Alexander Graham Bell, best known for his invention of the telephone, revolutionized communication as we know it. His interest in sound technology was deep-rooted and personal, as both his wife and mother were deaf. While there’s some controversy over whether Bell was the true pioneer of the telephone, he secured exclusive rights to the technology and launched the Bell Telephone Company in 1877. Ultimately, the talented scientist held more than 18 patents for his inventions and work in communications.
Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on March 3, 1847. Bell’s father was a professor of speech elocution at the University of Edinburgh and his mother, despite being deaf, was an accomplished pianist.
Young Alexander was an intellectually curious child who studied piano and began inventing things at an early age. Both of his brothers passed away from tuberculosis by the time Bell was in his early twenties.
Initially, Bell’s education consisted of homeschooling. Bell didn’t excel academically, but he was a problem solver from an early age.
When he was just 12, the young Alexander invented a device with rotating paddles and nail brushes that could quickly remove husks from wheat grain to help improve a farming process. At age 16, Bell began studying the mechanics of speech.
He went on to attend Royal High School and the University of Edinburgh. In 1870, Bell, along with his family, moved to Canada. The following year, he settled in the United States.
While in the U.S., Bell implemented a system his father developed to teach deaf children called “visible speech” — a set of symbols that represented speech sounds.
In 1872, he opened the School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech in Boston, where deaf people were taught to speak. At age 26, the budding inventor became Professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at the Boston University School of Oratory, even though he didn’t have a university degree.
While teaching, Bell met Mabel Hubbard, a deaf student. The couple married on July 11, 1877. They went on to have four children, including two sons who died as infants.
In 1871, Bell started working on the harmonic telegraph — a device that allowed multiple messages to be transmitted over a wire at the same time. While trying to perfect this technology, which was backed by a group of investors, Bell became preoccupied with finding a way to transmit human voice over wires.
By 1875, Bell, with the help of his partner Thomas Watson, had come up with a simple receiver that could turn electricity into sound.
Other scientists, including Antonio Meucci and Elisha Gray, were working on similar technologies, and there’s some debate over who should be credited with the invention of the telephone. It’s said that Bell raced to the patent office to be the first to secure the rights to the discovery.
On March 7, 1876, Bell was granted his telephone patent. A few days later, he made the first-ever telephone call to Watson, allegedly uttering the now-famous phrase, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.”
By 1877, the Bell Telephone Company, which today is known as AT&T, was created. In 1915, Bell made the first transcontinental phone call to Watson from New York to San Francisco.
The inventor faced a nearly 20-year legal battle with other scientists, including Gray and Meucci, who claimed they created telephone prototypes prior to Bell’s patent.
In 1887, the U.S. government moved to withdraw the patent issued to Bell, but after a series of rulings, the Bell company won in a Supreme Court decision.
While the Bell Company faced over 550 court challenges, in the end, none were successful.
Inventions and Accomplishments
In addition to the telephone, Bell worked on hundreds of projects throughout his career and received patents in various fields. Some of his other notable inventions were:
- The metal detector: Bell initially came up with this device to locate a bullet inside of assassinated President James A. Garfield.
- Photophone: The photophone allowed transmission of speech on a beam of light.
- Graphophone: This improved version of the phonograph could record and play back sound.
- Audiometer: This gadget was used to detect hearing problems.
In 1880, Bell was awarded the French Volta Prize, and with the money, he founded a facility devoted to scientific discovery, the Volta Laboratory in Washington, D.C.
Bell invented numerous techniques to help teach speech to the deaf and even worked with well-known author and activist Helen Keller. He also helped launch Science magazine, and from 1896 to 1904 served as president of the National Geographic Society.
In 1921, Bell was given the controversial title of honorary president at the Second International Congress of Eugenics. While he didn’t go as far as to advocate for sterilization, Bell did support human breeding efforts to weed out diseases and disabilities. This connection to the eugenics movement is a curious association, given Bell’s compassionate devotion to helping the deaf.
Later in his life, Bell focused on aviation and hydrofoil inventions. He helped develop flying machines like the tetrahedral kite and the Silver Dart, and he created the world’s fastest hydrofoil at the time.
Quotes by Bell
While Bell is typically known for what he invented, he’s also remembered for what he said and wrote. Some famous quotes attributed to Bell include:
- “When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.”
- “A man's own judgment should be the final appeal in all that relates to himself.”
- “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”
- “Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to focus.”
- “Great discoveries and improvements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds.”
- “The most successful men in the end are those whose success is the result of steady accretion.”
- “The only difference between success and failure is the ability to take action.”
- “You cannot force ideas. Successful ideas are the result of slow growth.”
- “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.”
Death and Legacy
Bell died on August 2, 1922, at the age of 75 in Nova Scotia, Canada. The cause of his death was complications from diabetes. He was survived by his wife and two daughters.
During Bell’s funeral, every phone in North America was silenced to pay tribute to the inventor.
Today, the famous scientist is remembered for his groundbreaking work in sound technology and improving education for the deaf. His best-known invention, the telephone, forever changed the way humans communicate with each other.