles, all of which were decided in Alec's favor, financial success was at hand.

Money

In May 1879, six months after returning from England, the Bells were in dire financial straits. By the end of 1880, after the first major lawsuits were concluded, the Bells had an annual income of $24,000 per year from their shares of the company. That was the equivalent of $500,000 in 2011 dollars. This was during a time before there was an income tax, so the money went further than it would today. Additional income would come from the rights to the telephone in other countries around the world.

Post-Telephone Work

While Alexander Graham Bell is best known for his telephone, he also worked in other areas.

Photophone
He invented a way to transmit voice calls wirelessly using light from the sun, mirrors, and selenium (a semiconductor) coupled with his telephone. He did not develop this into a commercial product. It wasn't until the invention of fiber optic cables that this became commercially feasible.

Metal Detector
Alec invented a method to detect metal to try to find the bullet embedded in President James Garfield as he lay wounded. Garfield died of his injury before Alec perfected what he called the "induction balance".

Hydrofoil Boats
He experimented with hydrofoils at his Cape Breton summer home in Nova Scotia. One of his boats, the HD-4, set a speed record of 70.86 miles per hour, which held for 10 years. The U.S. Navy was initially interested, but the First World War had just ended and so did funding for new weapons systems.

Aeronautics
Bell experimented with tetrahedral box kites beginning in 1898. He later moved on to more conventional airplanes. Some of the contributions he made included the enclosed cockpit, a special coating consisting of gasoline, paraffin, turpentine, and yellow ocher that greatly increased the lift of cloth-covered wings, the tricycle undercarriage, and ailerons for maintaining level flight. These became standard equipment on planes made by all manufacturers at the time.

Other
He also developed improvements to the phonograph, which allowed it to become a useful product. He developed a "metal jacket" to assist breathing. This was the precursor to the iron lung that helped polio victims survive.

He also worked on methods to purify salt water for drinking, a device for detecting minor hearing problems, and early work on alternative fuels. He predicted the greenhouse effect caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

The inventor is a man who looks around upon the world and is not contented with things as they are. He wants to improve whatever he sees, he wants to benefit the world; he is haunted by an idea.

— Alexander Graham Bell

Later Life and Death

As time went on, the Bells spent more and more time at their house in Nova Scotia. The enjoyed the scenery and the slower pace of life compared to their homes in Boston and Washington DC. His Nova Scotia home is now the Bell Homestead National Historic Site.

Alexander Graham Bell died of complications of diabetes on August 2, 1922 at the age of 75. At the conclusion of his funeral two days later, every telephone in North America was silenced for 60 seconds in his honor. Five months later, Mabel Bell died of pancreatic cancer. They are both buried at their home in Nova Scotia.

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