Alexander Graham Bell

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Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922)

Alexander Graham Bell (March 3, 1847 – August 2, 1922) was a Scottish scientist, inventor, and innovator. He emigrated to Canada in 1870 and then to the United States in 1871.

Bell is widely acclaimed for inventing and developing the telephone in 1876, building on the pioneering efforts of Elisha Gray, Antonio Meucci, and Philipp Reis. In addition to Bell's work in telecommunications, he was responsible for important advances in aviation and hydrofoil technology.


Alexander Bell was born in Edinburgh on March 3, 1847. He was the middle of three children, all boys. Both brothers died of tuberculosis. His father was Professor Alexander Melville Bell, and his mother was Eliza Grace Symonds Bell. At age eleven, he adopted the middle name Graham out of admiration for Alexander Graham, a family friend. Many called Bell "the father of the deaf." However, Bell believed in eugenics as well as audism. With both his mother and wife deaf, he hoped to eliminate hereditary deafness.

His family was 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 treatise on Visible Speech, which appeared in Edinburgh in 1868. In this treatise, he explained 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.

Bell was educated at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, Scotland, from which he graduated at age 13. At age 16, he secured a position as a pupil-teacher of elocution and music, in Weston House Academy, at Elgin, Moray, Scotland. The following year, he attended the University of Edinburgh, but he graduated from the University College of London.

It is while he was in Scotland that he is thought to have first turned his attention to the science of acoustics, with a view to ameliorate the deafness of his mother.

From 1867 to 1868, he served as an instructor at Somerset College, Bath, Somerset, England.

In 1870, at age 23, he and his parents emigrated to Canada, where they settled at Brantford, Ontario. That same year, he became a Canadian citizen.

In Canada, Alexander Bell continued an interest in the study of the human voice and ear (his father was an authority on speech disorders), and he also explored a method of communication with electricity. He designed a piano which, by means of electricity, could transmit its music at a distance. In 1871, he accompanied his father to Montreal, Quebec, Canada, where his father was offered a position to teach his System of Visible Speech. Subsequently, his father was invited to introduce the Visible Speech System into a large school for mutes at Boston, Massachusetts, United States, but he declined the post, in favor of his son. Thus, teaching his father's system, Alexander Bell became professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at the Boston University School of Oratory.

Bell speaking into prototype model of the telephone

At Boston University, he continued his research in the same field and endeavored to find a way to transmit musical notes and articulate speech.

In early 1875, Bell visited the famous scientist Joseph Henry who was then director of the Smithsonian Institution and asked Henry's advice on an electrical multi-reed apparatus which Bell hoped would transmit the human voice by telegraph. Henry replied that Bell had "the germ of a great invention." When Bell said that he did not have the necessary knowledge, Henry replied "Get it!" That greatly encouraged Bell to keep trying.

On July 11, 1877, a few days after the Bell Telephone Company began, Bell married Mabel Hubbard, daughter of Boston lawyer Gardiner Hubbard who helped finance Bell's work and organize the new telephone company. Mabel was one of Bell's deaf pupils. They had four children: Elsie May Bell (1878-1964), Marian Hubbard Bell (Daisy) (1880-1962), and two sons who died in infancy.

In 1880, Bell received the Volta Prize which he used to fund the Volta Laboratory in Washington, D.C. In 1882, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. In 1883, Bell and Gardiner Hubbard established the publication Science. In 1886, Bell started buying land on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada, which he left in the care of a friend, writer David Narbaitz.

In 1888, Bell was one of the founding members of the National Geographic Society and became its second president (1898-1903). He was the recipient of many honors. The French government conferred on him the decoration of the Légion d'honneur (Legion of Honor); the Académie française bestowed on him the Volta Prize of 50,000 francs; the Royal Society of Arts in London awarded him the Albert Medal in 1902; and the University of Würzburg, Bavaria, granted him a Ph.D. He was awarded the AIEE's Edison Medal in 1914, "For meritorious achievement in the invention of the telephone."

