Alexander Graham Bell
Alexander Graham Bell was born on March 3, 1847, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Bell’s family was long associated with the teaching of elocution (speech). His father, Alexander Melville Bell, was an expert in vocal physiology and elocution. Bell’s grandfather, Alexander Bell, was an orator and elocution professor in London. In Dublin, Bell’s uncle was also an elocutionist.
Bell’s mother was a painter and, despite partial deafness, a talented musician. As a young child, Alexander demonstrated a talent for art, poetry, and music that was encouraged by his mother. He mastered the piano without any formal training. Alexander also displayed a natural curiosity about the world, gathering botanical specimens as well as experimenting and inventing even in his early years.
Bell and his brothers received their early schooling at home from their father. Alexander Melville Bell had developed “Visible Speech,” a system of lip-reading with illustrations of speaking positions of the lips and tongue for people born deaf who have never heard what speech sounds like, and so are unable to learn to speak. “From my earliest childhood,” said Alexander Graham Bell, “my attention was specially directed to the subject of acoustics, and specially to the subject of speech, and I was urged by my father to study everything relating to these subjects.”
Bell attended school from the time he was 10 until he was 14. Then he lived for a year at his grandfather’s house, with long hours spent in serious discussion and speech training. Bell read the books in his grandfather’s library, studied tutorials, and developed a love of learning. This prepared him for enrolling at the University of Edinburgh and University College, London. After finishing college, Bell became his father’s assistant. He taught deaf people to talk by adopting his father’s system of visible speech.
When Bell was in his early 20’s, his two brothers died of tuberculosis. Bell himself had the disease and in 1870 the family moved to Canada looking for a better climate in which to live. After Bell recovered from the disease, he moved to the United States in 1871. Bell became a Professor of Vocal Physiology at Boston University, and trained teachers of deaf children. He also taught deaf mutes to speak; Bell’s most famous student was Helen Keller.
Bell’s interest in sound and vibration in his work with the deaf is what gave him the idea of sending sound over wires, leading to the invention of the telephone. In 1875 he had a major breakthrough while working with Thomas Watson, a mechanically-inclined electrician. One day, Bell was in his laboratory when he heard a sound on his end of the line. Watson was working on the other end at the time, and Bell hurried over to ask what he had done. Bell saw how the sound had been made and realized at last how a telephone could be built.
The very next day, Bell and Watson had the first telephone ready to try. However, it was not a success at first, and much more work had to be done on it. Finally on March 10, 1876, he called through a strange-looking instrument to his assistant two floors above: “Mr. Watson, come here.” Thomas Watson heard him and came. These now-famous words comprised the first sentence ever spoken on a telephone. The Bell Telephone Company was formed as a result of Bell’s work.
On July 11, 1877, Bell married Mabel Hubbard, one of his deaf students. The courtship had begun years earlier, but Alexander waited until he was more financially secure before marrying. Bell’s wedding present to his bride was to give her 1,487 of his 1,497 shares in the newly created Bell Telephone Company. By 1886, over 150,000 people in the United States owned telephones and Bell became a millionaire.
The Bell family home was located in Cambridge, Massachusetts until 1882 when they moved to Washington, D.C. while Bell attended to the numerous court cases involving patent disputes. As is sometimes the case in scientific discoveries, simultaneous developments can occur. Over a period of 18 years, the Bell Telephone Company faced over 600 lawsuits from other inventors concerning the rights to the telephone, but none was successful because the Bell patent was the first to be registered.
Thirty-nine years after his original call, Bell once again spoke “Mr. Watson, come here” on a telephone line that opened between New York and San Francisco in 1915. This time Watson could answer and he said, “It would take me a week now.” This was the first cross-country telephone call.
Although many other men had worked on the idea of sending sound over wires, Bell’s telephone was the first to send spoken messages and to allow two people to talk to each other. The early style of telephone had a single opening through which a person both spoke and listened. Ironically, Bell considered his most famous invention to be an intrusion when he was busy working and he refused to have a telephone in his study.
France awarded Bell the Volta Prize in 1880 for his invention of the telephone. Bell used the award money to set up the Volta Laboratory for performing experiments that might help the deaf. He then organized the Volta Bureau, which also helps the deaf. In 1888, Alexander Graham Bell became one of the founding members of the National Geographic Society.
In 1890, Bell founded the American Association to Promote Teaching of Speech to the Deaf, and he continued his research on deafness throughout his life. At the same time, Bell became involved in the eugenics movement and stated that since congenitally deaf parents were more likely to produce deaf children, couples where both parties were deaf should probably not marry. Even though his profession was working with deaf people, and both his mother and his wife were deaf, Bell hoped to one day eliminate hereditary deafness.
Bell will always be remembered as the inventor of the telephone, but he also developed several other devices. One was the audiometer which helped detect minor hearing problems by measuring a person’s ability to hear sounds. Another was the Graphophone, an early practical voice recorder. Bell’s interests were extremely varied and his inventions spanned a wide range of interests including a photophone, the first device to transmit messages by light; aerial vehicles; hydrofoils, a metal breathing lung; metal detectors; a device to locate icebergs; investigations on how to separate salt from seawater; selenium cells; and alternative fuels.
On August 2, 1922, when Bell was 75 years old, he died of diabetes at his private estate in Nova Scotia. Bell was survived by his wife Mabel and his two daughters, Elisa May and Marion. Bell’s patent on the telephone was said to be the most valuable patent ever issued, inaugurating a new age in communication technology. Upon the conclusion of Bell’s funeral, “every phone on the continent of North America was silenced in honor of the man who had given to mankind the means for direct communication at a distance.”*
*Osborne, Harold S. “Biographical Memoir of Alexander Graham Bell, 1847–1922.” National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Bibliographical Memoirs, Volume XXIII, First Memoir. Annual Meeting presentation, 1943, pp. 18-19.
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