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date: 28 May 2020

Bell, Alexander Grahamfree

(03 March 1847–02 August 1922)
  • Robert V. Bruce

Alexander Graham Bell

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

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.

Along with a tendency to scatter his interests and energies, certain other traits influenced the course of his life. From his boyhood onward he struggled consciously to restrain a propensity toward introspection and solitude. More than his two brothers, he felt both oppressed and challenged by his imposing father’s professional eminence. One of his brothers teased him about his “wish to do something great,” but an undistinguished record at Edinburgh’s Royal High School did little for his self-confidence. A subsequent year under the tutelege of his grandfather in London gave Bell a more solid intellectual grounding, though the separation from his contemporaries left him seeming older than his sixteen years. This precocious maturity would serve him well in his succeeding three years of private school teaching in Scotland and England.

On Bell’s return from London, his father sought to rally his spirits by challenging him to collaborate with his elder brother in making a “speaking machine”—a device for mechanical production of vocal sounds. The maneuver worked. After studying a lamb’s larynx given them by a butcher, the young men devised a model of the vocal organs manipulated by levers. Sounding it by blowing through a tube, they could make it emit humanlike cries. This heightened Bell’s fascination with the mechanisms of speech. He followed the call further during his stint of school teaching, when he sounded tuning forks before his open mouth as he manipulated his vocal organs. Each position would amplify a different fork because of resonance. He discovered that each vowel sound is a compound of two pitches and that in a certain sequence one rises and the other falls as the sequence progresses. Moreover, he deduced the physiological basis of the phenomenon.

His elation was dampened when he learned that the great scientist Hermann von Helmholtz had recently made the same discovery. But he was intrigued by Helmholtz’s device for keeping each of his tuning forks vibrating: an intermittent electrical current of the same frequency as the fork’s pitch, activating an electromagnet near the fork. Bell told friends that someone, someday, would go on to transmit speech and music by telegraphy. He began tinkering with batteries and telegraphic instruments.

Meanwhile his father had realized a dream of many years by scientifically analyzing vocal sounds to develop a complete and universally applicable system of phonetic notation. Bell became adept in the system, which his father called Visible Speech, and helped win acclaim for it by public demonstrations. More than one observer pointed out its potential for teaching speech to the deaf. In 1868 Bell put the suggestion to the test with four girls at a private school in London. In the experiment’s brilliant success Bell found what he ever after would consider his true calling. To the end of his days he would list “teacher of the deaf” as his profession, notwithstanding his numerous other pursuits.

While in London, to which his parents had moved after his grandfather’s death, Bell made use of the family piano. With his ear for pitch and his well-trained voice he had a knack for singing into the wires and sounding them selectively by sympathetic vibration. This suggested to him that if the different frequencies of several tuning forks were transmitted simultaneously over a single wire, they could be separated out by similarly tuned forks at the other end. Thus a number of Morse code messages might be sent at the same time over a single wire, with the prospect of immense savings for the telegraph industry.

Events crowded the idea out of Bell’s mind for the time being. His younger brother had died of tuberculosis in 1867, and his older brother succumbed to the same disease in 1870. His father, having decided to migrate to Canada, persuaded his only surviving son to come along to that more bracing and healthful climate. Bell and his parents settled in Brantford, Ontario, that summer. When the elder Bell, warmly received in a series of lectures at Boston, was asked to introduce the Visible Speech method there at a new school for deaf children, he referred the offer to his son, who accepted it eagerly.

Bell arrived in Boston in April 1871. His success at the Boston school and at others in the region—a success due as much to his talent and enthusiasm as to the Visible Speech system—encouraged him to open his own private teacher-training classes in 1872. Bell’s higher education consisted of a couple of courses at the University of Edinburgh in 1864 and a few more at the University of London in 1868 and 1869. But in that period the lack of more elaborate academic credentials did not preclude college teaching. Bell’s demonstrated skill led Boston University to engage him as professor of vocal physiology in 1873. This gave him access to Boston intellectual circles.