In 1891, Bell began experiments to develop motor-powered heavier-than-air aircraft. In 1898, he began experiments with tetrahedral kites, and he became the president of the National Geographic Society and regent of the Smithsonian Institution (1898-1922). In 1907, Bell founded the Aerial Experiment Association, and in 1908, he began development of the hydrodrome (hydrofoil).

Bell died of Pernicious anemia[1] on August 2 1922, age 75, at his private estate, Beinn Bhreagh, located on Nova Scotia's Cape Breton Island near the village of Baddeck. He was buried atop Beinn Bhreagh mountain overlooking Bras d'Or Lake. He was survived by his wife and two of their four children.


In 1874, telegraph message traffic was rapidly expanding and had become "the nervous system of commerce" in the words of Western Union president William Orton. Orton had contracted with inventors Thomas Edison and Elisha Gray to find a way to send multiple telegraph messages on each telegraph line to avoid the great cost of constructing new lines. When Bell mentioned to Gardiner Hubbard and Thomas Sanders (parents of two of Bell's students) that he was working on a method of sending multiple tones on a telegraph wire using a multi-reed device, Hubbard and Sanders began to financially support Bell's experiments. Patent matters would be handled by Hubbard's patent attorney Anthony Pollok.[2]

Bell was able to hire an assistant, Thomas A. Watson, who was an experienced electrical designer and mechanic. Bell and Watson experimented with acoustic telegraphy in 1874 and 1875. On June 2 1875, Watson accidentally plucked one of the reeds and Bell at the receiving end of the wire heard the overtones of the reed, overtones that would be necessary for transmitting speech. This led to the "gallows" sound-powered telephone, which was able to transmit indistinct voice-like sounds but not clear speech.

Meanwhile, Elisha Gray was also experimenting with acoustic telegraphy and thought of a way to transmit speech using a water transmitter. On February 14, 1876, Gray filed a caveat with the U.S. patent office for a telephone design that used a water transmitter. 2 hours earlier, Bell's lawyer had filed an application with the patent office for the telephone. There is a debate about who arrived first.

On February 14, 1876, Bell was in Boston. Hubbard, the lawyer who was paying for the costs of Bell's patents, told his patent lawyer Anthony Pollok to file Bell's application in the U.S. Patent Office. This was done without Bell's knowledge. This patent 174,465 was issued to Bell on March 7, 1876 by the U.S. Patent Office which 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 after his patent was issued, Bell experimented with a water transmitter, using an acid-water mixture. Vibration of the diaphragm caused a needle to vibrate in the water which varied the electrical resistance in the circuit. When Bell spoke the famous sentence "Mr Watson—come here—I want to see you"[3] into the liquid transmitter, Watson, listening at the receiving end, heard the words clearly.

Bell and his partners Hubbard and Sanders offered to sell the patent outright to Western Union for $100,000. The president of Western Union balked, countering that the telephone was nothing but a toy. Two years later, he told colleagues that if he could get the patent for $25 million he would consider it a bargain. By then the Bell company no longer wanted to sell the patent.[4]

In 1879, the Bell company acquired Edison's patents for the carbon microphone from Western Union. This made the telephone practical for long distances, unlike Bell's voice-powered transmitter that required users to shout into it to be heard at the receiving telephone, even at short distances.

The Bell company lawyers successfully fought off several lawsuits. On January 13, 1887, the United States Government moved to annul the patent issued to Alexander Graham Bell on the grounds of fraud and misrepresentation. The prosecuting attorney was the Hon. George M. Stearns under the direction of the Solicitor General George A. Jenks. The Bell company won that case.

The Bell Telephone Company was created in 1877, and by 1886, over 150,000 people in the U.S. owned telephones. Bell and his investors became millionaires. Bell company engineers made numerous other improvements to the telephone which developed into one of the most successful products.


