People & Events
More About Bell
A FAMILY AFFAIR
In 1847, Alexander Graham Bell was born into a family with a
passion for communication. His grandfather, also named Alexander Bell, had
forged for himself a reputation as an impressive, if under employed, actor and
orator. Endowed with a commanding speaking voice and considerable physical
bearing, Alexander Bell sought to unleash in others the full potential of the
spoken word. His attention was especially drawn to those for whom the act of
speaking presented daunting challenges. His work with such individuals led him
to publish writings that included, The Practical Elocutionist and
Stammering and Other Impediments of Speech. By 1838, he was regularly
being referred to in the London press as "the celebrated Professor of
The elder Mr. Bell infused in his sons David and Melville a similar interest in
the mechanics and methods of vocal communication. David's professional and
personal pursuits led him to marriage and a career as a teacher of speech in
Dublin, while Melville enthusiastically joined his father in his elocutionary
Melville's keen interest in speech pathologies was undoubtedly sharpened when
he found himself falling in love with a deaf woman he would eventually ask to
be his wife. Eliza Grace Symonds, a painter of miniatures, was nearly ten years
Melville's senior. Nevertheless, her sweet temper and refined intellect were
more than enough to win his lifelong adoration and devotion. Despite being held
captive in a world of virtual silence, Eliza Grace Bell developed into a
talented pianist whose tenacity and determination to "hear" would especially
entrance her second of three sons, Alexander Graham Bell.
A REAL SMART ALECK
Young Alexander Graham Bell, Aleck as he was known to his family, took to
reading and writing at a precociously young age. Bell family lore told of his
insistence upon mailing a letter to a family friend well before he had grasped
any understanding of the alphabet. As he matured, Aleck displayed what came to
be known as a Bell family trademark--an expressive, flexible, and resonant
It was through use of this impressive vocal instrument that Aleck forged a
unique bond with his deaf mother. Unlike others, who spoke to Mrs. Bell through
her ear tube, Aleck chose to communicate with her by speaking in low, sonorous
tones very close to her forehead. Young Aleck surmised that his mother would be
able to "hear" him through the vibrations his vocal intonations would make.
This early insight would prove significant as Alexander Graham Bell went on to
develop more elaborate theories regarding the characteristics of sound waves.
It would also lend rationale to Bell's opinions as to how the deaf could be
assimilated into a world of sound.
Edinburgh, Scotland in the mid-19th-century was brimming with scientific and
technological developments. Within this inventive milieu, Alexander Graham Bell
played the role of attentive observer and eager participant. One truth seemed
inescapable: through technology came betterment.
At the age of 14, Bell conceived of a device designed to remove the husks from
wheat by combining a nail brush and paddle into a rotary-brushing wheel.
While visiting London with his father, Aleck was mesmerized by a
demonstration of Sir Charles Wheatstone's "speaking machine." Upon their return
to Edinburgh, Melville Bell, Sr. challenged Aleck and his older brother to come
up with a model of their own.
Working out of their home, the industrious pair created an apparatus consisting
of a facsimile mouth, throat, nose, maneuverable tongue, and bellow lungs.
What's more, the contraption actually produced human-like sounds. Inspired by
this success, Aleck went a step further and succeeded in manipulating the mouth
and vocal chords of his Skye terrier so that the dog's growls were heard as
"A VERY VALUABLE BLUNDER"
With each passing year, Alexander Graham Bell's intellectual
horizons broadened. By the time he was 16, he was teaching music and elocution
at a boy's boarding school. He and his brothers, Melville and Edward, traveled
throughout Scotland impressing audiences with demonstrations of their father's
Visible Speech techniques. Combining such ventures with continued study at the
University of London, Alexander Graham Bell became intrigued by the writings of
German physicist Hermann Von Helmholtz. Von Helmholtz had produced a thesis,
On The Sensations of Tone, declaring that vowel sounds could be produced
by a combination of electrical tuning forks and resonators. Bell's inability to
read German did not deter him from hungrily consuming this information. It did
however lead to his making what he would later describe as a "very valuable
Bell had somehow interpreted Von Helmholtz's findings as stating that vowel
sounds could be transmitted over a wire. He would later say of this
misunderstanding, "It gave me confidence. If I had been able to read German, I
might never have begun my experiments in electricity."
THE DREAMING PLACE
In the midst of his early academic and professional success, the
young Alexander Graham Bell was buffeted by a series of personal tragedies.
Tuberculosis, the scourge of the late 19th century, claimed the lives of both
of his brothers within the span of four months. Bell himself was battling the
disease when, at age 23, he moved with his parents to Canada. Convalescing in
what he called "his dreaming place"--a spacious farmhouse in Brantford,
Ontario--Alexander Graham Bell was able to recover in mind and spirit, and
dwell on his ever-expanding ambitions.
