Bell and the Telephone
Bell and the Telephone
The Idea. Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), who suffered from deafness, was interested in devising a form of “visible speech” for the deaf, first in the form of a universal alphabet and later by mechanical means. The telephone is scientifically uncomplicated: when the sound of a voice vibrates through an iron diaphragm, it changes the electromagnetic field in such a way as to reproduce the vibrations in an electric current. These vibrations are then transformed back into sound through a receiving diaphragm.
The Inventors. Several inventors were aware of how to make a telephone. By the time Bell applied for a patent on his “harmonic multiple telegraph” (as he called it), other inventors, including Thomas Alva Edison, Elisha Gray, and Amos Dolbeare, were also close to producing functioning instruments. To head off Edison, whom Western Union had engaged to proceed at full speed on his “speaking telegraph,” Gray agreed not to contest Bell’s patent, which was granted on 7 March 1876. Three days later Bell spoke the first intelligible telephone message to his assistant: “Mr. Watson, come here!” Bell then tinkered with the basic model and caused a sensation at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in June 1876, when Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil and other dignitaries tried it out. On the advice of a surgeon Bell had modeled the receiver on the anatomy of human ear; by January 1877 he had created a reliable working model.
Competition. In 1877 Bell founded the Bell Telephone Company and faced tough competition from Edison, who had developed a transmitter that was as good as or better than Bell’s. Over an eighteen-year period other inventors challenged Bell’s patents in court on six hundred different occasions, with Bell winning all the cases. In Great Britain Bell and Edison started out in competition, with Edison’s telephone company taking the lead, and forcing a merger of Bell and Edison interests in England. (It is interesting to note that Edison and Bell both suffered from varying degrees of deafness and considered
the invention of the telephone to be especially important.)
The Success of the Telephone. The speed with which people accepted the telephone was remarkably quick, and Bell turned to new interests, including airplanes. He left the Bell Company a wealthy man in 1881. The social effects of the telephone were startling and immediate: it changed the way business was conducted, encouraging decentralization and allowing managers and salespeople to carry out their functions on a regional, and later a national, scale. According to twentieth-century communications expert Marshall McLuhan, telephone introduced “a seamless web of interlaced patterns in management and decision making,” making an older style of rigidly delegated authority impossible. The telephone also changed the way doctors practiced medicine, linking patient to physician to pharmacy almost instantaneously. Its effects on interpersonal and family relations were so profound that people today have great difficulty conceiving of how people ever carried on their day-to-day lives without it.
Robert V. Bruce, Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude (London: Gollancz, 1973);
Matthew Josephson, Edison: A Biography (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959);
Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965).