Meanwhile, the Italian Antonio Meucci, who had already created the first model of the telephone in Italy in 1834, tested electric transmission of the human voice in Cuba in 1849, and demonstrated his electric telephone in New York in 1850. He had paid for a "caveat" for the telephone in 1871. In summer 1872, Meucci asked Edward B. Grant (vice president of American District Telegraph Co. of New York) for permission to test his telephone apparatus on the company's telegraph lines. He gave Grant a description of his prototype and copy of his caveat. Up to 1874 Meucci had only the money to renew his caveat while looking for funding for a true patent. After waiting two years without receiving an answer, Meucci went to Grant and asked him to give back his documents, but Grant answered he had lost them. The same year the caveat expired because Meucci lacked the money to renew it.[5]

After Bell received his patent in 1876, Meucci took Bell to court in order to establish his priority, but he lost the case because he could not prove much material evidence of his inventions apart from reconstructing them during the trial and calling witnesses. Some historians and researchers claim there was a miscarriage of justice because of ethnic and social discrimination. On the initiative of the Italian American Congressman Vito Fossella, the Resolution 269,[6] in the U.S. House of Representatives recognized the work previously done by Antonio Meucci: The resolution recognized that Meucci gave his prototypes to Western Union, which afterwards claimed they had lost them; at the same time, Meucci could not find money to renew his caveat. It was claimed that Bell worked in the same department where Meucci's prototypes were allegedly stored and later on patented the telephone as his own invention, however this is unfounded given that Bell never worked at Western Union.[7]

Bell Telephone Company also won in the trial The U.S. Government Versus Antonio Meucci by a decision on July 19, 1887, by Judge William J. Wallace (Circuit Court, S. D. New York). "The experiments and invention of one Antonio Meucci, relating to the transmission of speech by an electrical apparatus … do not contain any such elements of an electric speaking telephone as would give the same priority over or interfere with the said Bell patent."

Later inventions


Another of Bell's inventions was the photophone, a device enabling the transmission of sound over a beam of light, which he developed together with Charles Sumner Tainter. The device employed light-sensitive cells of crystalline selenium, which has the property that its electrical resistance varies inversely with the illumination (the resistance is higher when the material is in the dark, and lower when it is lit). The basic principle was to modulate a beam of light directed at a receiver made of crystalline selenium, to which a telephone was attached. The modulation was done either by means of a vibrating mirror, or a rotating disk periodically obscuring the light beam.

This idea was by no means new. Selenium had been discovered by Jöns Jakob Berzelius in 1817, and the peculiar properties of crystalline or granulate selenium were discovered by Willoughby Smith in 1873. In 1878, one writer with the initials J.F.W. wrote a piece appearing in a June 13 column in Nature, asking whether any experiments in that direction had already been done. In his paper on the photophone, Bell credited A. C. Browne of London with the independent discovery in 1878—the same year Bell became aware of the idea. Bell and Tainter, however, were apparently the first to perform a successful experiment, by no means any easy task, as they even had to produce the selenium cells with the desired resistance characteristics themselves.

In one experiment in Washington, D.C., the sender and the receiver were placed on different buildings some 700 feet (213 meters) apart. The sender consisted of a mirror directing sunlight onto the mouthpiece, where the light beam was modulated by a vibrating mirror, focused by a lens and directed at the receiver, which was a parabolic reflector with the selenium cells in the focus and the telephone attached. With this setup, Bell and Tainter succeeded to communicate clearly.

The photophone was patented on December 18, 1880, but the quality of communication remained poor, and the research was not pursued by Bell. Later on, this helped in the discovery of fiber optics and laser communication systems.

Metal detector

Bell is also credited with the invention of the metal detector in 1881. The device was hurriedly put together in an attempt to find the bullet in the body of U.S. President James Garfield. The metal detector worked but did not find the bullet because the metal bed frame the President was lying on confused the instrument. Bell gave a full account of his experiments in a paper read before the American Association for the Advancement of Science in August 1882.


