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10 Things You May Not Know About Alexander Graham Bell

On what would have been his 170th birthday, explore 10 surprising facts about the widely acknowledged inventor of the telephone.

1. He was an immigrant.

Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell

Bell was born on March 3, 1847, in Edinburgh, Scotland. After attending school in Scotland and London, the 23-year-old immigrated to Canada with his parents in 1870. The following year, Bell moved to the United States to teach at the Boston School for the Deaf. After gaining fame for developing the telephone, the inventor became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1882.

2. Bell’s middle name was a birthday present.

Alexander Graham Bell as a teenager.

Alexander Graham Bell as a teenager.

Baptized Alexander Bell, the inventor longed for a middle name as a child, perhaps to differentiate himself from his father and grandfather, who were both named Alexander. On the boy’s 11th birthday, Bell’s father allowed the youngster to adopt the middle name “Graham” in honor of Alexander Graham, a former student of his who was boarding with the family.

3. Bell’s mother and wife were both hearing-impaired.

Mabel and Alexander Graham Bell. (Credit: CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Mabel and Alexander Graham Bell. (Credit: CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

A childhood illness left Bell’s mother mostly deaf and reliant on an ear trumpet to hear anything. Young Alexander would speak close to his mother’s forehead so she could feel the vibrations of his voice. Bell’s father and grandfather were both distinguished speech therapists, and from a young age the future inventor joined in the family business. Bell became a voice teacher and worked with his father, who developed Visible Speech, a written system of symbols that instructed the deaf to pronounce sounds. In 1873 he became a professor of vocal physiology at Boston University where he met his future wife, Mabel Hubbard, a student 10 years his junior who had completely lost her hearing from a bout of scarlet fever. Living and working with the hearing impaired sparked Bell’s interest in the principles of acoustics and his experiments in transmitting sound waves over wires.

4. He faced more than 600 lawsuits over his telephone patent.

An early Bell telephone. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

An early Bell telephone. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

Bell’s patent application for the telephone was filed on February 14, 1876, just hours before rival inventor Elisha Gray filed a caveat with the U.S. Patent Office that announced he was working on a similar invention. On March 7, the 29-year-old Bell was awarded the first U.S. patent for the telephone, and three days later Bell’s assistant, Thomas Watson, clearly heard the inventor’s voice crackle across a wire in their Boston laboratory in the first successful telephone transmission. It didn’t take long for the first of hundreds of legal challenges to Bell’s patent to begin. Five of them reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ultimately upheld Bell’s claims in one of the longest patent battles in American history.

5. Bell developed a wireless telephone.

The Bell Photophone.

The Bell Photophone.

More than a century before the proliferation of cell phones, Bell invented a wireless telephone that transmitted conversations and sounds by beams of light. Bell proclaimed his “photophone” (from the Greek words for “light” and “sound”), which was patented in 1880, to be “the greatest invention I have ever made; greater than the telephone.” He told the Boston Traveller that he foresaw its application for navigators communicating from sea to shore and “in times of war, when telegraph lines are down and the country is desolated.” Given the technology of the time, however, the photophone’s utility proved limited. It wasn’t until fiber-optic technology was developed many decades later that the transmission of sound by light found its first wide-scale commercial application.

6. He invented a rudimentary metal detector in a quest to save the life of a president.

Alexander Graham Bell and assistant use an electrical detector to find a bullet inside President James Garfield. (Credit: Culture Club/Getty Images)

Alexander Graham Bell and assistant use an electrical detector to find a bullet inside President James Garfield. (Credit: Culture Club/Getty Images)

In the weeks that followed the July 2, 1881, shooting of President James Garfield, the chief executive’s condition worsened as doctors made repeated probes with unsterilized fingers and instruments in order to find the location of one of the bullets. Believing that “science should be able to discover some less barbarous method” for locating the bullet, Bell developed an electromagnetic machine that he tested on Civil War veterans who still had bullets lodged in their bodies. Bell was twice summoned to Garfield’s White House bedside with his machine, but his “induction balance” failed to locate the bullet, in part due to interference caused by steel wires in the bed mattress and the president’s chief physician only permitting a search of the right side of the president’s body where he was convinced the bullet was lodged. After Garfield’s death on September 19, the bullet was found to be on his left side.

7. Bell connected Helen Keller with Annie Sullivan.

Helen Keller and Alexander Graham Bell. (Credit: PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

Helen Keller and Alexander Graham Bell. (Credit: PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

In spite of gaining fame as the inventor of the telephone, Bell continued his lifelong work to help the hearing impaired. In 1887, Captain Arthur Keller traveled from Alabama to meet with Bell in order to seek help for his 6-year-old daughter, Helen, who had become blind and mute at the age of 19 months, possibly from scarlet fever. Bell directed them to Boston’s Perkins School for the Blind, where they met recent graduate Anne Sullivan, the miracle-working tutor who would teach Helen to write, speak and read Braille. Keller dedicated her autobiography to Bell, whom she credited with opening the “door through which I should pass from darkness into light,” and the two remained lifelong friends.

8. A Bell-designed speedboat set a world record.

A Bell hydrofoil.

A Bell hydrofoil.

Bell began experimenting in aviation in the 1890s, even developing giant manned tetrahedral kites. His dreams of airplanes that could take off from water led him to work on the designs of winged hydrofoil boats that skipped across the water surface at high speeds. The HD-4 model on which he collaborated reached a speed of more than 70 miles per hour during a 1919 test on a lake in Nova Scotia, a world water-speed record that stood for more than a decade.

9. North American telephones were silenced in Bell’s honor following his death.

Bust of Bell. (Credit: James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images)

Bust of Bell. (Credit: James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images)

Bell died at his summer home in Nova Scotia on August 2, 1922. Two days later all telephone service in the United States and Canada was suspended for a full minute at the precise moment when Bell was lowered into his grave. An army of 60,000 telephone operators stood silently at attention and did not connect any new calls as the continent’s 13 million telephones went quiet.

10. Decibels are named after him.

Alexander Graham Bell later in life

Alexander Graham Bell later in life.

Bell’s name remained in the popular lexicon after his death. To honor the inventor’s contributions to acoustical science, the standard unit for the intensity of sound waves was named the “bel” in the 1920s. The decibel, one-tenth of a bel, is the most commonly used metric for measuring the magnitude of noise.

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