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Alexander Graham Bell: Inventor Of The Telephone, International Hero

People | March 7, 2020

Bell with an early version of the telephone. (massmoments.org)

Although several noted inventors of the day, including Thomas Edison and Elisha Gray, were also tinkering with communication technology, it was Alexander Graham Bell who received the first patent for the telephone on March 7, 1876. Bell truly changed the world, but how did a mediocre student go on to greatness? Here is what you may not know about Alexander Graham Bell.

American inventor Alexander Graham Bell with one of his inventions, ca. 1910. Bell engineered the first intelligible electronic transmission of voice, patented the telephone, and co-founded the National Geographic Society. (Corbis via Getty Images)

He Received His Middle Name As A Gift

When Alexander Graham Bell was born on March 3, 1847, he was named Alexander after his father and grandfather. As a child, however, the younger Bell was tired of being in third place on the list of Alexander Bells. To distinguish himself from his forebears, he asked his parents to give him a middle name. They dismissed his request, but Bell was persistent, so on his 11th birthday, his father finally allowed him to adopt a middle name. He chose "Graham" in honor of his father’s student, Alexander Graham, who boarded with the Bell family.

Bell as a young boy. (history.com)

Bell Was A Mediocre Student

Alexander Graham Bell grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, which was called "the Athens of the North" because it was an important center for the arts, culture, and science in the mid-1800s. It was an ideal environment for a young innovator, but as a scholar, Bell's performance was unremarkable. Still, he had a mechanical mind and a knack for solving problems. At the age of 12, for example, he observed that the process for husking wheat was slow and imprecise, so he designed and built a husking machine that used rotating paddles and nail brushes to husk the grain more efficiently.

Victorian era devices to help the deaf to hear. (blogs.ucl.ac.uk)

Sound Mechanics Was A Family Business

Both Bell's father and grandfather worked in the field of sound and voice mechanics, so they groomed young Alexander to join the family business. From them, he learned much more than the scientific nature of sound. He learned to love intellectual pursuits, the power of observation, and the process of discovery through hands-on experimentation. Bell eventually worked as a voice teacher, but today, we would probably call him a speech pathologist. Over the course of this career, he developed a system of visual symbols to teach the deaf how to pronounce sounds.

Mabel and Alexander Graham Bell had four children but only two survived to adulthood. (history.com)

Bell's Mother And Wife Were Both Deaf

The Bell family had a vested interest in assisting the deaf. Alexander Graham Bell's mother, Eliza Grace Symonds Bell, lost most of her hearing during a childhood illness. For the rest of her life, she relied on an ear trumpet to hear conversations. When he was a child, Bell pressed his face to his mother's forehead when he spoke so she could feel the vibrations of his voice. Despite her hearing impairment, Eliza Bell taught herself how to play the piano and became quite good at it. Her determination was a source of inspiration for Bell.

After relocating to the United States, Alexander Graham Bell became a vocal physiology professor at Boston University, where a pretty young student named Mabel Hubbard was enrolled. Having lost her hearing to scarlet fever as a child, she met Bell through the university's program for the deaf and married him soon after. Having both a mother and wife with hearing loss reinforced Bell's desire to help the hearing impaired.

Bell's new home in Ontario put him in close proximity to the Mohawk people. (commons.wikimedia.org)

Bell Was The First To Write Down The Mohawk Language

When the Bell family left the United Kingdom, their first stop was Canada, where they purchased a farm on the banks of the Grand River near Brantford, Ontario. Alexander Graham Bell quickly made friends with the members of the Six Nations Reserve, located on the other side of the river, from whom he learned the Mohawk language. Dismayed to learn that it was an spoken language only, he translated it into a written language using the system of pronunciation symbols that he had developed back in the U.K. The Mohawk people were so thrilled with Bell's work that they threw a huge celebration for him and made him an honorary chief. 

Bell's first working telephone. (americanhistory.si.edu)

The Famous Telephone

Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone took years of tinkering and experimentation. Through his observations as a voice teacher, he understood that vocal sound is a vibration, so he theorized that the same technology that was used in the telegraph could be used to transmit human voices over wires. To make this happen, Bell needed to invent both a transmitter and a receiver. He hired a talented electrician, Thomas Watson, to help. 

Bell worked closely with electrician Thomas Watson. (gardenofpraise.com)

"Mr. Watson, Come Here"

Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson worked on their telephone system throughout 1874 and 1875, finally producing a functional phone in early 1876. According to legend, the first telephone call in history took place after Bell knocked over a bottle of chemicals and shouted into the telephone "Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you." Bolstered by their success, Bell performed a series of public demonstrations of his telephone, eventually appearing before the likes of Queen Victoria and Dom Pedro, the Emperor of Brazil.

Bell with Helen Keller. (history.com)

Bell Was Buddies With Helen Keller

Alexander Graham Bell's work with the deaf earned him almost as much notoriety as his invention of the telephone. In 1887, Captain Arthur Keller sought out Bell in an effort to help his six-year old daughter, Helen Keller. Bell connected the Kellers with Anne Sullivan, the "miracle worker" who taught Helen how to speak and read and write in Braille. Bell remained in contact with both Helen and Anne throughout his life. In fact, Helen Keller dedicated her autobiography to Bell.

Bell attempted to save President Garfield by using a metal detector he invented. (thehistoryblog.com)

Bell Tried To Use Science To Save A President

On July 2, 1881, President James Garfield was shot by a would-be assassin. At first, it seemed as though the President would quickly recover from his wound, but over the following weeks, the bullet that remained lodged in Garfield's abdomen took its toll on him. Surgeons had made several unsuccessful attempts to probe Garfield's body for the offending bullet, but the 19th-century surgical instruments and unsterile conditions only worsened the injury. Committed to serving his president, Bell developed an electromagnetic device that worked like a metal detector to find metal objects in patients. He successfully tested it on Civil War veterans before bringing it to the President, but his device failed to locate the bullet in Garfield's body both times he tried it because the attending physician would only allow him to scan the right side of the President's abdomen, certain that was were the bullet was. Weeks later, Garfield succumbed to his injuries. During the autopsy, the bullet was found on his left side. 

Bell designed a speedboat and held a world record. (yachtingworld.com)

Bell's Speedboat Set A World Record

Alexander Graham Bell was an inventor who kept many irons in the fire. In the late 1890s, he became interested in aviation, a new field in those days. He envisioned an airplane that could take off from the water at a high rate of speed, but before he could build it, he needed a speedboat that could carry his plane across the water fast enough to achieve lift. His HD-4 speedboat was tested on a Canadian lake, where it reached speeds in excess of 70 miles an hour, setting a world water speed record that would stand for more than 10 years. 

The "bel" part of "decibel" honors Bell. (biography.com)

Bell Named The Decibel

Alexander Graham Bell's name lives on in the word "decibel." His contributions to the study of sound and acoustic science was recognized when the standard unit for sound intensity was named the "bel" by scientists in the 1920s. A decibel, or one-tenth of a bel, is the most commonly used measurement for sound volume today.

Statue of Alexander Graham Bell. (students.wlu.ca)

The Silence Of The Phones

Alexander Graham Bell died on August 2, 1922 at his vacation home in Nova Scotia. During his burial on August 4, all telephone service in Canada and the United States was paused for one full minute at the exact time that Bell's body was lowered into his grave. Every one of the more than 13 million telephones in North American were silent, and more than 60,000 telephone operators all stood at attention to honor the inventor of the telephone. 

Tags: 1800s | biography | inventions

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.