The March 1906 Scientific American article by American hydrofoil pioneer William E. Meacham explained the basic principle of hydrofoils. Bell considered the invention of the hydroplane as a very significant achievement. Based on information gained from that article, he began to sketch concepts of what is now called a hydrofoil boat.

Bell and Casey Baldwin began hydrofoil experimentation in the summer of 1908, as a possible aid to airplane takeoff from water. Baldwin studied the work of the Italian inventor Enrico Forlanini and began testing models. This led him and Bell to the development of practical hydrofoil watercraft.

During his world tour of 1910–1911, Bell and Baldwin met with Forlanini in France. They had rides in the Forlanini hydrofoil boat over Lake Maggiore. Baldwin described it as being as smooth as flying. On returning to Baddeck, several designs were tried culminating in the HD-4, using Renault engines. A top speed of 54 miles per hour (87 km/h) was achieved, with rapid acceleration, good stability and steering, and the ability to take waves without difficulty. In 1913, Dr. Bell hired Walter Pinaud, a Sydney yacht designer and builder as well as the proprietor of Pinaud's Yacht Yard in Westmount, Nova Scotia to work on the pontoons of the HD-4. Pinaud soon took over the boatyard at Bell Laboratories on Beinn Bhreagh, Bell's estate near Baddeck, Nova Scotia. Pinaud's experience in boat building enabled him to make useful design changes to the HD-4. After WWI, work began again on the HD-4. Bell's report to the navy permitted him to obtain two 350 horsepower (260 kW) engines in July 1919. On September 9, 1919, the HD-4 set a world's marine speed record of 70.86 miles per hour (114.04 km/h).


Bell was a supporter of aerospace engineering research through the Aerial Experiment Association, officially formed at Baddeck, Nova Scotia, in October 1907, at the suggestion of Mrs. Mabel Bell and with her financial support. It was headed by Bell. The founding members were four young men: American Glenn H. Curtiss, a motorcycle manufacturer who later was awarded the Scientific American Trophy for the first official one-kilometer flight in the Western hemisphere and became a world-renowned airplane manufacturer; Frederick W. "Casey" Baldwin, the first Canadian and first British subject to pilot a public flight in Hammondsport, New York; J.A.D. McCurdy; and Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, an official observer from the U.S. government. One of the project's inventions, the aileron, is a standard component of aircraft today. (The aileron was also invented independently by Robert Esnault-Pelterie.)

Bell experimented with box kites and wings constructed of multiple compound tetrahedral kites covered in silk. The tetrahedral wings were named Cygnet I, II, and III, and were flown both unmanned and manned (Cygnet I crashed during a flight carrying Selfridge) in the period from 1907-1912. Some of Bell's kites are on display at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site.

Other inventions

The range of Bell's inventive genius is represented only in part by the eighteen patents granted in his name alone and the twelve he shared with his collaborators. These included fourteen for the telephone and telegraph, four for the photophone, one for the phonograph, five for aerial vehicles, four for hydroairplanes, and two for a selenium cell.

Bell made many other inventions in his life. They include the metal jacket that assists in breathing, the audiometer to detect minor hearing problems, a device that locates icebergs; he investigated how to separate salt from seawater, and he also worked on finding alternative fuels. He worked in medical research and invented techniques for teaching speech to the deaf.

During his Volta Laboratory period, Bell and his associates considered impressing a magnetic field on a record as a means of reproducing sound. Although the trio briefly experimented with the concept, they were unable to develop a workable prototype. They abandoned the idea, never realizing they had glimpsed a basic principle which would one day find its application in the tape recorder, the hard disc and floppy disc drive, and other magnetic media.

Bell's own home used a primitive form of air conditioning, in which fans blew currents of air across great blocks of ice. He also anticipated modern concerns with fuel shortages and industrial pollution. Methane gas, he reasoned, could be produced from the waste of farms and factories. At his Canadian estate in Nova Scotia, he experimented with composting toilets and devices to capture water from the atmosphere. In a magazine interview published shortly before his death, he reflected on the possibility of using solar panels to heat houses.


