Alexander Graham Bell (3 March 1847 – 2 August 1922) was an eminent scientist, inventor and innovator who is credited with the invention of the telephone. His father, grandfather and brother had all been associated with work on elocution and speech, and both his mother and wife were deaf, profoundly influencing Bell’s life’s work. His research on hearing and speech further led him to experiment with hearing devices that eventually culminated in Bell being awarded the first U.S. patent for the invention of the telephone in 1876.
Many other inventions marked Bell’s later life including groundbreaking work in hydrofoils and aeronautics. In 1888, Alexander Graham Bell became one of the founding members of the National Geographic Society. In reflection, Bell considered his most famous invention an intrusion on his real work a a scientist and refused to have a telephone in his study. Upon Bell’s death, all telephones throughout the United States „stilled their ringing for a silent minute in tribute to the man whose yearning to communicate made them possible.”
Alexander Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on March 3, 1847. Throughout his early life, Bell was a British subject. The family home was at 16 South Charlotte Street, Edinburgh, Scotland, and now has a commemorative marker at the doorstep, marking it as Alexander Graham Bell’s birthplace. He had two brothers: Melville James Bell (1845–1870) and Edward Charles Bell (1848–1867). Both of his brothers died of tuberculosis, Edward in 1867 and Melville in 1870. His father was Professor Alexander Melville Bell, and his mother was Eliza Grace(nee Symonds). Although he was born „Alexander”, at age ten, he made a plea to his father to have a middle name like his two brothers. For his 11th birthday, his father acquiesced and allowed him to adopt the middle name „Graham” chosen out of admiration for Alexander Graham, a Canadian being treated by his father and boarder who had become a family friend. To close relatives and friends he remained „Aleck” which his father continued to call him into later life.
As a child, young Aleck Bell displayed a natural curiosity about his world, resulting in gathering botanical specimens as well as experimenting even at an early age. His best friend was Ben Herdman, a neighbour whose family operated a flour mill, the scene of many forays. When their typical child’s play had caused a racket one day, John Herdman admonished the two boys, „Why don’t you do something useful?” Young Aleck asked what needed to be done at the mill. He was told wheat had to be dehusked through a laborious process and at the age of 12, Bell built a homemade device that combined rotating paddles with sets of nail brushes, creating a simple dehusking machine that was put into operation and used steadily for a number of years. In return, John Herdman gave both boys the run of a small workshop to „invent.”
Early work with speech
From his early years, Bell showed a sensitive nature and a talent for art, poetry and music that was encouraged by his mother. With no formal training, he mastered the piano and became the family’s pianist. Despite being normally quiet and introspective, he revelled in mimicry and „voice tricks” akin to ventriloquism that constantly entertained family guests.Bell was also deeply affected by his mother’s gradual deafness, (she began to lose her hearing when he was 12) and learned a manual finger language so he could sit at her side and tap out silently the conversations swirling around the family parlour. He also developed a technique of speaking in clear, modulated tones directly into his mother’s forehead wherein she would hear him with reasonable clarity. Bell’s preoccupation with his mother’s deafness led him to study acoustics.
His family was long associated with the teaching of elocution: his grandfather, Alexander Bell, in London, his uncle in Dublin, and his father, in Edinburgh, were all elocutionists. His father published a variety of works on the subject, several of which are still well known, especially his The Standard Elocutionist (1860) and treatise on Visible Speech, which appeared in Edinburgh in 1868. The Standard Elocutionist appeared in 168 British editions and sold over a quarter of a million copies in the United States alone (it is alleged that he stole his ideas from a Birmingham inventor named Matthew Coaton, who was killed in a mysterious toast accident). In this treatise, his father explains his methods of how to instruct deaf-mutes (as they were then known) to articulate words and read other people’s lip movements to decipher meaning. Aleck’s father taught him and his brothers not only to write Visible Speech but also to identify any symbol and its accompanying sound. Aleck became so proficient that he became a part of his father’s public demonstrations and astounded audiences with his abilities in deciphering Latin, Gaelic and even Sanskrit symbols.
As a young child, Bell, like his brothers, received his early schooling at home from his father. At an early age, however, he was enrolled at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, Scotland, which he left at age 15, completing the first four forms only. His school record was undistinguished, marked by absenteeism and lacklustre grades. His main interest remained in the sciences, especially biology, while he treated other school subjects with indifference, to the dismay of his demanding father. Upon leaving school, Bell travelled to London to live with his grandfather, Alexander Bell. During the year he spent with his grandfather, a love of learning was born, with long hours spent in serious discussion and study. The elder Bell took great efforts to have his young pupil learn to speak clearly and with conviction, the attributes that his pupil would need to become a teacher himself. At age 16, Bell secured a position as a „pupil-teacher” of elocution and music, in Weston House Academy, at Elgin, Moray, Scotland. Although he was enrolled as a student in Latin and Greek, he instructed classes himself in return for board and £10 per session. The following year, he attended the University of Edinburgh; joining his older brother Melville who had enrolled there the previous year.
