Biography of Alexander Graham Bell, Inventor of the Telephone

Portrait of Alexander Graham Bell
Portrait of Alexander Graham Bell, c. 1904.

 Oscar White / Getty Images

Alexander Graham Bell (March 3, 1847–August 2, 1922) was a Scottish-born American inventor, scientist, and engineer best known for inventing the first practical telephone in 1876, founding the Bell Telephone Company in 1877, and a refinement of Thomas Edison’s phonograph in 1886. Greatly influenced by the deafness of both his mother and his wife, Bell dedicated much of his life’s work to researching hearing and speech and helping the hearing impaired communicate. In addition to the telephone, Bell worked on numerous other inventions, including a metal detector, airplanes, and hydrofoils—or “flying” boats.

Fast Facts: Alexander Graham Bell

  • Known For: Inventor of the telephone
  • Born: March 3, 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland
  • Parents: Alexander Melville Bell, Eliza Grace Symonds Bell
  • Died: August 2, 1922 in Nova Scotia, Canada
  • Education: University of Edinburgh (1864), University College London (1868)
  • Patents: US Patent No. 174,465—Improvement in Telegraphy
  • Awards and Honors: Albert Medal (1902), John Fritz Medal (1907), Elliott Cresson Medal (1912)
  • Spouse: Mabel Hubbard
  • Children: Elsie May, Marian Hubbard, Edward, Robert
  • Notable Quote: “I had made up my mind to find that for which I was searching even if it required the remainder of my life.”

Early Life

Alexander Graham Bell was born on March 3, 1847, to Alexander Melville Bell and Eliza Grace Symonds Bell in Edinburgh, Scotland. He had two brothers, Melville James Bell and Edward Charles Bell, both of whom would die of tuberculosis. Having been born simply “Alexander Bell,” at age 10, he begged his father to give him a middle name like his two brothers. On his 11th birthday, his father granted his wish, allowing him to adopt the middle name “Graham,” chosen out of respect for Alexander Graham, a family friend.

Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), Scottish-born American inventor.
Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), Scottish-born American inventor. Bell, who patented the telephone in 1876, as a young man. Print Collector / Getty Images

In 1864, Bell attended the University of Edinburgh along with his older brother Melville. In 1865, the Bell family moved to London, England, where in 1868, Alexander passed the entrance examinations for University College London. From an early age, Bell had been immersed in the study of sound and hearing. His mother had lost her hearing at age 12, and his father, uncle, and grandfather were authorities on elocution and taught speech therapy for the deaf. It was understood that Bell would follow in the family footsteps after finishing college. However, after his brothers both died of tuberculosis, he withdrew from college in 1870 and immigrated with his family to Canada. In 1871, at age 24, Bell immigrated to the United States, where he taught at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes, the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts, and at the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut.

In early 1872, Bell met Boston attorney Gardiner Greene Hubbard, who would become one of his primary financial backers and father-in-law. In 1873, he began working with Hubbard’s 15-year-old daughter Mabel Hubbard, who had lost her hearing at age 5 after nearly dying of scarlet fever. Despite the nearly 10-year difference in their ages, Alexander and Mabel fell in love and were married on July 11, 1877, a matter of days after Alexander had founded the Bell Telephone Company. As a wedding present, Bell gave his bride all but ten of his 1,497 shares in his promising new telephone company. The couple would go on to have four children, daughters Elsie, Marian, and two sons who died in infancy.

Alexander Graham Bell and Wife and Family Portrait
Inventor Alexander Graham Bell poses for a portrait with his wife Mabel Hubbard Gardiner Bell and his daughters Elsie Bell and Marian Bell in 1885. Donaldson Collection / Getty Images

In October 1872, Bell opened his own School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech in Boston. One of his students was the young Helen Keller. Unable to hear, see, or speak, Keller would later praise Bell for dedicating his life to helping the deaf break through the “inhuman silence which separates and estranges.”

Path From Telegraph to Telephone

Both the telegraph and the telephone work by transmitting electrical signals over wires, 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 enabled him to imagine 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 perfect one.

Between 1873 and 1874, with the financial backing of Thomas Sanders and his future father-in-law Gardiner Hubbard, Bell worked on his “harmonic telegraph,” based on the principle that several different notes could be sent simultaneously along the same wire if the notes or signals differed in pitch. It was during his work on the harmonic telegraph that Bell’s interest drifted to an even more radical idea, the possibility that not just the telegraph’s dots-and-dashes, but the human voice itself could be transmitted over wires.

Duplicate model of Alexander Graham Bell's first telephone instrument
Duplicate model of Alexander Graham Bell's first telephone instrument. Time Life Pictures / Contributor / Getty Images

Concerned that this diversion of interest would slow Bell’s work on the harmonic telegraph they were funding, Sanders and Hubbard hired Thomas A. Watson, a skilled electrician, to keep Bell on track. However, when Watson became a devoted believer in Bell’s ideas for voice transmission, the two men agreed to work together with Bell providing the ideas and Watson doing the electrical work necessary to bring Bell’s ideas to reality.

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 had long 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 Watson 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 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' 

Illustration of exterior view and cross section of mouthpiece apparatus of Alexander Graham Bell's first telephone
Mouthpiece apparatus of Alexander Graham Bell's first telephone. Time Life Pictures / Contributor / Getty Images

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 Watson’s act 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. On March 7, 1876, the U.S. Patent Office issued Bell Patent No. 174,465, covering “the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically ... by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sound.”

Alexander Graham Bell notebook, 1876
Alexander Graham Bell made these drawings of his telephone in one of his notebooks, dated 1876. Library of Congress /  public domain 

On March 10, 1876, three days after he had been granted his patent, Bell famously succeeded in getting his telephone to work. Bell recounted the historic 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."

