Biography of Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell Quotes
Alexander Graham Bell Quotes. Getty Images

In 1876, at the age of 29, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Soon after, he formed the Bell Telephone Company in 1877 and in the same year married Mabel Hubbard before embarking on a yearlong honeymoon in Europe.

Alexander Graham Bell could have easily been content with the success of his invention, the telephone. His many laboratory notebooks demonstrate, however, that he was driven by a genuine and rare intellectual curiosity that kept him regularly searching, striving, and always wanting to learn more and to create. 

He would continue to test out new ideas throughout a long and productive life. This included exploring the realm of communications as well as engaging in a wide variety of scientific pursuits that involved kites, airplanes, tetrahedral structures, sheep-breeding, artificial respiration, desalinization and water distillation and hydrofoils.

Invention of the Photophone

With the enormous technical and financial success of his telephone invention, Alexander Graham Bell's future was secure enough so that he could devote himself to other scientific interests. For example, in 1881, he used the $10,000 award for winning France's Volta Prize to set up the Volta Laboratory in Washington, D.C. 

A believer in scientific teamwork, Bell worked with two associates: his cousin Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter, at the Volta Laboratory. Their experiments produced such major improvements in Thomas Edison's phonograph that it became commercially viable. After his first visit to Nova Scotia in 1885, Bell set up another laboratory there at his estate Beinn Bhreagh (pronounced Ben Vreeah), near Baddeck, where he would assemble other teams of bright young engineers to pursue new and exciting ideas.

Among one of his first innovations after the telephone was the "photophone," a device that enabled sound to be transmitted through a beam of light. Bell and his assistant, Charles Sumner Tainter, developed the photophone using the combination of sensitive selenium crystal and a mirror that would vibrate in response to a sound. In 1881, they managed to successfully send a photophone message over 200 yards from one building to another. 

Bell even regarded the photophone as "the greatest invention I have ever made; greater than the telephone." The invention set the foundation upon which today's laser and fiber optic communication systems are founded, though it would take the development of several modern technologies to capitalize on this breakthrough fully.

Explorations in Sheep Breeding and Other Concepts

Alexander Graham Bell's curiosity also led him to speculate on the nature of heredity, initially among the deaf and later with sheep born with genetic mutations. He conducted sheep-breeding experiments at Beinn Bhreagh to see if he can increase the numbers of twin and triplet births. 

In other instances, it drove him to try to come up with novel solutions on the spot whenever problems arose. In 1881, he hastily constructed an electromagnetic device called an induction balance as a way to try and locate a bullet lodged in President Garfield after an assassination attempt. He would later improve this and produced a device called a telephone probe, which would make a telephone receiver click when it touched metal. And when Bell's newborn son, Edward, died from respiratory problems, he responded by designing a metal vacuum jacket that would facilitate breathing. The apparatus was a forerunner of the iron lung used in the 1950s to aid polio victims. 

Other ideas he dabbled in included inventing the audiometer to detect minor hearing problems and conducting experiments with what today are called energy recycling and alternative fuels. Bell also worked on methods of removing salt from seawater.

Advances in Flight and Later Life

However, these interests may be considered minor activities compared to the time and effort he put into making advances in flight technology. By the 1890s, Bell had begun experimenting with propellers and kites, which led him to apply the concept of the tetrahedron (a solid figure with four triangular faces) to kite design as well as to create a new form of architecture. 

In 1907, four years after the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, Bell formed the Aerial Experiment Association with Glenn Curtiss, William "Casey" Baldwin, Thomas Selfridge and J.A.D. McCurdy, four young engineers with the common goal of creating airborne vehicles. By 1909, the group had produced four powered aircraft, the best of which, the Silver Dart, made a successful powered flight in Canada on February 23, 1909. 

Bell spent the last decade of his life improving hydrofoil designs. In 1919, he and Casey Baldwin built a hydrofoil that set a world water-speed record that was not broken until 1963. Months before he died, Bell told a reporter, "There cannot be mental atrophy in any person who continues to observe, to remember what he observes, and to seek answers for his unceasing hows and whys about things."