Happy birthday to Alexander Graham Bell, the Scottish-born inventor who gave us the first practical telephone. Bell was born in Edinburgh in 1847 at the family home at 16 South Charlotte Street.
Bell was a naturally curious child who started experimenting at an early age. At the age of 12, he created a small machine to dehusk wheat as a favor for his best friend, whose father owned a flour mill. Alexander (or Aleck to his family) also showed a talent for art, poetry, and music. He mastered piano on his own and was a natural mimic and ventriloquist. When he was 12, his beloved mother began to go deaf, and Aleck began to develop new ways to communicate with her. Her deafness also kicked off his interest in acoustics.
In the early 1860’s, Bell started experimenting with sound, building a talking puppet with one of his older brothers and exploring sound transmission using tuning forks. A colleague of his father’s informed Bell that similar experiments were being performed in Germany, and he lent Aleck a copy of Hermann von Helmholtz’s book The Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music. Bell carefully studied the book and realized that, if vowel sounds could be produced electrically, so could consonants, so speech could be transmitted. He started turning his experiments toward using electricity to convey sound.
The Bell family relocated to Canada following the deaths of both of Bell’s brothers from tuberculosis. Bell immediately set up a workshop in his new home and kept experimenting, successfully managing to transmit piano music via electricity. He developed the hypothesis that messages could be transmitted through a single wire if each one was sent at a different pitch. He spent some time in Boston, teaching and experimenting, but became exhausted and retired to the home of a pupil’s relative in Salem, where he taught two pupils—Georgie Sanders and Mabel Hubbard (whom he later married)—and continued working with sound.
By 1874, Bell had started work on the harmonic telegraph, supported by the wealthy parents of his two pupils. He hired Thomas Watson, an elextrical designer and mechanic, as his assistant and they began experimenting with acoustic telegraphy. A year later, Bell had developed an acoustic telegraph that could transmit several telegraph messages at once and drew up a patent application. The patent was issued on March 7, 1876 and covered “the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically…by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sound.” Three days later, Bell managed to get his telephone to work, using a liquid transmitter that caused a needle to vibrate in water. The first known sentence spoken through a telephone: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you,” was heard clearly by Bell’s assistant in the next room.
The telephone was first demonstrated to a crowd in the telegraph office in Mount Pleasant, who were astonished to hear voices coming from five miles away. He repeated the experiment the following night, using improvised wire strung on telegraph lines and fences.
The invention was offered to Western Union for $100,000, but the company considered the telephone nothing but a toy. So, Bell and his associates kept the patent and became millionaires within a few years. The Bell Telephone Company was formed in 1877, and in less than a decade over 150,000 people in the United States owned Telephones. The first transcontinental telephone call was made in January 1915, when Bell (in New York) called Watson, who was in San Francisco.
Although he’s best known for the telephone, Bell invented widely and was issued 18 patents in his name and 12 for himself and his partners. He also created an audiometer to detect minor hearing problems, a device to locate icebergs, and a metal jacket to assist in breathing. He also explored ways to separate salt from seawater and develop alternative fuels. In an interview shortly before his death, he even ruminated on the possibility of using solar panels to heat houses. He’s also credited with inventing the metal detector in 1881.
Bell, who had never been particularly healthy, succumbed to complications from diabetes in August 1922, at his estate in Nova Scotia. His coffin was built by his laboratory staff, who lined it with fabric he was using in one of his more recent experiments. To celebrate his life, his wife requested that nobody at his funeral wear black. At the end of the service, every phone in North America was silenced in honor of him.