A TEACHER OF THE DEAF
In 1871, Bell began giving instruction in Visible Speech at the
Boston School for Deaf Mutes. Attempting to teach deaf children to speak was
considered revolutionary, and Bell was not without his detractors as he shunned
what he felt were the exclusionary practices of signing and
institutionalization. Bell's work with his deaf students in Boston would prove
to be a watershed event in his life. One of his pupils, Mabel Hubbard, was the
daughter of a man--Gardiner Greene Hubbard-- who would go on to play a vital
role in Bell's life and work. While Mabel herself would one day become his
wife. Bell felt that a course had been set and he would go on to consider
himself, above all else, a teacher of the deaf. In testimony to the
effectiveness of his work and generosity of his spirit, no lesser luminary than
Helen Keller would dedicate her autobiography to him.
THE HARMONIC TELEGRAPH
Bell's ideas about transmitting speech electrically came into
sharper focus during his days in Boston. As he read extensively on physics and
devotedly attended lectures on science and technology, Bell worked to create
what he called his "harmonic telegraph."
Since Samuel F.B. Morse completed his first telegraph line in 1843, telegraphy
had blossomed into a full-fledged industry. This new industry meant nearly
instantaneous communication between faraway points. While certainly a
technological leap forward, successful telegraphy was nevertheless dependent
upon hand-delivery of messages between telegraph stations and individuals.
Also, only one message at a time could be transmitted.
Drawing parallels between multiple message and multiple notes in a musical
chord, Bell arrived at his idea of the "harmonic telegraph." From this idea
sprang the invention that made him immortal among inventors--the telephone.
A FATEFUL TWANG
The chance meeting between Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas
Watson at the electrical machine shop of Charles Williams was one of the most
fortuitous in technological history. Recognized by his employer as being
especially skilled in devising tools that improved the efficiency of various
instruments, Watson was assigned to work with many nascent inventors. Alexander
Graham Bell was just such an inventor. As the two collaborated on ways to
refine Bell's "harmonic telegraph," Bell shared with Watson his vision of what
would become the telephone. Watson was intrigued, and a partnership was forged.
June 2, 1875 was a milestone day for the team of Bell and Watson. Working in
the transmitter room and trying to free a reed that had been too tightly wound
to the pole of its electromagnet, Watson produced atwang . Bell, who
had been working in the receiving room heard thetwang and came running.
Bell surmised the complex overtones and timbre of the twang to be
similar to those in the human voice. He was now convinced that his vision of
sending speech over a wire was more than just a dream.
PATENT NUMBER 174,465
As Bell raced to perfect his telephone, he was also writing up
specifications to be filed with the United States Patent Office in Washington.
On March 7, 1876, he was issued patent number 174,465. Meanwhile, Bell had
discovered that a wire vibrated by the voice while partially immersed in a
conducting liquid, like mercury, could be made to vary its resistance and
produce an undulating current. In other words, human speech could be
transmitted over a wire.
On March 10, 1876, as he and Mr. Watson set out to test this finding, Bell
knocked over what they were using as a transmitting liquid--battery acid.
Reacting to the spilled acid, Mr. Bell is alleged to have shouted, "Mr. Watson,
come here. I want you!" Exactly what Bell shouted--or whether the spilling of
acid ever occurred-- is a matter of some dispute. Its result, however, is
not. Watson, working in the next room, heard Bell's voice through the wire.
Watson had received the first telephone call, and quickly went to answer it.
Seizing upon the opportunity to promote his new invention, Alexander Graham
Bell introduced the telephone to the world at the Centennial Exhibition in
Philadelphia in 1876. Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro exclaimed, "My God, it
talks," as Bell's mellifluous voice carried Hamlet's soliloquy over the line
from the main building one hundred yards away. The success of Bell's telephone
was now the talk of the international scientific community.
In 1878, Rutherford B. Hayes was the first US president to have a telephone
installed in the White House. And to whom did the commander-in-chief place his
first call? Alexander Graham Bell, of course, who was waiting for the call some
13 miles away from the White House. The president's first words were said to
have been, "Please speak more slowly."
In the wake of Bell's invention of the telephone came an
avalanche of patent lawsuits and corporate maneuvers. Western Union Telegraph
Company was the titan in the field of telegraphy and was not content to sit on
the sidelines as the Bell Telephone Company captured the spotlight. Feverishly
working to develop their own telephone technology, Western Union employed two
prominent inventors--Thomas A. Edison and Elisha Gray. Looking to protect its
patent rights, the Bell Company sued Western Union and won. In the years that
followed, the Bell Company (which would eventually become AT&T) would be
forced to defend its patent in over 600 legal challenges. In every case, the
patent withstood attack thanks largely to Alexander Graham Bell's clear and
Bell had little interest in playing a day-to-day role in the
workings of the company that bore his name. Barely in his thirties, rich and
famous, Bell continued to pursue an active life of the mind. His post-telephone
inventions included an electric probe used to locate bullets and other metal
objects lodged in the body, and the vacuum jacket which, when placed around the
chest, administered artificial respiration. Each of these inventions would
later be refined and supplanted by other inventors, but Bell's contributions to
the world of science and technology never abated. He was a student of nature's
mysteries and became fascinated with the notion of motion--in the air and on
the water. Working with partners, he experimented with manned kites and
Eager to infuse a love of science and the natural world in others, Bell lent
considerable financial and editorial support to both Science magazine
and National Geographic. Upon Bell's death on August 2, 1922, the
nation's phones stilled their ringing for a silent minute in tribute to the man
whose yearning to communicate made them possible.