Boston was an American counterpart of Edinburgh. Its oldest college, Harvard, had been joined in the 1860s not only by Boston University and Boston College, but also by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Boston was a center of American industry and finance, as well as literature and learning. And it was the leading center of American science and technology. In that setting Bell’s interest in science and invention revived. He attended evening lectures at MIT. In October 1872 he heard the eminent English scientist John Tyndall lecture on the “undulatory theory” of light propagation. That month the newspaper in which Bell advertised his speech lessons reported that Western Union had paid handsomely for a Boston inventor’s “duplex telegraph,” which by an ingenious arrangement of circuits could send a message in each direction simultaneously on a single wire.

Bell’s thoughts returned to his London concept of sending several, not just two, messages at once on the quite different plan of superimposed frequencies. He began experimenting by night, teaching by day, and thus confirmed his lifelong night-owl habits. In struggling with certain snags he resorted to an induced “undulatory” current, which could reproduce both amplitude and pitch, instead of an intermittent one, which transmitted pitch only. In 1874 an MIT invitation to use its laboratories introduced him to a device, the “phonautograph,” that literally made speech visible by using its vibrations to trace an undulating curve on a strip of smoked glass, displaying both amplitude and frequency.

That summer at Brantford the two lines of experiment fused in his mind to form the basic principle of the telephone. He assumed, however, that vocal sounds could not vibrate an armature with enough force to induce a current capable of reproducing audible speech. Fortunately, he discussed the theoretical concept with Boston scientists, one of whom preserved notes dated October 1874.

Putting aside what he deemed an impractical notion, Bell resumed work on his “harmonic” multiple telegraph. Two events added urgency to his quest. A Boston businessman, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, whose daughter Mabel was one of Bell’s deaf pupils, had projected an enterprise to compete with Western Union. The latter’s acquisition of the new duplex telegraph gave Hubbard pause, but word of Bell’s scheme roused him that October to offer financial backing, in which he was joined by a Salem businessman, Thomas Sanders, father of another Bell pupil. Bell’s growing romantic interest in Mabel Hubbard gave him added reason to press on with the harmonic telegraph. So also did the news in November that a Chicago inventor named Elisha Gray was working along similar lines. Now having financial support, Bell resorted to Charles Williams’s Boston shop for custom-made electrical apparatus. There, early in 1875, he engaged the fulltime services of a bright young worker, Thomas A. Watson.

Bell and Watson labored on the harmonic telegraph that winter and spring. In February Bell hurried to the U.S. Patent Office, only to find that Gray had filed a harmonic telegraph patent two days ahead of him. Bell, however, was first with applications for important elements of such a system, but at Washington, D.C., Joseph Henry, the most eminent of American scientists and head of the Smithsonian Institution, had listened to his telephone conception with interest and urged him to give it priority over the telegraph system. Bell thought of another way to make the undulatory current, using sound waves to vary the resistance in a battery-powered circuit, though the means he tried did not work. Then, in the attic of the Williams shop on 2 June 1875, struggling with a multiple-telegraph circuit, Watson happened to pluck a steel reed that had stuck to an electromagnet. Beyond a partition, Bell heard another reed twang. At once the significance broke upon his mind: the motion of Watson’s reed had induced a current that made an audible sound at Bell’s end.

That summer Bell was again diverted from the telephone goal by his courtship of Mabel Hubbard. Her parents objected on grounds of her youth, and her father insisted on priority for the multiple telegraph. Not until Thanksgiving did the young couple become engaged. In January 1876 Bell completed his telephone application. Hubbard, at last grasping the importance of the concept, took it upon himself to file Bell’s application on 14 February 1876. By what seemed an extraordinary coincidence, Elisha Gray filed a similar caveat—a statement of an untested idea—a few hours after Bell’s completed application. Gray, however, claimed to have had the conception in November 1875, which was more than a year after Bell’s documented conception. Gray’s earliest record of it was the caveat itself. Interestingly, Gray had frequented the Patent Office for several days before that, during which time Bell’s notarized specifications had been the subject of admiring discussion in the office. Bell’s Patent Number 174,465, often called the most valuable single patent in history, was duly issued on 7 March 1876.

