GRAHAM BELL (1847-1922)
and his inventions
Graham Bell invented the telephone. Remarkably, he only worked
on his invention because he misunderstood a technical work
he had read in German. His misunderstanding ultimately led
to his discovery of how speech could be transmitted electrically.
Graham Bell was born March 3, 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland.
His mother’s name was Eliza Grace Symonds. His father,
Alexander Melville Bell, was a professor of speech elocution
at the University of Edinburgh. His father also wrote definitive
books about speech and elocution, which sold very well in
the UK and North America. The young Alexander was home-schooled
until he was 11, following which he attended Edinburgh’s
Royal High School for four years: he enjoyed science, but
did not do well academically.
his schoolwork was poor, his mind was very active. One day,
he was playing at a flour mill owned by the family of a young
friend. Bell learned that de-husking the wheat grains took
a lot of effort and was also very boring. He saw that it would
be possible for a machine to do the work, so he built one.
He was only 12 at the time. The machine he built was used
at the mill for several years.
15, he joined his grandfather who had moved to London, England.
His grandfather home-schooled him, which seemed to bring out
the best in Bell again. When he was 16, he enrolled at Weston
House Academy in Elgin, Scotland, where he learned Greek and
Latin and also earned some money teaching elocution.
he was 16, he and his brother tried to build a talking robot.
They built a windpipe and a realistic looking head. When they
blew air through the windpipe, the mouth could make a small
number of recognizable words.
the next few years, Bell moved to a new school most years,
either teaching elocution or improving his own education.
Bell moved around a lot, he continued to carry out his own
research into sound and speech. He worked very hard indeed,
and by the time he was 20 he was in very poor health and returned
to his family home, which was now in London.
mid-1870, when Bell was 23, both of his younger brothers had
died of tuberculosis. Bell’s parents were terrified
that Alexander, whose health was fragile, would suffer a similar
fate. He was now the only child of theirs who was still alive.
Bell’s father had gone to Canada when he was younger
and found that his poor health had improved dramatically.
He now decided that what was left of his family should move
to Canada, and by late 1870, they were living in Brentford,
Ontario. Thankfully, Alexander Graham Bell’s health
began to improve.
living in Brentford, Bell learned the Mohawk language and
put it in writing for the first time. The Mohawk people made
him an Honorary Chief.
he was 25, Bell opened his School of Vocal Physiology and
Mechanics of Speech in Boston, MA, where he taught deaf people
to speak. At age 26, although he did not have a university
degree, he became Professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution
at the Boston University School of Oratory.
he was moving jobs and locations around the UK and North America,
Bell had developed an overriding desire to invent a machine
that could reproduce human speech. Speech
had become his life: his mother had gone deaf, and Bell’s
father had developed a method of teaching deaf people to speak,
which Bell taught. His research into mechanizing human speech
had become a relentless obsession: in the UK it had driven
him almost to collapse.
Bell was only 19 years old, he had described the work was
doing in a letter to the linguistics expert Alexander Ellis.
Ellis told Bell his work was similar to work carried out in
Germany by Hermann von Helmholtz.
eagerly read Helmholtz’s work, or tried to read it.
It was in German, which he did not understand. Instead, he
tried to follow the logic of the book’s diagrams. Bell
misunderstood the diagrams, believing that Helmholtz had been
able to convert all of the sounds of speech to electricity.
fact, Helmholtz had not been able to do this – he had
only succeeded with vowel sounds – but from then on,
Bell believed it could be done!
23, Bell built a workshop in the new family home in Ontario
and experimented there with converting music into an electrical
Boston, aged 25, Bell continued his experiments through the
night while working in the day. In summer, he would return
to his workshop in Ontario and continue his experiments.
now it was 1874, and Bell was 26. The first electrical telegraph
lines had been built forty years earlier, in the 1830s. These
allowed electrical clicks (Morse code) to be instantly transmitted
over great distances. Bell wanted to transmit human speech
instead of clicks, and he was getting close to doing it.
had found that human speech came in wave like patterns. He
now hoped to produce an electrical wave that would follow
the same patterns as someone’s speech. And
he won financial backing from Gardiner Hubbard and Thomas
Sanders, two wealthy investors. Hubbard also brought in Anthony
Pollok, his patent attorney.
money enabled Bell to hire Thomas Watson, a skilled electrical
engineer, whose knowledge would compliment Bell’s. Aged
27, in 1875, Bell and his investors decided the time had come
to protect his intellectual property using patents.
had a patent written for transmission of speech over
an electrical wire. He applied for this patent in the
UK, because in those days UK patents were granted only
if they had not first been granted in another country.