Along with many very prominent thinkers and scientists of the time, Bell was connected with the eugenics movement in the United States. From 1912 until 1918, he was the chairman of the board of scientific advisers to the Eugenics Record Office associated with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, and regularly attended meetings. In 1921, he was the honorary president of the Second International Congress of Eugenics held under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Organizations such as these advocated passing laws (with success in some states) that established the compulsory sterilization of people deemed to be, as Bell called them, a "defective variety of the human race." By the late 1930s, about half the states in the U.S. had eugenics laws, and the California laws were used as a model for eugenics laws in Nazi Germany.

His ideas about people he considered defective centered on the deaf. This was because of his feelings for his deaf family and his contact with deaf education. In addition to advocating sterilization of the deaf, Bell wished to prohibit deaf teachers from being allowed to teach in schools for the deaf. He worked to outlaw the marriage of deaf individuals to one another, and he was an ardent supporter of oralism over sign language. His avowed goal was to eradicate the language and culture of the deaf so as to force them to assimilate into the hearing culture, for their own long-term benefit and for the benefit of society at large. Although this attitude is widely seen as paternalistic and arrogant today, it was mainstream in that era.

Although he supported what many would consider harsh and inhumane policies today, he was not unkind to deaf individuals who supported his theories of oralism. He was a personal and longtime friend of Helen Keller, and his wife Mabel was deaf (none of their children were).


In the early 1970s, UK rock group The Sweet recorded a tribute to Bell and the telephone, suitably titled "Alexander Graham Bell." The song gives a fictional account of the invention, in which Bell devises the telephone so he can talk to his girlfriend who lives on the other side of the United States. The song reached the top 40 in the United Kingdom and went on to sell over one million recordings worldwide.

Another musical tribute to Bell was written by the British songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson. The chorus of Thompson's song[8] reminds the listener that "of course there was the telephone, he'd be famous for that alone, but there's fifty other things as well from Alexander Graham Bell." The song mentions Bell's work with discs rather than cylinders, the hydrofoil, Bell's work with the deaf, his invention of the respirator and several other of Bell's achievements.

Bell was honored on the television programs the 100 Greatest Britons (2002), the top-ten Greatest Canadians (2004), and the 100 Greatest Americans (2005). The nominees and rankings for these programs were determined by popular vote. Bell was the only person to be on more than one of the programs.

One of the residence halls at Rochester Institute of Technology adjacent to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf building is Alexander Graham Bell Hall.


  1. Gray 418
  2. Evenson 18-25
  3. American Treasury of the Library of Congress, Bell's Lab notebook I.
  4. American Heritage, Inventing the Telephone—And Triggering All-Out Patent War. Retrieved July 23, 2007.
  5. Catania Basilio, Antonio Meucci inventore del telefono, Notiziario Tecnico Telecom Italia, anno 12 n.1, December 2003, pp. 114]. Retrieved June 22, 2007.
  6. The Library of Congress, Resolution 269. Retrieved July 23, 2007.
  7. News from Congressman Vito Fossella, Rep. Fossella's Resolution Honoring True Inventor of Telephone to Pass House Tonight. Retrieved July 23, 2007.
  8. Bee's web, Alexander Graham Bell (song). Retrieved July 23, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bruce, Robert V. 1990. Bell: Alexander Bell and the Conquest of Solitude. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801496918
  • Coe, Lewis. 1995. The Telephone and Its Several Inventors: A History. McFarland, NC: McFarland & Company. ISBN 0786401389
  • Evenson, Edward A. 2000. The Telephone Patent Conspiracy of 1876: The Elisha Gray - Alexander Bell Controversy. McFarland, NC: McFarland & Company. ISBN 0786408839
  • Gray, Charlotte. 2006. Reluctant Genius: Alexander Graham Bell and the Passion for Invention. New York: Arcade Publishing. ISBN 1559708093

External links

All links retrieved July 18, 2023.


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