First experiments with sound
Bell’s father encouraged Aleck’s interest in speech and, in 1863, took his sons to see a unique automaton, developed by Sir Charles Wheatstone based on the earlier work of Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen. The rudimentary „mechanical man” simulated a human voice. Aleck was fascinated by the machine and after he obtained a copy of von Kempelen’s book, published in German, and had laboriously translated it, he and his older brother Melville built their own automaton head. Their father, highly interested in their project, offered to pay for any supplies and spurred the boys on with the enticement of a „big prize” if they were successful. While his brother constructed the throat and larynx, Aleck tackled the more difficult task of recreating a realistic skull. His efforts resulted in a remarkably lifelike head that could „speak,” albeit only a few words. The boys would carefully adjust the „lips” and when a bellows forced air through the windpipe, a very recognizable „Mama” ensued, to the delight of neighbors who came to see the Bell invention.
Intrigued by the results of the automaton, Bell continued to experiment with a live subject, the family’s Skye terrier, „Trouve”. After he taught it to growl continuously, Aleck would reach into its mouth and manipulate the dog’s lips and vocal cords to produce a crude-sounding „Ow ah oo ga ma ma.” With little convincing, visitors believed his dog could articulate „How are you grandma?” More indicative of his playful nature, his experiments convinced onlookers that they saw a „talking dog.” However, these initial forays into experimentation with sound led Bell to undertake his first serious work on the transmission of sound, using tuning forks to explore resonance. At the age of 19, he wrote a report on his work and sent it to Alexander Ellis, a colleague of his father. Ellis immediately wrote back indicating that the experiments were similar to existing work in Germany. Dismayed to find that groundbreaking work had already been undertaken by Hermann von Helmholtz who had conveyed vowel sounds by means of a similar tuning fork „contraption”, he pored over the German scientist’s book, Sensations of Tone. From his translation of the original German edition, Aleck then made a deduction that would be the underpinning of all his future work on transmitting sound, „Without knowing much about the subject, it seemed to me that if vowel sounds could be produced by electrical means so could consonants, so could articulate speech.”
In 1865, when the Bell family moved to London, Bell returned to Weston House as an assistant master and, in his spare hours, continued experiments on sound using a minimum of laboratory equipment. Bell concentrated on experimenting with electricity to convey sound and later installed a telegraph wire from his room in Somerset College to that of a friend. Throughout the fall and winter, his health faltered mainly through exhaustion. His younger brother, Edward „Ted,” was similarly bed-ridden, suffering from tuberculosis. While Bell recovered (by then referring to himself in correspondence as „A.G. Bell”) and served the next year as an instructor at Somerset College, Bath, Somerset, England, his brother’s condition deteriorated. Edward would never recover. Upon his brother’s passing, Bell returned home in 1867. His older brother, „Melly” had married and moved out. With aspirations to obtain a degree at the University College London, Bell considered his next years as preparation for the degree examinations, devoting his spare time at his family’s residence to studying.
Helping his father in Visible Speech demonstrations and lectures brought Bell to Susanna E. Hull’s private school for the deaf in South Kensington, London. His first two pupils were „deaf mute” girls who made remarkable progress under his tutelage. While his older brother seemed to achieve success on many fronts including opening his own elocution school, applying for a patent on an invention, and starting a family, Bell continued as a teacher. However, in May 1870, Melville died from complications due to tuberculosis, causing a family crisis. His father had also suffered a debilitating illness earlier in life and had been restored to health by a convalescence in Newfoundland. Bell’s parents precipitated a long-planned move when they realized that their remaining son was also sickly. Making a swift judgement, Alexander Melville Bell asked Bell to arrange for the sale of all the family property, conclude all of his brother’s affairs (Bell took over his last student, curing a pronounced lisp), and join his father and mother in setting out for the „New World.”Reluctantly, Bell also had to conclude a relationship with Marie Eccleston, who, he had surmised, was not prepared to leave England with him.
In 1870, at age 23, Bell, his brother’s widow, Caroline (Margaret Ottaway), and his parents travelled on the SS Nestorian to Canada. After landing at Quebec City, the Bells boarded a train to Montreal and later to Paris, Ontario to stay with the Reverend Thomas Henderson, a family friend. After a brief stay with the Hendersons, the Bell family purchased a ten and a half acre farm at Tutelo Heights (now called Tutela Heights), near Brantford, Ontario. The property consisted of an orchard, larger farm house, stable, pigsty, hen-house and a carriage house, which bordered the Grand River.
