Alexander Graham Bell

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Alexander Graham Bell

Born: 03 March 1847
Died: 02 August 1922

A young Alexander Graham Bell. Bell’s commitment to helping the hearing-impaired led to his invention of the telephone. He also founded communications giant AT&T.

Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland to Eliza and Melville Bell in 1847. From an early age he was interested in finding out about the way things worked, though he was not a very good student in school. Both Bell’s father and grandfather were elocution teachers and his mother was partially deaf. This family background led naturally to his lifelong fascination with speech, deaf education, and the science of sound known as acoustics.

In 1863 Bell took the first of what would be many jobs as a speech and music teacher in Scotland. Teaching during the day, he conducted experiments at night on the pitch of vowel sounds using tuning forks. He also became interested in building a machine to produce vowel sounds electronically. He tried to teach himself about electricity, becoming especially fascinated by the growing field of telegraphy.

After Bell’s two brothers died of tuberculosis, the entire family moved across the Atlantic to Ontario, Canada, which was thought to have a healthier climate. Bell then took a job teaching deaf children in Boston, a city where a number of scientists and educators were interested in acoustics.

In his spare moments Bell combined his work with the hearing impaired with his interest in invention. He learned how the human ear changes sound waves into actual sound and tried to invent a device to record the rise and fall of the voice in speech. He believed it might be possible to send speech over an electrified wire. When Thomas Watson entered Bell’s life as a skilled electrician who could make devices for inventors, Bell became so obsessed with the electrical transmission of sound that he gave up his teaching job to devote himself completely to the project. His hard work and partnership with Watson paid off when in 1875 he proved that undulating current carried sound. Bell’s patent for what he called the telephone was approved in 1876. Although court battles over his telephone patents lasted for eighteen years, all cases were eventually resolved in his favor.

At the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, Bell demonstrated an early model of his telephone. He was largely ignored until Brazilian emperor Dom Pedro II attracted attention to him by listening to Bell reciting Shakespeare over the telephone. This was the first of many showy telephone demonstrations. Using membrane transmitters, Watson and Bell spoke to each other over rented telegraph wires from points increasingly far apart. Trying to make some quick cash, Bell offered Western Union the patent rights to the telephone for $100,000. The telegraph company had a nationwide network of wires in place and could naturally have branched out. Content with its telegraph monopoly, Western Union turned down Bell’s offer and lost the chance to monopolize another lucrative industry.

As Bell continued to attract attention on the lecture circuit, the telephone achieved commercial success. The Bell Telephone Company was set up in 1877. Bell married former student Mabel Hubbard two days later and set out for England. The newlyweds stayed for a year while Bell demonstrated the telephone to a wide variety of audiences, including Queen Victoria, who was impressed. Bell’s international reputation grew. In Paris in 1880 he was awarded the Volta Prize for scientific achievement. With the prize money, he founded a research laboratory in the United States that worked on projects including metal detectors, phonograph improvements, and automatic telephone switchboards. The decibel, the unit for measuring the strength of any kind of sound, was named after Bell.

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Profits from the Bell Company eventually made Bell very wealthy. After 1892 the Bell family lived in both Washington, D.C. and Nova Scotia. Bell never stopped experimenting and inventing. He conducted experiments with flying machines and became a prominent spokesman for the oral method of teaching the deaf to speak and read lips, a method he developed and which is still in use today, although it remains controversial. Although he was not involved in the daily operations of the growing telephone industry, he remained interested in the development of the technology.

In 1914, Bell was awarded the Edison Medal 'For meritorious achievement in the invention of the telephone.'  In 1915 he helped celebrate the first transcontinental telephone lines when he spoke from New York to Watson in San Francisco. When he died in 1922, all the telephone service in the United States ceased for one minute in his honor.

See also: Papers of Alexander Graham Bell