Though Bell’s induction-based instruments had transmitted unmistakably vocal sounds, it was a device using his concept of variable resistance, covered in the patent, that first produced an intelligible sentence—“Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you”—on 10 March 1876. Later that month Bell also made his induction or electromagnetic model talk. Bell’s father being the listener, its first word was “Papa.”

Along with his Boston University classes and private instruction, Bell worked on further improving the induction model’s performance. In June he gave a triumphant private demonstration to the judges at the International Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. With the party was Dom Pedro, emperor of Brazil, who, contrary to legend, did not exclaim, “My God, it talks!,” but rather, “I hear, I hear!” Though the public took little note at the time, another member of the party, the English scientist Sir William Thompson, later awakened Europe to Bell’s achievement.

In the months that followed, Bell and Watson worked to improve the telephone’s performance and extend its range. Bell relished publicizing it in lecture tours. After he married Mabel Hubbard in July 1877, however, the couple sailed for England and Scotland, where they remained for more than a year. Two days before the wedding Gardiner Hubbard had led the group that organized the Bell Telephone Company, and he ran its affairs with great success during the newlyweds’ absence. On their return, Bell gave up his university appointment and worked as the new company’s technical adviser. That work, however, ceased entirely after the early eighties. He cheerfully admitted that it no longer appealed to him. His services remained vital to the company as a key witness in its triumphant defense of the basic patents during years of litigation against a horde of infringers and counter-claimants. Among them was Elisha Gray, who, after initially brushing off the telephone as of little value, gradually became convinced that he had somehow been cheated of a great fortune. Bell himself did not become immensely rich. In lieu of royalties he had received stock, most of which he sold at an early date. But he emerged independently wealthy.

The Bells and their two daughters moved to Washington, D.C., in 1882. In that year Bell also became a U.S. citizen. In 1886 he bought land for a summer home near Baddeck, Nova Scotia, where the family spent an increasing part of the year as time went by. By then Bell was no longer the slender, dark-haired young man who had won Mabel Hubbard. On his honeymoon he had begun putting on weight and growing a full beard. By his forties he was stout and graying. His physical presence matched his world fame: he bore himself with the majesty of a Moses and the benevolence of a Santa Claus. When he entered a room, he seemed to fill it.

Bell remained active as a teacher, an organizer, a frequent and masterful public speaker, a member of many clubs and other organizations, the sponsor for many years of a brilliant Washington salon, and the paterfamilias of a numerous and close-knit clan. Yet one of his sons-in-law said of him, “I have never known anyone who spent so much of his time alone.” In Baddeck he retreated alone for weekends on a secluded houseboat, and year-round he worked and studied alone until three or four in the morning, then slept until ten or eleven, notwithstanding his wife’s periodic efforts to make him diurnal. He himself tried but never quite succeeded in shaking off his tendency to solitude.

It may have been that characteristic, more than the deafness of his mother and wife, that made him empathize with the relative isolation of the deaf from society at large. His most notable scientific work dealt with deafness. He helped apply his telephone as an audiometer, and his name entered the language in the decibel—the standard measure of sound intensity. He contributed to genetics through studies of inherited propensity to deafness, of which he found some evidence. And he became a leader in the education of the deaf. In Scotland during his honeymoon, and later in Washington, D.C., he planned and directed schools for deaf children, always regretting that telephone affairs prevented long-term commitments. He became a champion, mentor, and long-time friend of the blind and deaf Helen Keller. He gave a sizable share of his income over the years to the cause of the deaf. He also gave his leadership and the weight of his eminence to conquering the solitude of deafness through the teaching of speech, the establishment of public day schools mingling deaf and hearing children, and the organizing and support of an association supporting those goals. He became the leader of those who defended oral communication by the deaf against the inroads of the more socially limited, though more natural, sign language.

