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People & Events

Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell Nothing speaks louder in photographs of Alexander Graham Bell, especially those taken in his later years, than his eyes. Alternately brilliant and piercing, they never fail to convey the sense of the completely realized person behind them. The story of his life offers only some idea as to why.

The strongest clue may be his background. Bell was born in 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland, to a remarkably talented family. His grandfather, Alexander Bell, was an elocutionist and sometime playwright, whose work inspired George Bernard Shaw to write the play Pygmalion. His father, Melville Bell, developed Visible Speech, a set of written symbols designed to aid the deaf in speaking. When he wasn't schooling the young Alec in this system, Melville was encouraging his son to explore photography, music, and virtually anything electrical that struck his fancy.

In the 1870s the Bells moved to Canada and shortly after that, to Boston, Massachusetts, where Bell took a teaching position at the Pemberton Avenue School for the Deaf. Here, a second hint materializes: As a teacher, Bell was passionate enough that one his students, Mabel Hubbard, fell in love with him, and he with her.

Then, luck. While in Boston, Bell became increasingly interested in the possibility of transmitting speech over wires. Hoping to make up for his lack of technical prowess, he approached the Charles Williams shop looking for an assistant. He found the perfect one in Thomas A. Watson. Together, the two men worked for a year and succeeded in sending their first telephone message on March 10, 1876, when Bell spoke the famous words: "Watson -- come here -- I want you." (Contrary to popular myth, Bell had not spilled acid on himself at that moment. He had simply heard encouraging sounds through the wire and was calling to Watson to tell him so.)

In 1877 Bell and Watson went on a tour of the Northeast, demonstrating their invention with enormous success, even though (or maybe because) they had to shout into the receiver in order to be heard. Bell and Hubbard capped the tour with a wedding and a honeymoon at Niagara Falls.

Having already found so much satisfaction in his life, Bell opted not to become a hardheaded businessman but to follow his muse instead. Inspired by Edison's feats at Menlo Park, he founded Volta Laboratories, which later became Bell Labs. In 1885 a team working under him there developed an improved version of Edison's phonograph, called the graphophone. But even the lab was too limiting for Bell, and he soon cut out on his own.

Bell's most optimistic project was the photophone, a method of sending sound through the medium of sunlight, which he predicted would one day rival the telephone in its importance. The photophone invention enjoyed some success but could not overcome the problem of cloudy weather, and eventually evolved into the spectrophone, an early forerunner of spectrum analysis.

Circumstances provided the opportunity to apply a similar technology to different ends in 1881, when President James Garfield was shot by Charles Giteau and lay wounded in his bed. A friend of the president ever since a telephone had been installed in the White House, Bell thought he might be able to locate the bullet and invented a rudimentary metal detector for the occasion. For reasons that are still not understood, it failed to perform and Garfield experienced a slow and agonizing death.

Bell was no stranger to hardship himself. In his later years, after moving to Nova Scotia, he endured personal tragedies one after the other. Still, he seemed only to grow more enthusiastic about his pursuits. After overseeing the publication of National Geographic (and initiating the idea of including photographs in it), he moved on to sheep husbandry, the desalinization of seawater, and kites designed to increase the broadcasting range of radio equipment, all without giving up his lifelong interest in working with the deaf.

In this, it would seem, lies the essential secret behind those eyes. Robert Bruce captured it well when he titled his biography of Bell "The Conquest of Solitude." Given his background, Bell had the world at his feet, and he was free to embrace the invention fever of his era, with all its breathtaking twists and turns. But somewhere along the line he saw the virtues of human contact over inhuman ambition, and then chose them -- even though he didn't have to.

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written by David Lindsay, author of "Madness in the Making: The Triumphant Rise and Untimely Fall of America's Show Inventors"