Having heard Bell’s voice through the wire, Mr. Watson had just received the first telephone call.

Always the shrewd businessman, Bell took every opportunity to show the public what his telephone could do. After seeing the device in action at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, Emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro II, exclaimed, “My God, it talks!” Several other demonstrations followed—each successful at a greater distance than the last. On July 9, 1877, the Bell Telephone Company was organized, with Emperor Dom Pedro II being the first person to buy shares. One of the first telephones in a private residence was installed in Dom Pedro’s Petrópolis palace.

Drawing of Alexander Graham Bell demonstrating his telephone at the Lyceum Hall in Salem, Massachusetts, 15th March 1877
Alexander Graham Bell demonstrating his telephone at the Lyceum Hall in Salem, Massachusetts, 15th March 1877. Three Lions / Stringer / Getty Images

On January 25, 1915, Bell successfully made the first transcontinental telephone call. In New York City, Bell spoke into the telephone’s mouthpiece, repeating his famous request, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.” From San Francisco, California, 3,400 miles (5,500 km) away, Mr. Watson replied, “It will take me five days to get there now!”

Other Research and 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. In this vein, Bell was an advocate of forced sterilization and was closely connected with the eugenics movement in the United States. In 1883, he presented data to the National Academy of Sciences indicating that congenitally deaf parents were more likely to produce deaf children and tentatively suggested that deaf people should not be allowed to marry each other. He also conducted sheep-breeding experiments at his estate to see if he could increase the numbers of twin and triplet births.

Alexander Graham Bell using his induction-balance device on President Garfield.
After an assassination attempt in 1881, Alexander Graham Bell used his induction-balance device to locate the bullet in President Garfield's body.  Library of Congress /  public domain

In other instances, Bell’s curiosity 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 produce 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 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 manned 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.

Alexander Graham Bell Exhibiting His Kites
Kite display in Transportation Building, including many tetrahedral kites and a sign for 'The Oionos' Kite modeled after Alexander Graham Bell's prototype, St. Louis Expo Air Show, Missouri, 1904. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

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.

The Photophone

Although working with the deaf would remain Bell's principal source of income, Bell 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.

Despite being known for his invention of the telephone, Bell 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 rooted, though it would take the development of several modern technologies to fully capitalize on this breakthrough.

Illustration of Alexander Graham Bell's photophone's transmitter
Illustration of Alexander Graham Bell's photophone's transmitter. Flickr / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domaim

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. 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. Their experiments produced such major improvements in Thomas Edison's phonograph that it became commercially viable. Their design, patented as the Graphophone in 1886, featured a removable cardboard cylinder coated with mineral wax.

Later Years and Death 

Bell spent the last decade of his life improving the designs of hydrofoil boats. As they gain speed, hydrofoils lift the boat’s hull out of the water, decreasing drag and allowing greater speeds. In 1919, Bell and Casey Baldwin built a hydrofoil that set a world water-speed record that was not broken until 1963.

Bell died of complications arising from diabetes and anemia on August 2, 1922, at his estate in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, at age 75. He was buried on August 4, 1922, atop Beinn Bhreagh mountain, on his estate overlooking Bras d'Or Lake. As the funeral ended, all of the more than 14 million telephones in the United States at the time were silenced for one minute.

Upon learning of Bell's death, Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, cabled Mabel Bell, saying:

“My colleagues in the Government join with me in expressing to you our sense of the world's loss in the death of your distinguished husband. It will ever be a source of pride to our country that the great invention, with which his name is immortally associated, is a part of its history. On the behalf of the citizens of Canada, may I extend to you an expression of our combined gratitude and sympathy.”

Legacy

As his once-unimaginable inventions became essential parts of everyday life and his fame grew, honors and tributes to Bell mounted quickly. He received honorary degrees from scores of colleges and universities, fittingly highlighted by a Ph.D. from Gallaudet University for the deaf and hearing-impaired. Along with dozens of major awards, medals, and other tributes, a number of historic sites throughout North America and Europe commemorate Bell.

Telephone Centenary
A Stamp printed in USA shows the Alexander Graham Bell Telephone Patent Application, Telephone Centenary Issue, circa 1976. AlexanderZam / Getty Images

Bell’s invention of the telephone made instantaneous, long-distance voice communication between individuals, industries, and governments possible for the first time. Today, more than 4 billion people worldwide use telephones every day, either wire-connected landline models based on Bell’s original design or wireless smartphones.

Months before his death in 1922, Bell had 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.”

Sources and Further Reference

  • “Alexander Graham Bell.” Lemelson—MIT, https://lemelson.mit.edu/resources/alexander-graham-bell.
  • Vanderbilt, Tom. “A Brief History of the Telephone, From Alexander Graham Bell to the iPhone.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 15 May 2012, http://www.slate.com/articles/life/design/2012/05/telephone_design_a_brief_history_photos_.html.
  • Foner, Eric and Garraty, John A. “The Reader’s Companion to American History.” Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, October 1, 1991.
  • "The Bell Family.” Bell Homestead National Historic Site, https://www.brantford.ca/en/things-to-do/history.aspx.
  • Bruce, Robert V. (1990). “Bell: Alexander Bell and the Conquest of Solitude.” Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1990.
  • "Dom Pedro II and America". The Library of Congress, https://memory.loc.gov/intldl/brhtml/br-1/br-1-5-2.html.
  • Bell, Mabel (1922). "Dr. Bell's Appreciation of the Telephone Service". Bell Telephone Quarterly, https://archive.org/stream/belltelephonemag01amer#page/64/mode/2up.

Updated by Robert Longley.