Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone and many other useful things, died on the 2nd of August, 1922.
Alexander Graham Bell is famous for being the inventor of the first practical telephone, but he should be remembered for far more than that, wonderful invention as it was. Bell was an eminent scientist, inventor, engineer and innovator and rightly famous as he is for his ‘acoustic telegraph’, his inquisitiveness, intellect, inspiration and determination drove him to many more achievements. Perhaps, in retrospect, none of his inventions was more socially impactful than the telephone proved to be, but his involvement with the art of communication was profound and began at a very early age, due to his father, grandfather and uncle all being elocutionists.
Bell’s laboratory notebooks demonstrate his intellectual curiosity and his life seems to have been one of perpetual seeking and striving to learn and create. Even as a child Alexander was always looking for answers and, although every child asks “Why?” wee Eck must’ve driven his parents to distraction by his incessant curiosity. Well, maybe not; methinks they encouraged his interest. In any case, his enthusiasm never waned and, months before he died, Bell was telling a reporter, “There cannot be mental atrophy in any person who continues to observe, to remember what he observes, and to seek answers for the unceasing ‘hows and whys’ about things.”
Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh on the 3rd of March, 1847. As a boy, Alexander received his early schooling at home, from his father, whilst later, for four terms, until he was fifteen, he attended the Royal High School in Edinburgh. After that, Alexander spent a year in London with his grandfather, who encouraged his interest in science and coached him for the attributes of a teacher. Back in Scotland at sixteen, Alexander got a job in Elgin as a pupil-teacher of elocution and music and a year later, he made it to the University of Edinburgh. In 1868, Alexander completed his matriculation exams at Edinburgh and was accepted for admission to the University of London. Two years later, in 1870, Bell emigrated to Canada with his parents, of which fact perhaps many people aren’t aware. Yes it’s true, Alexander Graham Bell first arrived in the United States of America, in 1871, via its neighbour and this son of Scotland didn’t become a naturalized citizen of the United States until 1882.
In Bell’s involvement in teaching in Canada and his research on hearing and speech, further led him to experiment with hearing devices, which eventually culminated in his being awarded the first US patent for the telephone. That patent – number 174,465 – was granted on the 7th of March, 1876. There has been some controversy over that patent as there were claims that Elisha Gray was first to file an application for a device using a water transmitter. However, on the 25th of February, 1875, a year before Gray’s first application and Bell’s successful patent, Bell had filed an application describing mercury as the liquid in its variable resistance device. If anyone copied anyone, it was Gray in his substituting of water for mercury.
A year later, in 1877, Bell formed the Bell Telephone Company and by 1886, over 150,000 people in the U.S. owned telephones. The telephone thus emerged as one of the most successful products ever and, since then, its function has come to be taken for granted, never mind that in some cases, like smartphones, it’s almost a secondary application. Funnily enough, Bell came to consider his most famous invention to be an intrusion on his ‘real work’ as a scientist and he went so far as to refuse to have a telephone in his study.
The enormous financial success of Bell Telephone meant that Bell’s future was secure, however, he didn’t rest upon his laurels. Instead, Bell devoted himself to his scientific interests and continued to test out new ideas throughout a long and productive life. After the telephone, Bell further explored the realm of communications as well as engaging in a huge variety of other activities. Bell got involved in groundbreaking work in optical telecommunications, hydrofoils, kites, airplanes, tetrahedral structures, sheep-breeding, artificial respiration, desalinization and water distillation, and metal detecting.
Bell was not a lone genius. He believed in teamwork as was evidenced from his employment of Thomas A. Watson, an experienced electrical designer and mechanic, to assist him with the telephone. Later, from 1881, Bell worked with his cousin, Chichester Bell, and a guy called Charles Sumner Tainter. That was at the Volta Laboratory in Washington, D.C., which Bell set up using the $10,000 prize he got from winning the French Volta Prix. Amongst other things, the Volta Lab experiments produced major improvements in Thomas Edison’s phonograph, such that it became commercially viable. That’s something we also take for granted today, equally with the telephone. Next time you play a CD or better still, if you’ve still got any, your LPs, say a “thank you” to Alexander Graham Bell. The Volta Bureau later evolved into the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which became a leading center for the research and pedagogy of deafness.
Amongst Bell’s later innovations was the ‘photophone’, a device that enabled sound to be transmitted on a beam of light, presaging fibre optic communications by half a century or so. Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter jointly developed the ‘photophone’, also known as the ‘radiophone’ using a sensitive selenium crystal and a mirror that vibrated in response to a sound. In 1881, a year after gaining its master patent, they successfully sent a ‘photophone’ message over 200 yards between two buildings. Bell regarded the ‘photophone’, rather than the telephone, as his greatest invention, calling it his “proudest achievement” and writing that it was “the greatest invention [I have] ever made, greater than the telephone.”
Bell also devoted a great deal of time and effort to the challenge of flight. He didn’t quite beat the Wright Brothers to it, however, in 1907, four years after the Kitty Hawk, Bell formed the Aerial Experiment Association with Glenn Curtiss, William ‘Casey’ Baldwin, Thomas Selfridge, and J.A.D. McCurdy. The goal of that group was to create airborne vehicles and by 1909, they had produced four powered aircraft. The most noteworthy being the ‘Silver Dart’, which made the first successful powered flight in Canada in February, 1909.
Bell, who died of diabetes on the 2nd of August, 1922, at Beinn Bhreagh in Nova Scotia, has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history. Who could argue with that? During his funeral, every phone on the continent of North America was silenced in his honor. He was buried atop Beinn Bhreagh Mountain, in Nova Scotia.