Bell told his attorney to apply in the USA only after
the patent had been granted in the UK.
1876, things in the USA had become murkier. In February
of that year, Elisha Gray applied for a US patent for
a telephone which used a variable resistor based on
a liquid: salt water. In the transmitter, the liquid
resistor transferred to an electric circuit the vibrations
of a needle attached to a diaphragm which had been made
to vibrate by sound. The electrical resistance of the
circuit changed in tandem with the needle’s position
in the liquid, and so sound was converted into an equivalent
electrical signal. The receiver converted the electrical
signal back into sound using a vibrating needle in liquid
connected to a diaphragm which vibrated to recreate
the sound that had been transmitted.
the same day, Bell’s attorney filed his US patent
was only in March 1876 that Bell actually got his invention
to work, using a design similar to Gray’s. Hence
Gray lay claim to have invented the telephone.
the other hand, Bell had established the concept before Gray,
and in all demonstrations of a working phone Bell gave or
developed commercially he used his own setup rather than a
water based variable resistor. In fact, in 1875, Bell had
filed a patent for a liquid mercury based variable resistor,
predating Gray’s liquid variable resistor patent.
had to fend off around 600 lawsuits before he could finally
rest in bed at night as the legally acknowledged inventor
of the telephone.
By summer 1876, Bell was transmitting telephone voice messages
over a line several miles long in Ontario.
the end of 1876, Bell and his investors offered to sell their
patent to Western Union for $100,000. Western Union ran America’s
telegraph wires, and its top people believed the telephone
was just a fad. They thought it would not be profitable. How
spectacularly wrong they were!
1878, Western Union’s opinion had altered dramatically.
They now thought that if they could offer $25 million to get
the patent, they would have gotten it cheaply. Unfortunately
for Western Union, in 1877, the Bell Telephone Company had
been launched. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Graham Bell had a restless mind. The telephone made him wealthy
and famous, but he wanted new challenges, and he continued
inventing and innovating. Today,
it is standard practice to transmit huge amounts of data using
photons of light through optical fiber.
1880, Bell and his assistant Charles Summer Tainter transmitted
wireless voice messages a distance of over 200 meters in Washington
D.C. The voice messages were carried by a light beam, and
Bell patented the photophone. This was two decades before
the first radio messages were sent without wires and a century
before optic fiber communications became commercially viable.
1881, after President James Garfield was shot, Bell invented
the metal detector to locate the bullet precisely. The rudimentary
metal detector worked in tests, but the bullet in the President’s
body was too deep to be detected by the early detecting equipment.
1888 Bell was one of the founders of the National Geographic
Society. In 1897, he became its second president.
Graham Bell died aged 75 on August 2, 1922 in Nova Scotia,
Canada. He had been ill for some months with complications
from diabetes. He was survived by his wife, Mabel, and two
daughters – Elsie and Marian.
phone in North America was silenced during his funeral in
his honor. The unit of sound intensity, the bel, more usually
seen as the smaller unit, the decibel, was named after Bell:
it was conceived of in the Bell Laboratories.
Graham Bell once summed up his approach to life and invention:
"Leave the beaten track occasionally and dive into the woods.
Every time you do so you will be certain to find something that
you have never seen before. Follow it up, explore all around it,
and before you know it, you will have something worth thinking about
to occupy your mind. All really big discoveries are the results
willingness to search out the path less taken resulted in some of
the world's most important inventions. It has been said that Bell
invented the telephone by searching for it in places where other
inventors would never think to look. Bell's ability to believe in
the impossible has served the world well.
June 25, 1876, was the day of the Battle of the Little Big Horn,
or Custer's Last Stand. Far away, in Philadephia, it was also the
day when Bell demonstrated his new invention at the Centennial Exhibition.
