Biography of Alexander Graham Bell, Inventor of the Telephone

He also dabbled in everything from renewable energy to aircraft

Alexander Graham Bell, ca. 1915
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Alexander Graham Bell (March 3, 1847–Aug. 2, 1922) invented the telephone in 1876 when he was just 29 years old. Soon after, he formed the Bell Telephone Company.

Bell could have easily been content with the success of his invention. 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 even hydrofoils.

Fast Facts: Alexander Graham Bell

  • Known For: Inventing the telephone
  • Born: March 3, 1847, in Edinburgh, Scotland
  • Parents: Alexander Melville Bell, Eliza Grace Symonds Bell
  • Died: Aug. 2, 1922, Nova Scotia, Canada
  • Education: University of Edinburgh (1864), University College London (1868)
  • Publications: A founding member of the National Geographic Society, helped launce Science magazine
  • Awards and Honors: Albert Medal (1902), John Fritz Medal (1907), Elliott Cresson Medal (1912)
  • Spouse: Mabel Hubbard (m. 1877–1922)
  • Children: Elsie May, Marian Hubbard, Edward, Robert
  • Notable Quote: "The inventor looks upon the world and is not contented with things as they are. He wants to improve whatever he sees, he wants to benefit the world; he is haunted by an idea. The spirit of invention possesses him, seeking materialization."

Early Life

Bell was born on March 3, 1847, to Alexander Melville and Eliza Symonds in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was immersed in the study of sound from the beginning. His father, uncle, and grandfather were authorities on elocution and speech therapy for the deaf. It was understood that Bell would follow in the family footsteps after finishing college. However, after Bell's two other brothers died of tuberculosis, Bell and his parents decided to immigrate to Canada in 1870.

After a brief period living in Ontario, the Bells moved to Boston, where they established speech-therapy practices specializing in teaching deaf children to speak. One of Alexander Graham Bell's pupils was a young Helen Keller, who when they met was not only blind and deaf but also unable to speak.

In 1872, Bell met Boston attorney Gardiner Greene Hubbard, who would become one of his financial backers and his father-in-law. Bell began to court Hubbard's daughter, Mabel, in 1873. They married in 1877.

From Telegraph to Telephone

The telegraph and telephone are both wire-based electrical systems, and Bell's success with the telephone came as a direct result of his attempts to improve the telegraph. When he began experimenting with electrical signals, the telegraph had been an established means of communication for some 30 years. Although a highly successful system, the telegraph was basically limited to receiving and sending one message at a time.

Bell's extensive knowledge of the nature of sound and his understanding of music enabled him to conjecture the possibility of transmitting multiple messages over the same wire at the same time. Although the idea of a "multiple telegraph" had been in existence for some time, no one had been able to fabricate one—until Bell. His "harmonic telegraph" was based on the principle that several notes could be sent simultaneously along the same wire if the notes or signals differed in pitch.

Talk With Electricity

By October 1874, Bell's research had progressed to the extent that he could inform his future father-in-law about the possibility of a multiple telegraph. Hubbard, who resented the absolute control then exerted by the Western Union Telegraph Company, instantly saw the potential for breaking such a monopoly and gave Bell the financial backing he needed.

Bell proceeded with his work on the multiple telegraph, but he did not tell Hubbard that he and Thomas Watson, a young electrician whose services he had enlisted, were also developing a device that would transmit speech electrically. While Watson worked on the harmonic telegraph at the insistent urging of Hubbard and other backers, Bell secretly met in March 1875 with Joseph Henry, the respected director of the Smithsonian Institution, who listened to Bell's ideas for a telephone and offered encouraging words. Spurred on by Henry's positive opinion, Bell and Watson continued their work.

By June 1875, the goal of creating a device that would transmit speech electrically was about to be realized. They had proven that different tones would vary the strength of an electric current in a wire. To achieve success, they, therefore, needed only to build a working transmitter with a membrane capable of varying electronic currents and a receiver that would reproduce these variations in audible frequencies.

"Mr. Watson, Come Here"

On June 2, 1875, while experimenting with his harmonic telegraph, Bell and Watson discovered that sound could be transmitted over a wire. It was a completely accidental discovery. Watson was trying to loosen a reed that had been wound around a transmitter when he plucked it by accident. The vibration produced by that gesture traveled along the wire into a second device in the other room where Bell was working.

The "twang" Bell heard was all the inspiration that he and Watson needed to accelerate their work. They continued to work into the next year. Bell recounted the critical moment in his journal: 

"I then shouted into M [the mouthpiece] the following sentence: 'Mr. Watson, come here—I want to see you.' To my delight, he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said."

Other Inventions

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 his estate 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 a metal detector as a way to try and locate a bullet lodged in President James 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.

Flight Technology

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. 

Later Years and Death

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." Bell died on Aug. 2, 1922, at his estate in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Other Works and Legacy

Although working with the deaf would remain Bell's principal source of income, he continued to pursue his own studies of sound throughout his life. Bell's unceasing scientific curiosity led to the invention of the photophone, a device that allowed for the transmission of sound on a beam of light.

Indeed, though his known for his invention of the telephone, Bell, himself, 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.

With the enormous technical and financial success of his telephone invention, 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 heading into the future.

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