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Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. Remarkably, he only worked on his invention because he misunderstood a technical work he had read in German. His misunderstanding ultimately led to his discovery of how speech could be transmitted electrically.
Alexander Graham Bell was born March 3, 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK. His mother’s name was Eliza Grace Symonds. His father, Alexander Melville Bell, was a professor of speech elocution at the University of Edinburgh. His father also wrote definitive books about speech and elocution, which sold very well in the UK and North America. The young Alexander was home-schooled until he was 11, following which he attended Edinburgh’s Royal High School for four years: he enjoyed science, but did not do well academically. Although his schoolwork was poor, his mind was very active. One day, he was playing at a flour mill owned by the family of a young friend. Bell learned that de-husking the wheat grains took a lot of effort and was also very boring. He saw that it would be possible for a machine to do the work, so he built one. He was only 12 at the time. The machine he built was used at the mill for several years. Aged 15, he joined his grandfather who had moved to London, England. His grandfather home-schooled him, which seemed to bring out the best in Bell again. When he was 16, he enrolled at Weston House Academy in Elgin, Scotland, where he learned Greek and Latin and also earned some money teaching elocution. While he was 16, he and his brother tried to build a talking robot. They built a windpipe and a realistic looking head. When they blew air through the windpipe, the mouth could make a small number of recognizable words.For the next few years, Bell moved to a new school most years, either teaching elocution or improving his own education.
While Bell moved around a lot, he continued to carry out his own research into sound and speech. He worked very hard indeed, and by the time he was 20 he was in very poor health and returned to his family home, which was now in London. By mid-1870, when Bell was 23, both of his younger brothers had died of tuberculosis. Bell’s parents were terrified that Alexander, whose health was fragile, would suffer a similar fate. He was now their only surviving child. Bell’s father had gone to Canada when he was younger and found that his poor health had improved dramatically. He now decided that what was left of his family should move to Canada, and by late 1870, they were living in Brantford, Ontario. Thankfully, Alexander Graham Bell’s health began to improve. While living in Brentford, Bell learned the Mohawk language and put it in writing for the first time. The Mohawk people made him an Honorary Chief.
When he was 25, Bell opened his School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech in Boston, MA, where he taught deaf people to speak. At age 26, although he did not have a university degree, he became Professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at the Boston University School of Oratory.
While he was moving jobs and locations around the UK and North America, Bell had developed an overriding desire to invent a machine that could reproduce human speech. Speech had become his life: his mother had gone deaf, and Bell’s father had developed a method of teaching deaf people to speak, which Bell also taught. His research into mechanizing human speech had become a relentless obsession: in the UK it had driven him almost to collapse. When Bell was only 19 years old, he had described his work in a letter to the linguistics expert Alexander Ellis. Ellis told Bell his work was similar to work carried out in Germany by Hermann von Helmholtz.
Bell eagerly read Helmholtz’s work, or tried to read it. It was in German, which he did not understand. Instead, he tried to follow the logic of the book’s diagrams. Bell misunderstood the diagrams, believing that Helmholtz had been able to convert all of the sounds of speech to electricity. In fact, Helmholtz had not been able to do this – he had only succeeded with vowel sounds – but from then on, Bell believed it could be done! Aged 23, Bell built a workshop in the new family home in Ontario and experimented there with converting music into an electrical signal. In Boston, aged 25, Bell continued his experiments through the night while working in the day. In summer, he would return to his workshop in Ontario and continue his experiments.
In 1874 Bell was 26. The first electrical telegraph lines had been built forty years earlier, in the 1830s. These allowed electrical clicks (Morse code) to be instantly transmitted over great distances. Bell wanted to transmit human speech instead of clicks, and he was getting close to doing it. He had found that human speech came in wave like patterns. He now hoped to produce an electrical wave that would follow the same patterns as someone’s speech. He won financial backing from Gardiner Hubbard and Thomas Sanders, two wealthy investors. Hubbard also brought in Anthony Pollok, his patent attorney. The money enabled Bell to hire Thomas Watson, a skilled electrical engineer, whose knowledge would complement Bell’s.
Aged 27, in 1875, Bell and his investors decided the time had come to protect his intellectual property using patents.
Bell had a patent written for transmission of speech over an electrical wire. He applied for this patent in the UK, because in those days UK patents were granted only if they had not first been granted in another country. Bell told his attorney to apply in the USA only after the patent had been granted in the UK.By 1876, things in the USA had become murkier. In February of that year, Elisha Gray applied for a US patent for a telephone which used a variable resistor based n a liquid: salt water.In the transmitter, the liquid resistor transferred to an electric circuit the vibrations of a needle attached to a diaphragm which had been made to vibrate by sound. The electrical resistance of the circuit changed in tandem with the needle’s position in the liquid, and so sound was converted into an equivalent electrical signal. The receiver converted the electrical signal back into sound using a vibrating needle in liquid connected to a diaphragm which vibrated to recreate the sound that had been transmitted.On the same day, Bell’s attorney filed his US patent application.It was only in March 1876 that Bell actually got his invention to work, using a design similar to Gray’s. Hence Gray lay claim to have invented the telephone.On the other hand, Bell had established the concept before Gray, and in all demonstrations of a working phone Bell gave or developed commercially he used his own setup rather than a water based variable resistor. In fact, in 1875, Bell had filed a patent for a liquid mercury based variable resistor, predating Gray’s liquid variable resistor patent.Bell had to fend off around 600 lawsuits before he could finally rest in bed at night as the legally acknowledged inventor of the telephone.By summer 1876, Bell was transmitting telephone voice messages over a line several miles long in Ontario.
Near the end of 1876, Bell and his investors offered to sell their patent to Western Union for $100,000. Western Union ran America’s telegraph wires, and its top people believed the telephone was just a fad. They thought it would not be profitable.How spectacularly wrong they were!By 1878, Western Union’s opinion had altered dramatically. They now thought that if they could offer $25 million to get the patent, they would have gotten it cheaply.Unfortunately for Western Union, in 1877, the Bell Telephone Company had been launched. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Alexander Graham Bell had a restless mind. The telephone made him wealthy and famous, but he wanted new challenges, and he continued inventing and innovating.
Today, it is standard practice to transmit huge amounts of data using photons of light through optical fiber.In 1880, Bell and his assistant Charles Summer Tainter transmitted wireless voice messages a distance of over 200 meters in Washington D.C. The voice messages were carried by a light beam, and Bell patented the photophone. This was two decades before the first radio messages were sent without wires and a century before optic fiber communications became commercially viable.
In 1881, after President James Garfield was shot, Bell invented the metal detector to locate the bullet precisely. The rudimentary metal detector worked in tests, but the bullet in the President’s body was too deep to be detected by the early detecting equipment.
In 1888 Bell was one of the founders of the National Geographic Society. In 1897, he became its second president.
Alexander Graham Bell died aged 75 on August 2, 1922 in Nova Scotia, Canada. He had been ill for some months with complications from diabetes. He was survived by his wife, Mabel, and two daughters – Elsie and Marian.Every phone in North America was silenced during his funeral in his honor.The unit of sound intensity, the bel, more usually seen as the smaller unit, the decibel, was named after Bell: it was conceived of in the Bell Laboratories.