The Exhibition was organized to celebrate the 100th anniversary
of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The telephone
was its star attraction.Having entered at the last moment, Bell
failed to obtain a booth in the electrical section. Instead, he
was located far away, in a corner of the educational exhibit. It
was a hot day and the judges did not relish the long trip down the
corridor and up a flight of stairs.
Their fatigue vanished with the first words that came crackling
over the telephone wire. Pandemonium broke out as these distinguished
scientists raced to see if Bell's voice in another room had indeed
produced the sounds. Kings and ordinary citizens alike sat transfixed
before this new wonder. Bell himself had no doubts about the importance
of his new discovery. Shortly after the telephone's invention, he
had written to his father, "The day is coming when telegraph
wires will be laid on to houses just like water or gas -- and friends
will converse with each other without leaving home."
For Alexander Graham Bell, it was the first of many glimpses into
the world of the future.
retrospect, every step on the path of Bell's early life seemed a
step closer to the telephone. Young Aleck Bell was born into a family
of learning and scholastic achievement. The whole family was enthralled
with the idea of sound and its possibilities. Aleck's grandfather,
Alexander Bell, was an eminent elocutionist. His father Melville
developed the first international phonetic alphabet. Not surprisingly,
young Aleck's first memory was of sitting in a wheatfield, trying
to hear the wheat grow.
Aleck's mother, Eliza Bell, was almost totally deaf. Aleck soon
discovered that by pressing his lips against his mother's forehead,
he could make the bones resonate to his voice. His mother became
the first person to have her world expanded by the genius of Alexander
Aleck was a gifted pianist, who learned early to descriminate pitch.
As a teenager, he noticed that a chord struck on one piano would
be echoed by a piano in another room. He realized that whole chords
could be transmitted through the air, vibrating at the other end
at exactly the same pitch. In the years to come, this simple observation
would eventually lead him to the telephone.
Aleck also benefitted from his father's special qualities as a teacher
. Melville Bell encouraged his sons Melly and Aleck to build a speaking
machine. Thereafter, visitors to the Bell home were surprised to
hear the sound "ma ma" emanating from the upper floors.
There were no babies in the Bell household.
Graham Bell never set out to invent the telephone. Initially, he
wanted to develop a multiple telegraph. Only later did he realize
that a far greater prize lay at the end of the road.
In telegraphy, a current is interrupted in the pattern
known as Morse Code. Bell hoped to convey several messages simultaneously,
each at a different pitch. However, he could not see a way to make-and-break
the current at the precise pitch required. "How," he wondered,
"could pitch be conveyed along a wire?
Bell knew that speech was composed of many complex sound vibrations.
While on vacation in Brantford, Ontario, in 1874, he constructed
an "ear phonoautograph" from a stalk of hay and a dead man's ear.
When Bell spoke into the ear, the hay traced the sound waves on
a piece of smoked glass.
Bell began to wonder whether this wave could be converted into an
electrical transmission. Suddenly, all his work with pitch, electricity
and speaking machines "fused" in one sudden flash of inspiration.
The sound waves, he realized, could be reproduced in a continuous,
but undulating, current. This current was the missing link to the
At this early point, Bell conceived the instrument as a series of
reeds arranged over a long magnet. As each reed responded to the
voice, it would vibrate alternately toward and away from the magnet,
creating the undulating current.
This "harp apparatus" (as Bell called it) was not the
telephone. He did not yet realize that a single reed could convey
all the elements of human speech. The breakthrough came one day
in June, in 1875. Bell asked Thomas Watson to pluck a steel receiver
reed with his finger to make sure it was not stuck. When Watson
vibrated the reed, the receiver in Bell's room also vibrated, even
though the current was turned off. Bell realized that the vibration
had generated an undulating current, solely on the strength of a
slight magnetic field. In that moment, the telephone was born.
The telephone patent was one of the most valuable ever issued. Bell
received it on March 7, 1876, four days after his 29th birthday.
Speech, however, had not yet been transmitted. That would occur
five days later, on March 12, when Watson heard the famous words,
"Mr. Watson -- Come here -- I want to see you."