All along, however, Bell resisted being bound to any single line of work. In counterpoint to his work for the deaf ran concurrent activity in technology and science. Impressed by Edison’s Menlo Park “invention factory,” he tried to replicate it in Washington, the difference being that, whereas Edison looked for a commercial need and sought a way to meet it, Bell more often seized on a physical phenomenon and looked for a way to use it. Intrigued by the element selenium’s increase in electrical conductivity with the intensity of light falling on it, Bell hired a young technician, Sumner Tainter, and in 1880 produced his “photophone,” which transmitted speech by a light beam of fluctuating intensity. But its range of only a few hundred feet, and that only in the absence of fog, rain, and other obstacles, gave it no commercial value, though Bell always claimed it to be a greater invention than the telephone, doubtless because he hated to think that his career had peaked at twenty-nine.

In 1881 Bell did invent for a practical purpose: to locate an assassin’s bullet in the body of the dying President James A. Garfield. His frantic efforts produced an adaptation of the induction balance that worked like a present-day mine detector and a probe combining a needle with a telephone receiver to produce a click when it touched metal. But the bullet was too deep for the first to pinpoint, and the surgeons chose not to try the probe, though afterward it was much used until superseded by X-rays. In that same summer the death of an infant son from respiratory failure drove Bell to invent a “vacuum jacket” using mechanical power to expand and contract the lungs—an anticipation of the iron lung developed for polio victims a half-century later. Also in the early eighties Bell turned the tables on Edison, who had much improved telephone reception with his carbon-button transmitter. Bell now mustered the talents of his cousin Chichester Bell and Sumner Tainter to make Edison’s phonograph commercially viable. The Bell-Tainter patents brought the team several hundred thousand dollars, of which Bell’s share went to endow research on deafness.

In 1891, inspired by the experiments of his friend Samuel P. Langley of the Smithsonian Institution, Bell set out to realize a goal he had dreamed of since boyhood—that of powered heavier-than-air flight. For a few years he puttered with gunpowder rockets, helicopter rotors, and little monoplanes, growing more and more certain that “flying machines are practical.” In 1898 he started up the blind alley of kite flying to experiment on stability. It led him to his last notable inspiration in technology: the use of tetrahedral framework in construction—an anticipation of space-frame architecture, made famous by R. Buckminster Fuller. But though he patented, publicized, and demonstrated it, it did not catch on. Bell went on with his flight experiments, engaging a young engineer, F. W. “Casey” Baldwin as a successor to Watson and Tainter. Eventually he brought together a group of other young men, including Glenn Curtiss, organized as the Aerial Experiment Association. By then the Wright Brothers had carried off the palm, but the Bell group won a secure place as pioneers in the new field. Bell’s last notable technological project, begun in 1908 with the assistance of Baldwin, was to improve hydrofoil boats. In 1919 their fourth experimental craft set a world speed record that stood for ten years.

In physics Bell lacked the mathematical training increasingly necessary for theoretical work. But he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, to which he contributed significant papers on aspects of heredity. For some thirty years at his Nova Scotia estate he carried on meticulously recorded experiments in breeding twin-bearing sheep, though without commercially significant success. He also left his mark on science as a patron and organizer. In 1881 he financed a major phase of Albert Michelson’s classic experiments on the speed of light. In 1882 he rescued the foundering journal Science and helped finance it for nearly a decade. And not least, Bell, himself a world traveler, served from 1898 to 1903 as second president of the National Geographic Society (succeeding its founder, Gardiner Hubbard) and as a shrewd adviser to the society’s magazine, edited by his son-in-law Gilbert H. Grosvenor.

Bell died at his Baddeck estate. The tablet set over his grave there includes, as he had specified, the words “Died a Citizen of the United States.” Through his numerous achievements in the analysis, teaching, and transmission of speech; education of the deaf; support of major journals; and promotion of air and sea transport, runs the theme of communication and, more particularly, the conquest of involuntary solitude, even in his own nature. As his friend and sometime competitor Thomas Edison remarked at news of his death, Bell had “brought the human family in closer touch.”


The Alexander Graham Bell Papers are in the Library of Congress ( No other manuscript repositories contain significant material not also found there. A full bibliography of Bell’s published writings and addresses, as well as a list of his U.S. patents, is given on pages 20–29 of Harold S. Osborne, “Biographical Memoir of Alexander Graham Bell, 1847–1922,” National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs 23 (1943). The only comprehensive, scholarly biography is Robert V. Bruce, Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude (1973).