Alexander Graham Bell
  • Print
  • Cite

Introduction

Alexander Graham Bell is best known for his invention of the telephone, for which he received his first patent in 1876. Despite the hundreds of lawsuits that would challenge his claim to the invention, none would prove successful. Born in Scotland and later becoming a U.S. citizen, Bell spent his life in pursuit of scientific discovery, and despite his myriad accomplishments as a scientist and inventor, he saw himself first and foremost as a teacher of the deaf, dedicating the majority of his work to that field.

Bell was born on March 3, 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland, the second born son of Alexander Melville Bell, a teacher of elocution, and Eliza Grace Symonds, a hearing-impaired pianist.

While not the best student, Bell had an uncanny talent for problem solving. At 12 years old, he invented a farming device for his friend’s father that quickly and efficiently removed the husks from wheat grain.

After being homeschooled and attending private school for a year, Bell went on to the Royal High School at Edinburgh but eventually dropped out because he didn’t enjoy the mandatory curriculum.

Although Bell had a tense relationship with his own father, he was heavily influenced by him and his grandfather, both of whom devoted their careers to voice mechanics and elocution. Bell followed in their footsteps and became a teacher for the deaf.

After the deaths of his older brother Melville James and younger brother Edward Charles from tuberculosis, Bell and his family moved to Ontario, Canada, in 1870, seeking a healthier climate. A year later, Bell found his way to the U.S. and began teaching at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes and similar facilities in the area.

While a teacher, Bell met 15-year-old Mabel Hubbard, one of his deaf students. Despite a 10-year age gap, the two fell in love and were married in 1877. The couple would go on to have four children: daughters Elsie and Marian, as well as two sons who died as infants.

While a teacher for the hearing impaired, Bell was asked by a group of investors — one of whom was his father-in-law Gardiner Hubbard — to help perfect the harmonic telegraph. The device was one of the most exciting innovations of the day, allowing for multiple messages to be sent over wire simultaneously.

But Bell was more keen on developing a voice transmitting device, which he would later call the telephone. After some negotiation, the investors allowed for Bell to work on both technologies, with more focus on the popular harmonic telegraph.

However, in the end, the telephone won out. As Bell would later explain, “If I could make a current of electricity vary in intensity precisely as the air varies in density during the production of sound, I should be able to transmit speech telegraphically.”

On March 7, 1876, Bell was awarded a patent on the device, and three days later, he made his first successful telephone call to his assistant, electrician Thomas Watson, who would hear Bell’s famous words transmitted through the wire: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.”

Soon after establishing the Bell Telephone Company in 1877, Bell found himself in what would become an almost 20-year legal battle with other inventors who claimed they had invented the telephone before or around the same time as Bell, his most notable rival being Elisha Grey. However, in the end, none of the lawsuits proved successful.

The telephone proved wildly successful, and within 10 years, more than 100,000 people in the United States owned telephones. But a few years after founding Bell Telephone Company, Bell quickly lost interest in managing the business aspect of his enterprise and sold his shares.

In 1880 he invested his sizable fortune into building a new scientific experimental facility called the Volta Laboratory, aimed to improving the lives of the hearing impaired. The laboratory ran many experiments using light to transmit sound.

Outside of the telephone, one of Bell’s other famous inventions was the graphophone, patented in 1886, which was a device that could record and play back sound. The graphophone was an improved and more commercialized version of the phonograph invented by Thomas Edison.

Coincidentally, while Bell helped improve Edison’s phonograph, Edison improved Bell’s telephone by inventing the microphone, which allowed users to speak in a normal voice rather than shouting to be heard on a call.

After the fatal shooting of President James A. Garfield in 1881, Bell got to work on a device that could detect metal in the body for surgical use. Calling it “an electrical bullet probe,” Bell developed what would become a precursor to the metal detector.

In the 1890s, Bell began focusing his studies on aviation. In 1907 he formed the Aerial Experiment Association and helped develop flying machines like the Silver Dart. At 75, he created the world’s fastest hydrofoil at the time.

In 1888, Bell became one of the founding members of the National Geographic Society and later served as its president between 1898 and 1903. Along with his son-in-law, Gilbert Grosvenor, Bell transformed the society’s journal, National Geographic, into a world-renowned publication. Bell also helped launch Science magazine, still one of the world’s premier science publications.

Controversially, Bell was named honorary president of the Second International Congress of Eugenics, held in New York in 1921, which advocated sterilization of people deemed “defective.” The eugenics movement, popular in the early 20th century, aimed to reduce or eliminate disease and disability from the human population through sterilization and other means.

Bell died peacefully at his vacation home in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, on August 2, 1922. As a quiet but powerful tribute to Bell, people all over Canada and the United States refrained from using their telephones during his funeral.

Alexander Graham Bell: John Steele Gordon. The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors.

Alexander Graham Bell Biography. Biography.com.

Alexander Graham Bell. PBS.org.