Bell, Alexander Graham (1847-1922)

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In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell was granted U.S. patent 174,465 for the telephone. Bell's developments in telephony, however, were a consequence of his research and devotion to the hearing impaired.

"Alec" Bell (as he was known to family and close friends) was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, to Eliza Grace Symonds Bell and Alexander Melville Bell on March 3, 1847. Bell's paternal grandfather, also named Alexander, had worked as an elocution teacher and had published several books, including The Practical Elocutionist (1834), Stammering and Other Impediments of Speech (1836), and A New Elucidation of the Principles of Speech and Elocution (1849). Bell's father continued the family's work in this area, and the efforts of Bell and his father to teach speech to the hearing impaired was greatly influenced by the fact that Bell's mother was deaf.

In London in 1863, Bell and his father met with Charles Wheatstone, who had patented an electric telegraph in England in 1837 and made improvements to a mechanical speech-recording device. One consequence of the Bells' study of Wheat-stone's device was an improved understanding of the physiology of speech. In 1864, Bell's father began developing the first universal phonetic alphabet, which eventually led to the publication of Visible Speech: The Science of Universal Alphabets (1867). Bell began studying phonetics by himself in 1865 and then physiology at London University in 1868. Alec also began teaching in 1868 at Susanna Hull's school for the deaf in South Kensington. The lackluster reception of Visible Speech in Europe and the deaths of Bell's brothers due to tuberculosis motivated his father to move the family to Canada in 1870.

Bell began teaching at Sarah Fuller's school for the deaf in Boston in 1871. It was there that he met Gardiner Hubbard, who shared similar interests with Bell since Hubbard's daughter, Mabel, was deaf. She and Bell were married on July 11, 1877, and they eventually reared two daughters together.

Bell lived in Salem, Massachusetts, at the home of one of his students, George Sanders, while he taught in Boston. Bell developed his idea for a "musical telegraph," a device based on the principle of sympathetic resonance, while living with the Sanders family. From this research, Bell concluded that a telegraph wire could carry several different tones at one time, thus leading to his experiments in multiplex telegraphy.

In 1874, shortly after he began teaching elocution at Boston University, Bell began working with Clarence Blake on experiments to replicate the effects of sound on the human ear. Bell intended to teach the deaf by re-creating exact visual representations of speech learned from these experiments. One by-product of the experiments of Blake and Bell was the phonautograph, a device that recorded the vibrations of sound and that led to Bell's development of the membrane, or diaphragm, telephone.

Also in 1874, Elisha Gray, an employee of Western Electric Company, was working on his own version of a telephone. Bell was being encouraged by both Hubbard and Thomas Sanders to file for patents for his ideas. Hubbard and Sanders became financiers and founding members of the Bell Telephone Company, as did Thomas Watson. Bell began working with Watson in January 1875 while preparing to patent the harmonic telegraph. Bell filed for three patents for his invention on February 25, 1875, but he lost the first two, in part to Gray, who had filed two days earlier for a similar device. Bell and Gray filed for legal rights to similar inventions again on February 14, 1876. Gray filed for a caveat, and Bell filed for a patent for the telephone on the same day. There remains speculation that the patent officer, Zenas Fisk Wilber, may have allowed Bell to view Gray's caveat, which had been filed earlier that day.

Bell was granted the telephone patent on March 7, 1876. Watson was the first to hear a human voice via the telephone three days later, and the message generally is accepted to have been, "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!" Bell's first significant public demonstration of the telephone was at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, which provided the national and international exposure needed for marketing the telephone.

The first of more than six hundred lawsuits that challenged the Bell telephone patent began in March 1878. Peter Dowd, representing Western Union, challenged Bell's claim to the telephone. The Dowd lawsuit was settled in 1879 with the Bell Company acquiring Western Union's networks, customer base, and several enhancements to the device. Bell appeared in court to defend his patent on two other occasions. The second case took place in 1883 and dealt with Daniel Draw-baugh's claims of inventing the telephone. The third case, especially taxing to Bell, was initiated by James Rogers of Tennessee. Rogers anticipated tying up the Bell patent in litigation until its expiration, at which time Rogers assumed he could freely enter the telephone market. Rogers encouraged the U.S. government to file a suit against Bell in January 1887, a case that took nine years before a settlement was reached in Bell's favor.

After the telephone, Bell continued his research, inventing both the telephonic probe and photo-phone. Legal battles over the telephone, however, discouraged Bell from seeking patents for his work. Bell's wife urged his reluctant patent application for the tetrahedral space frame, which was a concept he developed as a by-product of his interest in flight but which became more valuable in the fields of architecture and structural engineering.

Bell's advocacy led to better treatment of the hearing impaired, which drew the admiration of many of Bell's acquaintances, including Helen Keller. Bell's own Volta Bureau was merged with the American Association for the Promotion of the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf in 1956 to form the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf.

Bell died at his Beinn Breagh estate in Nova Scotia, Canada, on August 2, 1922. The patent for the invention of the telephone went to Bell in 1876, and the U.S. legal system upheld that decision throughout years of patent litigation. While several individuals, including Gray, deserve credit for inventing much of the technology of the telephone, it was Bell's conceptual development of the transmission of speech that best represents his achievement. Nevertheless, Bell's developments in telephony represent one period only of a career that was devoted to understanding the physiology of human speech.

See also:Recording Industry, History of; Telephone Industry, History of; Telephone Industry, Regulation of; Telephone Industry, Technology of.


Coe, Lewis. (1995). The Telephone and Its Several Inventors. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company.

Mackay, James. (1997). Sounds Out of Silence: A Life of Alexander Graham Bell. Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing.

Pound, Arthur. (1926). The Telephone Idea: Fifty Years After. New York: Greenberg.

Snyder, Charles. (1974). Clarence John Blake and Alexander Graham Bell: Otology and the Telephone. St. Louis, MO: Annals Publishing Company.

Winefield, Richard. (1987). Never the Twain Shall Meet: Bell, Gallaudet, and the Communications Debate. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Martin L. Hatton