Alexander Graham Bell (born Alexander Bell) was a Scottish-born inventor, scientist and engineer who is credited with patenting the first practical telephone design. He also co-founded the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) in 1885. Bell became a United States citizen in 1882.
Many other noteworthy inventions marked Bell’s later life, including groundbreaking work in optical telecommunications, hydrofoils and aeronautics. Bell also had a strong influence on the National Geographic Society and its magazine while serving as its second president from January 7, 1898 until 1903.
Beyond his work in engineering, Bell had a deep interest in the emerging science of heredity & genetics. His work in this area has been called “the soundest, and most useful study of human heredity proposed in nineteenth-century America…Bell’s most notable contribution to basic science, as distinct from invention.”
Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on March 3, 1847. The Bell family home was located on South Charlotte Street and currently has a stone inscription marking it as Bell’s birthplace. He had two brothers: older Melville James Bell (1845–1870) and his younger sibling Edward Charles Bell (1848–1867), both of whom would die of tuberculosis. Bell’s father was Alexander Melville Bell, a phonetician, and his mother was Eliza Grace Bell (née Symonds). Born as just “Alexander Bell,” at age 10, he made a plea to his father to have a middle name like his two brothers. For his 11th birthday, his father acquiesced and allowed him to adopt the name “Graham,” chosen out of respect for Alexander Graham, a deaf Canadian client being treated by his father who had become a family friend. To close relatives and friends Bell remained “Aleck.” Bell and his family were members of the Presbyterian Church.
As a child, Bell displayed an intense curiosity about his world. Starting at an early age, he gathered botanical specimens and ran experiments. His childhood best friend was Ben Herdman, a neighbor whose family operated a flour mill. At the age of 12, Bell designed and constructed a homemade device that combined rotating paddles with sets of nail brushes; creating a simple dehusking machine that was put into operation at the mill and used steadily for a number of years. In return, Ben’s father John Herdman gave both boys the run of a small workshop in which to “invent.”
From his early years, Bell displayed a sensitive nature and a talent for art, poetry and music that was encouraged by his mother. With no formal training, he mastered the piano and became the family’s pianist. Despite being normally quiet and introspective, he reveled in mimicry and performed “voice tricks” akin to ventriloquism that would continually entertain family guests during their occasional visits. Bell was also deeply affected by the onset of his mother’s gradual deafness (she began to lose her hearing when he was 12). He learned a manual finger language so he could sit at her side and tap out silently the conversations swirling around the family parlor. He also developed a technique of speaking in clear, modulated tones directly into his mother’s forehead wherein she could hear him with reasonable clarity. Bell’s preoccupation with his mother’s deafness eventually led him to study acoustics.
As a young child, Bell, like his brothers, received his early schooling at home from his father. At an early age, he was enrolled at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, which he left at the age of 15, having completed only the first four forms. His school record was undistinguished and marked by absenteeism and lackluster grades. His main interest remained in the sciences, especially biology. To the dismay of his father, he treated other school subjects with indifference. Upon leaving school, Bell travelled to London to live with his grandfather, Alexander Bell, on Harrington Square. During the year he spent with his grandfather, a love of learning was born with long hours spent in study & many serious discussions.
At the age of 16, Bell secured a position as a “pupil-teacher” of elocution and music, in Weston House Academy at Elgin, Moray, Scotland. Although he was enrolled as a student in Latin and Greek, he instructed classes himself in return for board and £10 per semester. The following year, he attended the University of Edinburgh, joining his older brother Melville who had enrolled there the previous year. In 1868, not long before he departed for Canada with his family, Bell completed his matriculation exams and was accepted for admission to University College London.
In 1865, the Bell family moved to London. Bell returned to Weston House as an assistant master and in his spare hours, continued experiments on sound using a minimum of laboratory equipment. Bell concentrated on experimenting with electricity as a medium to convey sound and later installed a telegraph wire from his room in Somerset College to that of a friend. Throughout late 1867, Bell’s health faltered mainly through exhaustion and he contracted tuberculosis. His younger brother, Edward “Ted,” was similarly affected by tuberculosis. While Bell was recovering (by then referring to himself in correspondence as “A. G. Bell“) he served the next year as an instructor at Somerset College in Bath, England. However, his brother’s condition deteriorated; Edward would never recover.
In 1870, a 23-year-old Bell travelled with his parents and his brother’s widow, Caroline Margaret Ottaway, to Paris, Ontario to stay with Thomas Henderson, a Baptist minister and close family friend. The Bell family soon purchased 10.5 acre farm there at Tutelo Heights (now called Tutela Heights), near Brantford, Ontario. The property consisted of an orchard, large farmhouse, stable, pigsty, hen-house and a carriage house, which bordered the Grand River.
