Alexander Graham Bell

I wrote this as a tribute to the "Father of Communications" on the sesquicentennial of his birth in 1997. By any standard, Alexander Graham Bell was a great man with many achievements beyond the invention of the telephone. I have visited his parent's home in Branford, Ontario where he conceived the telephone and his lab in Boston where he made the first call. I have seen the building in which he was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. I received special permission to visit the Bell Estate in Nova Scotia, Canada after my retirement in October 1996. There I was shown his burial spot by the caretaker, who is a grandson of the caretaker who worked for Bell. This educational essay integrates many facts not widely known.


Alexander Graham Bell

by Donald M. Parrish, Jr.

Alexander Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on March 3, 1847 just 3 weeks after his only peer as an inventor: Thomas Edison. At age 11, he chose "Graham" as a middle name to differentiate himself from his father and grandfather who were also named Alexander. Both of these distinguished and successful men exerted a profound influence on his life.

His father was the inventor of Visible Speech a method of recording phonemes, the units of sound which were the independent building blocks of all languages. As a child, Graham Bell and his brother would amaze foreign visitors to their home. One brother would go into another room, while the second would record in Visible Speech a couple of sentences in the language of the visitor. Guests were astonished when the first brother could perfectly reproduce sentences in their language. Years later, Bell would use Visible Speech to learn Mohawk. Visible Speech was a breakthru in the teaching of the deaf. Alexander Graham Bell's mother was deaf. His wife was deaf. To his dying day, he would describe himself as a teacher of the deaf. He introduced Helen Keller to her teacher, Anne Sullivan, and Helen dedicated her autobiography to Bell. His deep and fundamental knowledge of speech would be the key to the insights which made the invention of the telephone possible. His whole life was a preparation for this invention.

His grandfather was a famous elocutionist who lived in London. He was the real-life model for the role of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. When Graham was 15, he went to London to live with his grandfather for a year. His grandfather transformed him from an indifferent student to the insightful observer/student he would be for the rest of his life. His grandfather also taught him elocution, the art of public speaking. Graham would always be noted for his beautiful voice and magnificent articulation. His sonorous voice, his integrity and sincerity caused people to trust him.

Because of the death of his two brothers from lung disease, he and his parents left Scotland and emigrated to the New World in 1870 briefly staying in Canada before settling in Boston. Bell became a teacher of the deaf. One of his deaf students ten years his junior, Mabel Hubbard, became his wife. She was rich, an excellent manager of money and supportive of his inventions. These two were inseparable. As a wedding gift, he gave her all his stock from his telephone invention except for 10 shares. Theirs was a love story of Shakespearean proportions. She died only 5 months after he did.

Bell invented the telephone just before the Centennial of American Independence in 1876. At the last minute, he got exhibition space at the Centennial fair in Philadelphia, but it was poorly located and the telephone got very little notice. In fact, it was ignored until the Emperor of Brazil came to the exhibit because he wanted to meet Bell personally to talk about ways of teaching the deaf in Brazil. The Emperor, who was trailed by a retinue of reporters, caused the telephone to be "discovered" when during the demonstration, he dropped the telephone exclaiming: "It speaks! It speaks!" Within months, the telephone patent was offered to the telegraph company, Western Union, at that time the largest company in the world, for $100,000. They appointed a committee which decided that the telephone was a toy and had no future. Twenty years later, Bell's company bought Western Union and created the American Telephone and Telegraph company which became the largest company in the history of the world with 1,000,000 employees at the time of its first dismemberment in 1984.

During the 18 years and 600 suits, including 5 decided by the Supreme Court, against the telephone patent -- still the largest number of suits by far against any patent --, Bell was often called upon to testify. His perfect memory and sincere demeanor made juries believe his version of history every time. He won every suit. These same qualities made him successful as the first international marketer for AT&T: after his presentation on the telephone, Queen Victoria immediately ordered 100 telephones for her palace.

The invention of the telephone made Bell financially independent allowing him time to invent. He invented the gramophone, a major improvement in sound reproduction over Edison's recording device because it used wax cylinders and regulated the playback speed. This invention symmetrically balanced Edison's invention of the carbon microphone, a major improvement in the telephone. Later Bell invented the familiar disc record. Bell also invented the audiometer, a device for measuring sound intensity. This led to the ultimate distinction a scientist can achieve: a unit of measure was named for him, the decibel. Bell was the father of the telephone; he was the uncle of sound reproduction.

(In 2012, engineers suceeded in recovering a few seconds of Alexander Graham Bell's voice on a recording from April 15, 1885. Here is a 4 minute version with better quality.)

For the last 37 years of his life, he spent his summers in Canada inventing at his 600 acre estate in Nova Scotia, Beinn Bhreagh, Gaelic for "Beautiful Hill". There he invented in aviation, hydrofoils, genetics, medicine, etc. His favorite invention, the photophone, used sunlight to transmit sound.

For his work in medicine, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Heidelberg. His work included the invention of a bullet locating device, an artificial respirator and work in x-rays. The bullet locating device, which he donated royalty free, was the perfected version of the one he invented in weeks of intensive work in an attempt to save the life of President Garfield after his assassination in 1881. The doctors could not locate the bullet, neither could Bell, because the doctors restricted Bell to scanning the wrong side of the patient, and the President died. Bell's invention saved the lives of ten of thousands of soldiers.

(Author's discovery: Charles J. Guiteau, the assassin of President Garfield, is my distant cousin. His unsuccessful, but true argument at his murder trial was: "I shot the President, but the doctors killed him." I highly recommend Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard. It is an amazing and gripping book. Alexander Graham Bell is a leading character in it.)

Dr. Bell was a pioneer in aviation and co-inventor of the aileron, a control surface which allows a plane to turn. He and the four young engineers he recruited built the "Silver Dart", the first airplane with a wheeled undercarriage and the first to fly in Canada in 1909. Two of these engineers founded the aircraft industry in Canada. A third, Glen Curtis founded the U.S. aviation industry, and he was first to fly across the Atlantic. The fourth, Lt. Selfridge, was the U.S. Army's evaluator of the Wright Brothers airplane. Later he became the first airplane fatality, killed during a Wright test flight.

One of Bell's last projects was the development of a new type of hydrofoil, the "HD-4", a joint effort with one of his young engineers, Casey Baldwin. The "HD-4" achieved an amazing speed record of 71 miles per hour in 1919. This world speed record for boats would stand for 10 years.

Bell was also a Founder and a President of the National Geographic Society. His relatives and descendants, the Grosvenors, were instrumental in the development of the Society and its Magazine.

Dr. Bell was an extraordinary person. His integrity, his childlike curiosity, his devotion to his family, the vast range of his inventions made him a great man by any standard. His son-in-law said: "Mr. Bell was tall and handsome with an indefinable sense of largeness about him, and he so radiated vigor and kindliness that any pettiness of thought seemed to fade away beneath his keen gaze. He always made you feel that there was so much of interest in the universe, so many fascinating things to observe and think about, that it was a criminal waste of time to indulge in gossip or trivial discussion."

Alexander Graham Bell died on August 2, 1922 at his estate in Canada where he was buried. His tombstone describes him as: "Inventor - Teacher" and "A Citizen of the U.S.A." During his funeral in a unique and extraordinary gesture, all of the telephone traffic in the United States and Canada was stopped for 1 minute to honor his memory.