The Life And Times Of The Man Who Invented The Tel

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The Life and Times of the Man Who Invented the Telephone




Alexander Graham Bell
(1847-1922)


Alexander Graham Bell is remembered today as the inventor of the telephone, but he was also an outstanding teacher of the deaf and a prolific inventor of other devices. Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, to a family of speech educators. His father, Melville Bell, had invented Visible Speech, a code of symbols for all spoken sounds that was used in teaching deaf people to speak. Aleck Bell studied at Edinburgh University in 1864 and assisted his father at University College, London, from 1868-70. During these years he became deeply interested in the study of sound and the mechanics of speech, inspired in part by the acoustic experiments of German physicist Hermann Von Helmholtz (1821-1894), which gave Bell the idea of telegraphing speech.

When young Bell's two brothers died of tuberculosis, Melville Bell took his remaining family to the healthier climate of Canada in 1870. From there, Aleck Bell journeyed to Boston, Massachusetts, in 1871 and joined the staff of the Boston School for the Deaf. The following year, Bell opened his own school in Boston for training teachers of the deaf; in 1873 he became a professor of vocal physiology at Boston University, and he also tutored private pupils. Bell's interest in speech and communication led him to investigate the transmission of sound over wires. In particular, he experimented with development of the harmonic telegraph --a device that could send multiple messages at the same time over a single wire. Bell also worked with the possibility of transmitting the human voice, experimenting with vibrating membranes and an actual human ear. Gardiner Hubbard (1822-1897) and Thomas Sanders, fathers of two of his deaf pupils backed Bell financially in his investigations.

Early in 1874, Bell met Thomas A. Watson (1854-1934), a young machinist at a Boston electrical shop. Watson became Bell's indispensable assistant, bringing to Bell's experiments the crucial ingredient that had been lacking--his technical expertise in electrical engineering. Together the two men spent endless hours experimenting. Although Bell formed the basic concept of the telephone--using a varying but unbroken electric current to transmit the varying sound waves of human speech--in the summer of 1874, Hubbard insisted that the young inventor focus his efforts on the harmonic telegraph instead. Bell complied, but when he patented one of his telegraph designs in February 1875, he found that Elisha Gray had patented a multiple telegraph two days earlier. Greatly discouraged, Bell consulted in Washington with the elderly Joseph Henry, who urged Bell to pursue his "germ of a great invention" --speech transmission.

Back in Boston, Bell and Watson continued to work on the harmonic telegraph, but still with the telephone in mind. By accident on a June day in 1875, an intermittent transmitter produced a steady current and transmitted sound. Bell had proof of his 1874 idea; he quickly sketched a design for an electric telephone, and Watson built it. The partners experimented all summer, but failed actually to transmit voice sounds. That fall, Bell began to write the patent specifications, but delayed application; Hubbard finally filed for the patent on February 14, 1876, just hours before Gray appeared at the same patent office to file an intent to patent his telephone design. Bell's patent was granted on March 7, 1876, and on March 10, the first message transmitted by telephone passed from Bell to Watson in their workshop: "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!"

After a year of refining the new device, Watson and Bell, along with Hubbard and Sanders, formed the Bell Telephone Company in 1877. Bell immediately married Mabel Hubbard, daughter of his new partner, and sailed to England to promote his telephone. The phone company grew rapidly, and Bell became a wealthy man. He turned to other interests on his return to the United States in 1879, while also defending his patents (which were upheld in 1888) against numerous lawsuits.

With money from the Volta Prize, awarded to him in 1880 by the French government, Bell established the Volta Laboratory. Among the new devices he invented there were the graphophone for recording sound on wax cylinders or disks; the photophone, for transmitting speech on a beam of light; an audiometer; a telephone probe, used in surgery until the discovery of the X-ray; and an induction balance for detecting metal within the human body. Bell founded several organizations to support teaching of the deaf. He helped to establish Science magazine and the National Geographic Society. He also worked on air conditioning, an improved strain of sheep (to bear multiple lambs), an early iron lung, solar distillation of water, and sonar detection of icebergs. The possibility of flight fascinated Bell. He built tetrahedral kites capable of carrying a human being. He supported Samuel Langley's pioneering experiments in aviation, and helped found the Aerial Experiment Association in 1907. He also designed a hydrofoil boat that set the world water-speed record in 1918.

Alexander Graham Bell was a man of warmth and human frailty, loved by his wife, children, and grandchildren. His life did seem to demonstrate the oneness of the world. He was lionized in society, cheered at exhibitions, applauded at scientific meetings, and sought out by reporters. He and his wife united two numerous and close-knit families. Children, especially those of his own extended family, loved him. His marriage was a model of devotion throughout its forty-five years. He was nominally a member of more clubs and other organizations than he could recall at any given moment, and he was active in a number of them. In addition, for many years he presided over brilliant salon of Washington scientist and men affairs. Yet his son-in-law David Fairchild said of him, “Mr. Bell led a particularly isolated life; I have never known anyone who spent so much of his time alone.” Fairchild meant that literally. Bell worked through most of the night and slept through most of the morning.

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