At the new homestead, Bell set up his own workshop in the converted carriage house near to what he called his “dreaming place,” a large hollow nestled in trees at the back of the property overlooking the river. Despite his frail condition upon arriving in Canada, Bell found the climate and environs to his liking, and rapidly improved. After setting up his workshop, Bell continued his experiments and research work with electricity and sound. He also modified a melodeon (a type of pump organ) so that it could transmit its music electrically over a distance.
In October 1872, Alexander Bell opened his “School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech” in Boston and attracted a large number of deaf pupils. His first class numbered 30 students. he also worked as a private tutor, and one of his pupils was Helen Keller, who came to him as a young child unable to see, hear, or speak. She was later to say that Bell dedicated his life to the penetration of that “inhuman silence which separates and estranges.” In 1893, Keller performed the sod-breaking ceremony for the construction of Bell’s new Volta Bureau, dedicated to “the increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the deaf.”
In 1872, Bell became professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at the Boston University School of Oratory. During this period, he alternated between Boston and Brantford, spending the summers at his Canadian home. At Boston University, Bell was “swept up” by the excitement engendered by the many scientists and inventors residing in the city. He continued his research in sound and endeavored to find a way to transmit musical notes and articulate speech, but although absorbed by his experiments, he found it difficult to devote enough time to experimentation. While days and evenings were occupied by his teaching and private classes, Bell began to stay awake late into the night, running experiment after experiment in rented facilities at his boarding house. Keeping “night owl” hours, he worried that his work would be discovered and took great pains to lock up his notebooks and laboratory equipment. Bell had a specially made table where he could place his notes and equipment inside a locking cover. Worse still, his health deteriorated and he began to have severe headaches. Returning to Boston in fall 1873, Bell made a far-reaching decision to concentrate excllusively on his experiments in sound.
By 1874, Bell’s initial work on what he called the harmonic telegraph had entered a formative stage, with progress made both at his new Boston “laboratory” (a rented facility) and at his family home in Canada. While working that summer in Brantford, Bell experimented with a “phonautograph,” a pen-like machine that could draw shapes of sound waves on smoked glass by tracing their vibrations.It was here Bell first formulated it might be possible to generate undulating electrical currents that corresponded to sound waves. Bell also thought that multiple metal reeds tuned to different frequencies like a harp would be able to convert the undulating electrical currents back into sound; however, he never developed a working model to demonstrate the feasibility of these ideas.
In 1874, telegraph message traffic was rapidly expanding; and in the words of Western Union President William Orton, had become “the nervous system of commerce.” Orton had contracted with inventors Thomas Edison and Elisha Gray to find a way to send multiple telegraph messages on a single telegraph line to avoid the great cost of constructing new lines. When Bell mentioned to Gardiner Hubbard and Thomas Sanders that he was working on a method of sending multiple tones across a telegraph wire using a multi-reed device, the two wealthy patrons began to financially support Bell’s experiments.
With financial support from Sanders and Hubbard, Bell hired Thomas Watson as his assistant and the two of them began to experiment with acoustic telegraphy. In 1875, Bell developed an acoustic telegraph and drew up a patent application for it.
Bell’s patent 174,465, was issued to Bell on March 7, 1876, by the U.S. Patent Office. Bell’s patent covered “the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically … by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sound”
On March 10, 1876, three days after his patent was issued, Bell succeeded in getting his telephone to work by using a liquid transmitter similar to an Elisha Gray design. Vibration of the diaphragm caused a needle to vibrate in the water, varying the electrical resistance in the circuit. When Bell spoke the sentence “Mr. Watson—Come here—I want to see you” into the liquid transmitter, Watson, listening at the receiving end in an adjoining room, heard his words clearly.
On August 3, 1876, from the telegraph office in Brantford, Ontario, Bell sent a tentative telegram to the village of Mount Pleasant four miles away, indicating that he was ready. He made a telephone call via telegraph wires and faint voices could be heard replying. The following night, he amazed guests as well as his family with another call between the Bell Homestead and the office of the Dominion Telegraph Company in Brantford along an improvised wire strung up along telegraph lines and fences and laid through a tunnel. This time, guests at the household distinctly heard people in Brantford reading and singing. The third test on August 10, 1876, was made via the telegraph line between Brantford and Paris, Ontario, eight miles away. This test was said by many sources to be the “world’s first long-distance call.” The final test certainly proved the telephone could work over long distances, at least as a one-way call.
The first two-way (reciprocal) conversation over a line occurred between Cambridge and Boston (roughly 2.5 miles) on October 9, 1876.
Bell began a series of public demonstrations and lectures to introduce the new invention to the scientific community as well as the general public. A short time later, his demonstration of an early telephone prototype at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia brought the telephone to international attention.
