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Alexander Graham Bell Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-104276).

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Bell, Alexander Graham (03 March 1847–02 August 1922), inventor and educator, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, the son of Alexander Melville Bell and Eliza Grace Symonds. Family tradition and childhood environment set him on the path to his greatest invention, the telephone. His grandfather had turned from acting to speech teaching, and his father had become eminent in the latter vocation. His mother, despite her seriously impaired hearing, was an accomplished pianist and engaged her son’s interest in that form of sound communication. Edinburgh, second only to London as an intellectual center of the British Empire, excelled in science and technology, which probably stirred the boy’s interest and ambition in such matters. He made a hobby of botany and zoology. Playing about a local grist mill, he took up the miller’s challenge to make himself useful and devised a hand-cranked machine that took the husks off the grain—“my first invention,” he later called it....

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Blake, Francis (25 December 1850–19 January 1913), scientist, inventor, and astronomer, was born in Needham, Massachusetts, the son of Francis Blake, a businessman and U.S. appraiser of Boston, and Caroline (maiden name unknown). Blake attended Brookline High School but left at age sixteen to take up a position as a draftsman in the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. Blake remained with the survey team for thirteen years. The Coast Survey at that time hired young people out of high school or college in order to nurture the character values of morality, discipline, and loyalty in their employees. On-the-job training by knowledgeable instructors provided young men such as Blake with the skills to conduct research projects using the latest modern scientific techniques....

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Thomas Alva Edison Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-98066).

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Edison, Thomas Alva (11 February 1847–18 October 1931), inventor and business entrepreneur, was born in Milan, Ohio, the son of Samuel Edison, a shingle maker, land speculator, and shopkeeper, and Nancy Elliott, a schoolteacher. Of Dutch and American heritage, his father escaped from Canada during the rebellion of 1837–1838 and, with his wife and children, settled in Milan, a burgeoning wheat port on a canal near Lake Erie, midway between Cleveland and Detroit. “Al,” as his family called him, received devoted attention from his oldest sister Marion and his mother. The arrival of the railroad in a nearby town sharply diminished the canal business in Milan and prompted the family to move to Port Huron, Michigan, in 1854. Al attended both public and private schools for short periods but studied extensively with his mother at home, where he also read books from the library of his politically radical father....

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Thomas Augustus Watson Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-99523).

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Watson, Thomas Augustus (18 January 1854–13 December 1934), technician and entrepreneur, was born in Salem, Massachusetts, the son of Thomas R. Watson, a livery stable foreman, and Mary Phipps. A bright, quick boy, he left public school at fourteen from restless ambition rather than incapacity. After drifting from job to job for four years he settled down at the Boston shop of Charles Williams, who made a variety of electrical devices in small quantities. Watson took to his new job from the first. He later recalled his exultation as “I made stubborn metal do my will and take the shape necessary to . . . its allotted work.” He lay awake at night devising special tools to speed and improve his work. By 1874 he was recognized as one of the shop’s best men and accordingly was set to doing custom work for inventors. In January 1875 Watson was assigned to make apparatus for a young inventor, ...