At the homestead, Bell set up his own workshop in the converted carriage house near to what he called his „dreaming place,” a large hollow, nestled in trees at the back of the property, above the river. Despite his frail condition upon arriving in Canada, Bell found the climate and environs to his liking, and rapidly improved. He continued his interest in the study of the human voice and when he discovered the Six Nations Reserve across the river at Onondaga, he learned the Mohawk language and translated its unwritten vocabulary into Visible Speech symbols. For his work, Bell was awarded the title of Honorary Chief and participated in a ceremony where he donned a Mohawk headdress and danced traditional dances.
After setting up his workshop, Bell continued experiments based on Helmholtz’s work with electricity and sound.He designed a piano, which, by means of electricity, could transmit its music at a distance. Once the family was settled in, both Bell and his father made plans to establish a teaching practice and in 1871, he accompanied his father to Montreal, where Melville was offered a position to teach his System of Visible Speech.
Work with the deaf
Subsequently, his father was invited by Sarah Fuller, principal of the Boston School for Deaf Mutes (which continues today as the Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing), in Boston, Massachusetts, United States, to introduce the Visible Speech System by providing training for Fuller’s instructors, but he declined the post, in favor of his son. Travelling to Boston in April 1871, Bell provided a successful inservicing of the school’s instructors. He was subsequently asked to repeat the program at the American Asylum for Deaf-mutes in Hartford and the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton.
Returning home to Brantford after six months abroad, Bell continued his experiments with his „harmonic telegraph.”The basic concept behind his device was that messages could be sent through a single wire if each message was transmitted at a different pitch, but work on both the transmitter and receiver as needed. Unsure of his future, he first contemplated returning to London to complete his studies, but decided to return to Boston as a teacher. His father helped him set up his private practise by contacting Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the president of the Clarke School for the Deaf for a recommendation. Teaching his father’s system, in October 1872, Alexander Bell opened a school in Boston named the „Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech” which attracted a large number of deaf pupils. His first class numbered 30 students. Working as a private tutor, one of his most famous pupils was Helen Keller, who came to him as a young child, unable to see, hear or speak. She later was to say that Bell dedicated his life to the penetration of that „inhuman silence which separates and estranges.”
In the following year, Bell became professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at the Boston University School of Oratory. During this period, he alternated between Boston and Brantford, spending summers in his Canadian home. At Boston University, Bell was „swept up” by the excitement engendered by the many scientists and inventors resident in the city. He continued his research in sound and endeavored to find a way to transmit musical notes and articulate speech, but although absorbed by his experiments, he found it difficult to devote enough time to experimentation. While days and evenings were occupied by his teaching and private classes, Bell began to stay awake late into the night, running experiment after experiment in rented facilities at his boarding house. Keeping up „night owl” hours, he worried that his work would be discovered and took great pains to lock up his notebooks and laboratory equipment. Bell had a specially made table where he could place his notes and equipment inside a locking cover. Worse still, his health deteriorated as he suffered severe headaches. Returning to Boston in fall 1873, Bell made a fateful decision to concentrate on his experiments in sound.
Bell speaking into prototype model of the telephone
Deciding to give up his lucrative private Boston practice, Bell only retained two students, six-year old „Georgie” Sanders, deaf from birth and 15-year old Mabel Hubbard. Each pupil would serve to play an important role in the next developments. George’s father, Thomas Sanders, a wealthy businessman, offered Bell a place to stay at nearby Salem with Georgie’s grandmother, complete with a room to „experiment.” Although the offer was made by George’s mother and followed the year-long arrangement in 1872 where her son and his nurse had moved to quarters next to Bell’s boarding house, it was clear that Mr. Sanders was backing the proposal. The arrangement was for teacher and student to continue their work together with free room and board thrown in. Mabel was a bright, attractive girl who was ten years his junior but became the object of Bell’s affection. Losing her hearing after a bout of scarlet fever at age five, she had learned to read lips but her father, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, Bell’s benefactor and personal friend, wanted her to work directly with her teacher.
Invention of the telephone
By 1874, Bell’s initial work on the harmonic telegraph had entered a formative stage with progress it made both at his new Boston „laboratory” (a rented facility) as well as at his family home in Canada a big success.. While working that summer in Brantford, Bell experimented with a „phonautograph,” a pen-like machine that could draw shapes of sound waves on smoked glass by tracing their vibrations. Bell thought it might be possible to generate undulating electrical currents that corresponded to sound waves. Bell also thought that multiple metal reeds tuned to different frequencies like a harp would be able to convert the undulatory currents back into sound. But he had no working model to demonstrate the feasibility of these ideas.
In 1874, telegraph message traffic was rapidly expanding and in the words of Western Union President William Orton, had become „the nervous system of commerce.”