' Skip To Content
The Telephone | Article



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.


Elisha Gray
Timing is everything. Elisha Gray knew all too well just how true that old adage could be. On February 14, 1876, the day that Alexander Graham Bell filed an application for a patent for his version of the telephone, Elisha Gray applied for a caveat announcing his intention to file a claim for a patent for the same invention within three months. A caveat was a confidential, formal declaration made by an inventor stating his intention to file a patent on an idea yet to be perfected. Caveats were filed as a means of protecting an idea from being usurped by fellow inventors. 

On the basis of its earlier filing time — a mere few hours — and on the subtle distinctions between a caveat and an actual patent application, the U.S. Patent Office awarded Bell, not Gray, the patent for the telephone. The coincidental nature of the separate filings spurred a good amount of controversy. Indeed, in the legal proceedings that followed, the claims of Gray and Bell came into direct conflict. In each instance Bell emerged victorious. 

Gray's second place showing in the race to lay claim to the invention of the telephone did not tarnish his professional reputation however. In 1880 he was named professor of dynamic electricity at Oberlin College in Ohio, where he taught with distinction. Gray died in Newtonville, Massachusetts, in 1901. Discovered among his belongings was a note indicating a lingering disappointment concerning the telephone. It read, in part, "The history of the telephone will never be fully written.... It is partly hidden away ... and partly lying on the hearts and consciences of a few whose lips are sealed — some in death and others by a golden clasp whose grip is even tighter."

Thomas Alva Edison
While not exactly a rival of Alexander Graham Bell's, Thomas Edison's work in the field of telegraphy nevertheless prompted Bell to work ever harder in perfecting his own ideas. Contracted by Western Union Telegraph Company, Edison was busily working to develop the harmonic telegraph. Through his efforts, Edison, like Gray, drew closer and closer to hitting upon the invention of a "speaking telegraph," or telephone. And while it was finally Bell who scored that coup, Edison's 1877 invention of the carbon-button transmitter proved to be a necessary component of successful telephone communication. To this day the carbon-button transmitter is used in telephone speakers and microphones.

Edison's input in the evolution of telephone communication is also evident in the very way people have come to answer the phone. According to his biographer Margaret Cousins, it was an impatient Edison who, too rushed to employ the then common, "Are you there?," first shouted, "Hello!" into the receiver. His countrymen soon took note of this manner of telephone etiquette and adopted the one word greeting as their own.

Thomas A. Watson
As Dr. Watson was to Sherlock Holmes, Thomas A. Watson was to Alexander Graham Bell: the jovial but indispensable sidekick. Though he could have easily claimed credit as co-inventor of the telephone, Watson was simply too good-natured to bother with such things. And too busy wondering what might come up next.

Born in 1854 in his father's livery stable in Salem, Massachusetts, Watson took his first job at the age of 16, but he quickly discovered that bookkeeping bored him. Next he tried carpentry, and found it tiring. Then he got a job at Charles Williams, a machine shop in Boston. 

Certainly, this position had nothing in it to predict fame. It was only because Alexander Graham Bell, then a professor at Boston University, came calling in 1874 that anyone remembers the young machinist at all. Yet Watson was a capable performer when it came to it: during the demonstrations of the telephone, he gamely belted hymns and popular airs into the receiver, despite his vague ability to hold a tune. 

Like Bell, Watson had no desire to work in the telephone business once the device was a reality. "The same desire for a larger life and new experiences," he later wrote in his autobiography, "was stronger than ever." And so, at the age of 27, he struck out on his own with money to spare from his royalties. 

The first order of business was a long vacation in Europe, then marriage. With characteristic abruptness, he decided to become a farmer. Two years later he realized that farming was not for him and set up his own machine shop in Boston. After building engines for small ships for a while, this line began to flourish. Soon he had 30 employees working for him. Deciding to expand the business, partly to offset unemployment in Massachusetts, he began taking bids for building naval destroyers.

By 1901 Watson was running the largest shipyard in America. Fate dealt him another whimsical hand, however, and two years later his own company had replaced him with a president of its own choosing.

Watson had taken a three-year course in geology and paleontology with his wife while running his shipbuilding outfit, and so was able to recover by teaming up with a geology professor from MIT to evaluate ore deposits. Though he never found anything promising in the way of mines, Watson proved to be capable enough to have a genus of fossil gastropod named after him.

Throughout all this time, however, Watson had been cultivating another, more passionate interest. Bell had encouraged him to study voice (perhaps because of those questionable performances on the telephone), and by 1910 the subject all but consumed him. A book about Frank R. Berenson's Company of Shakespeare Players inspired him to seek the company out. Joining the company, he was as if reborn and quickly progressed from bit parts to speaking roles. Finally, he formed a new group with some of the players and began writing plays himself, with a leaning toward adaptations of Dickens: Nicholas Nickleby, Tale of Two Cities, Oliver Twist.

In 1912 Watson ended his touring years and returned to Braintree, Massachusetts, where lived until his death in 1934. In 1915 he emerged from the shadows to re-enact the invention of the telephone at the Pan-American Exposition in San Francisco. Otherwise, he served as president of the Boston Browning Society, organized amateur stage productions, and lectured on many subjects, with a specialty, naturally, in the telephone. It was during one of his lectures that he first told the world that Bell had spilled acid on the fateful day when the telephone was invented. An embellishment to cover for a faulty memory perhaps. But then, what can you expect from a born actor?

Support Provided by: Learn More