On January 14, 1878 at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, Bell demonstrated the device to Queen Victoria by placing calls to Cowes, Southampton and London. These were the first publicly witnessed long-distance telephone calls in the UK. The queen considered the process to be “quite extraordinary” although she commented the sound was “rather faint.”
The Bell Telephone Company was created in 1877 and by 1886, more than 150,000 people in the United States owned telephones. Bell Company engineers made numerous other improvements to the telephone, which emerged as one of the most successful products ever invented. In 1879, the Bell Company acquired Edison’s patents for the carbon microphone from Western Union. This made the telephone even more practical over longer distances. It was no longer necessary to shout in order to be heard clearly at the receiving end.
In January 1915, Bell made the first ceremonial transcontinental telephone call. Calling from the AT&T head office at 15 Dey Street in New York City, Bell was heard by Thomas Watson at 333 Grant Avenue in San Francisco.
The New York Times reported:
On October 9, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Watson talked by telephone to each other over a two-mile wire stretched between Cambridge and Boston. It was the first wire conversation ever held. Yesterday afternoon [on January 25, 1915], the same two men talked by telephone to each other over a 3,400-mile wire between New York and San Francisco. Dr. Bell, the veteran inventor of the telephone, was in New York, and Mr. Watson, his former associate, was on the other side of the continent.
On July 11, 1877, only a few days after the Bell Telephone Company was established, Bell married Mabel Hubbard (1857–1923) at the Hubbard estate in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His wedding present to his bride was to turn over 1,487 of his 1,497 shares in the newly formed Bell Telephone Company. One unusual request exacted by his fiancée was that he use “Alec” rather than the family’s earlier familiar name of “Aleck.” From 1876, he would sign his name as “Alec Bell. Bell & Mabel had four children.
Shortly thereafter, the newlyweds embarked on a year-long honeymoon in Europe. During that excursion, Bell took a handmade model of his telephone with him, making it a “working holiday.” Although the courtship had begun years earlier, Bell waited until he was more financially secure before marrying. Although the telephone appeared to be an “instant” success, it was not initially a profitable venture and Bell’s main sources of income were from lectures until after 1897.
In 1898, Bell was elected as the second president of the National Geographic Society, serving until 1903, and was primarily responsible for the extensive use of illustrations, including photography, in the society’s magazine. He also served for many years as a Regent of the Smithsonian Institution (1898–1922).
In 1915, he characterized his citizen and nationality status as: “I am not one of those hyphenated Americans who claim allegiance to two countries.” Despite this declaration, Bell has since been proudly claimed as a “native son” by all three countries he resided in: the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
Although Alexander Graham Bell is most often associated with the invention of the telephone, his interests were extremely varied. According to one of his biographers, Charlotte Gray, Bell’s work ranged “unfettered across the scientific landscape” and he often went to bed voraciously reading the Encyclopædia Britannica, scouring it for new areas of interest. The range of Bell’s inventive genius is represented only in part by the 18 patents granted in his name alone and the 12 he shared with his collaborators. These included 14 for the telephone and telegraph, four for the photophone, one for the phonograph, five for aerial vehicles, four for “hydroairplanes,” and two for selenium cells. Bell’s inventions spanned a wide range of interests.
Bell also worked extensively in medical research and invented new techniques for teaching speech to the deaf. During his Volta Laboratory period, Bell and his associates considered impressing a magnetic field on a record as a means of reproducing sound. Although the trio briefly experimented with the concept, they could not develop a workable prototype. They abandoned the idea, never realizing they had actually glimpsed a basic principle which would one day find its application in the tape recorder, the hard disc and floppy disc drives and other magnetic media.
Bell is also credited with developing one of the early versions of a metal detector through the use of an induction balance.
Bell died of complications arising from diabetes on August 2, 1922, at his private estate in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, at the age of 75. Bell was also been affected by pernicious anemia in his final years. His last view of the land he had inhabited was by moonlight on his mountain estate at 2:00 a.m. While tending to him after his long illness, Mabel, his wife, whispered, “Don’t leave me.” By way of reply, Bell signed “no…”, lost consciousness and died shortly after.
Bell’s coffin was constructed of Beinn Bhreagh pine by his laboratory staff and lined with red silk fabric. To help celebrate his life, his wife asked guests not to wear black (the traditional funeral color) while attending his funeral service.
Upon the conclusion of Bell’s funeral, for one minute at 6:25 p.m. Eastern Time, “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.”
Alexander Graham Bell was buried atop Beinn Bhreagh mountain, on his estate where he had resided increasingly for the last 35 years of his life, overlooking Bras d’Or Lake. He was survived by his wife Mabel, his two daughters, Elsie May and Marian and nine of his grandchildren.
A large number of Bell’s writings, personal correspondence, notebooks, papers and other documents reside in the United States Library of Congress Manuscript Division. In 1936, the US Patent Office declared Bell first on its list of the country’s greatest inventors. ✪