1847, Edinburgh, Scotland
1922, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia
On February 14, 1876, only hours after Alexander Graham Bell had filed a patent for his telephone, fellow inventor Elisha Gray arrived at the U.S. Patent Office to file his intention to patent a telephone. A battle over who would be credited with the invention ensued, ending in a victory for Bell.
Photos: Library of Congress
The man behind the invention of the telephone was a Scottish immigrant who taught deaf students, loved to experiment, and never left his research to head a business.
Alexander Graham Bell was born in 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland. 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.
The Harmonic Telegraph
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. He became increasingly interested in the possibility of transmitting speech over wires. Teaming up with a like-minded machinist, Thomas A. Watson, Bell worked for a year, and succeeded in transmitting the first telephone message on March 10, 1876. Bell took his "Harmonic Telegraph" to Philadelphia's Centennial Exhibition, where it astonished crowds. The partners were convinced their device could make money; they just weren't sure how.
Doctors and pharmacists became early adopters of the technology, along with wealthy individuals, including Mark Twain. The famous writer installed a phone in his Hartford home even though he complained, "The human voice carries entirely too far as it is." In a mere four years, the American Bell Telephone Company deployed 60,000 telephones, providing service in every large American city. Polite young women found work at the switchboards, which were open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Telephone poles began to dot the landscape; the state of Vermont lost 45,000 pine trees in 1885 alone. By then, Bell had withdrawn from the business, leaving others to build the telephone industry.
Inspired by Thomas Edison's Menlo Park labs, Bell founded Volta Laboratories to continue his sound research. In 1885 a Volta team developed an improved version of Edison's phonograph, called the graphophone, that both recorded and played sound. Bell's most optimistic project was the photophone, a method of sending sound through the medium of sunlight. Bell predicted it would one day rival the telephone. It failed in cloudy weather, however, and eventually evolved into the spectrophone, an early forerunner of spectrum analysis. In his later years, Bell moved to Nova Scotia, where he died in 1922.