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The American Experience

People & Events

Bell Invents The Telephone

The story of the telephone, it could be said, is really a story about theater -- or, better, about the comedy of humans trying to communicate through machines. Certainly, Alexander Graham Bell knew as much about drama as he did about electricity.

As a child, Bell was deeply immersed in both the mystery of the human voice and the intricacies of mechanical objects. He got his first glimpse of how these two interests might go together when his father, Melville Bell, took him to meet the British physicist Sir Charles Wheatstone. Some years earlier, Melville had seen a mechanical talking machine, invented and operated by Joseph Faber, at the Egyptian Hall in London. Knowing that Wheatstone had designed a similar machine, Melville now asked Wheatstone to tell them about it.

Young Alec was clearly inspired by this visit. On returning home, he and his brother built their own talking machine, with a crude tongue, jaws, and a wig. By opening and closing the lips, they eventually got the machine to say "mama" -- and their mother came running to see what was wrong.

As he grew older, Alec became more serious but no less interested in dramatic possibilities. For a time he even considered becoming a playwright. Later, when he settled on a job teaching the deaf in Boston, he kept his theatrical skills in shape by acting out a set of written symbols called Visible Speech (devised by his father) until his students learned how to speak back. Meanwhile, his scientific experiments had him trying to incorporate Visible Speech into a telegraphic code. From there, he progressed to musical telegraphy, in the hopes that musical tones could send several messages over a telegraph wire at the same time.

Ironically, the actual invention of the telephone was anything but flashy. Contrary to a story often told today, Bell probably did not spill acid on himself when he uttered the words "Watson -- come here -- I want you." He had simply heard an unusual sound coming over the telegraph wire and called his assistant, Thomas A. Watson, to ask what he had done. Nevertheless, the telephone, which the two men proceeded to invent over the next few months, was worthy of the legend, and better ones as well.

Bell patented his telephone on February 14, 1876 -- a mere two hours before a rival, Elisha Gray, submitted an almost identical application, and just in time to present a working version at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro and the British scientist William Thompson (later Lord Kelvin) sat stunned as the words of Hamlet came through the receiver. Also present for the occasion was Elisha Gray, who at the appropriate moment turned to the crowd and said, "Ay there's the rub." (Gray and Bell eventually settled out of court, and Bell's patent prevailed.)

The Centennial was just the beginning. In the spring of 1877, having achieved their first two-way conversations, Bell and Watson began exhibiting the telephone in lecture halls throughout the Northeast. The halls were invariably packed as Watson, some miles away, screamed out weather reports and popular airs. (In this early stage of development, it was still necessary to shout into the receiver in order to be heard.) Afterwards, audiences were usually invited onstage -- though no invitations were necessary -- to try out the telephone firsthand. Mistaking the purpose of the device, at least one audience member asked, "Who will be the next President?"

Like an actual theater show, the telephone demonstrations became more elaborate as time went on -- eventually even brass bands made appearances -- and more intense as they approached New York, where the toughest crowds were expected. And indeed, the editors of the Scientific American were disappointed. Bell and Watson spoke between New York and New Brunswick, a distance of 32 miles, but, it was said, "the sound produced was not generally audible throughout the hall."

Thinking quickly, Bell saved the day with a second demonstration that used multiple speakers, and the pans turned to raves. "It is a most bewildering sensation," read the June 9 issue of Scientific American, "to hear a song faintly emitted first from a box on the stage, then from another suspended overhead, and finally from a third across the room, as the operator switches the current from one telephone to another."

The rest was icing on the cake. On July 11, 1877, after a few more demonstrations in New England, Bell called it quits and married Mabel Hubbard, leaving the business world to come to terms with his invention.

Inspired by Thomas Edison's Menlo Park, Bell started Volta Laboratories, which later became Bell Labs, but he took no administrative position at the burgeoning Bell Telephone. In fact, after dabbling with an automatic telephone switchboard in the 1890s, he joined forces with the company he had created only one more time -- to take part in the one episode of the telephone story that had *not* been dramatized.

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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"