Alexander Graham Bell was born on March 3, 1847, in Edinburgh, Scotland. His education was largely received through numerous experiments in sound and the furthering of his father’s work on Visible Speech for the deaf. Bell worked with Thomas Watson on the design and patent of the first practical telephone. In all, Bell held 18 patents in his name alone and 12 that he shared with collaborators. He died on August 2, 1922, in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada.
Alexander Graham Bell was born on March 3, 1847, in Edinburgh, Scotland. The second son of Alexander Melville Bell and Eliza Grace Symonds Bell, he was named for his paternal grandfather. The middle name “Graham” was added when he was 10 years old. He had two brothers, Melville James Bell and Edward Charles Bell, both of whom died from tuberculosis.
During his youth, Alexander Graham Bell experienced strong influences that had a profound effect on his later life. Bell’s hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland, was known as the “Athens of the North,” for its rich culture of arts and science. His grandfather and father were experts on the mechanics of voice and elocution. Alexander’s mother, who was nearly deaf, became an accomplished pianist and inspired him to undertake big challenges.
Eliza home schooled Alexander and instilled an infinite curiosity of the world around him. He received one year of formal education in a private school and two years at Edinburgh’s Royal High School. Though a mediocre student, he displayed an uncommon ability to solve problems. At age 12, while playing with a friend in a grain mill, he noticed the slow process of husking the wheat grain. He went home and built a devise with rotating paddles and nail brushes that easily removed the husks from the grain.
Early Attempts to Follow His Passion
Young Alexander was groomed early to carry on in the family business, but his headstrong nature conflicted with his father’s overbearing manner. Seeking a way out, Alexander volunteered to care for his grandfather when he fell ill in 1862. The elder Bell encouraged young Alexander and instilled an appreciation for learning and intellectual pursuits. By age 16, Alexander had joined his father in his work with the deaf and soon assumed full charge of his father’s London operations.
On one of his trips to America, Alexander’s father discovered its healthier environment and decided to move the family there. At first, Alexander resisted, for he was establishing himself in London, but eventually relented after both his brothers had succumbed to tuberculosis. In July, 1870, the family settled in Brantford, Ontario, Canada. There, Alexander set up a workshop to continue his study of the human voice.
Passion for Shaping the Future
In 1871, Alexander Graham Bell moved to Boston and began work on a device that would allow for the telegraph transmission of several messages set to different frequencies. He found financial backing through local investors Thomas Sanders and Gardiner Hubbard. Between 1873 and 1874, Bell spent long days and nights trying to perfect the harmonic telegraph. During his experiments, he became interested in another idea, transmitting the human voice over wires. The diversion frustrated Bell’s benefactors and Thomas Watson, a skilled electrician, was hired to refocus Bell on the harmonic telegraph. But Watson soon became enamored with Bell’s idea of voice transmission and the two created a great partnership with Bell being the idea man and Watson having the expertise to bring Bell’s ideas to reality.
Through 1874 and 1875, Bell and Watson labored on both the harmonic telegraph and a voice transmitting device. Though at first frustrated by the diversion, Bell’s investors soon saw the value of voice transmission and filed a patent on the idea. For now the concept was protected, but the device still had to be developed. On March 10, 1876, Bell and Watson were successful. Legend has it that Bell knocked over a container of transmitting fluid and shouted, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you!” The more likely explanation was Bell heard a noise over the wire and called to Watson. In any case, Watson heard Bell’s voice through the wire and thus, he received the first telephone call.
With this success, Alexander Graham Bell began to promote the telephone in a series of public demonstrations. At the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, in 1876, Bell demonstrated the telephone to the Emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro, who exclaimed, “My God, it talks!” Other demonstrations followed, each at a greater distance than the last. The Bell Telephone Company was organized on July 9, 1877. With each new success, Alexander Graham Bell was moving out of the shadow of his father.
On July 11, 1877, Alexander Graham Bell married Mable Hubbard, a former student and the daughter of Gardiner Hubbard, his initial financial backer. Over the course of the next year, Alexander and Mable traveled to Europe demonstrating the telephone. Upon their return to the United States, Bell was summoned to Washington D.C. to defend his telephone patent from law suits by others claiming they had invented the telephone or had conceived of the idea before Bell.
Over the next 18 years, the Bell Company faced over 550 court challenges, including several that went to the Supreme Court, but none were successful. Even during the patent battles, the company grew. Between 1877, and 1886, over 150,000 people in the U.S. owned telephones. Improvements were made on the device including the addition of a microphone, invented by Thomas Edison, which eliminated the need to shout into the telephone to be heard.
Pursuing His Passion in his Final Years
By all accounts, Alexander Graham Bell was not a businessman and by 1880 began to turn business matters over to Hubbard and others so he could pursue a wide range of inventions and intellectual pursuits. In 1880, he established the Volta Laboratory, an experimental facility devoted to scientific discovery. He also continued his work with the deaf, establishing the American Association to Promote Teaching of Speech to the Deaf in 1890. In the remaining years of his life Bell worked on inventions in flight (the tetrahedral kite), scientific publications (Science magazine), and exploration of the earth (National Geographic magazine). Bell died peacefully with his wife by his side in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, Canada, on August 2, 1922. The entire telephone system was shut down for one minute in tribute to his life.
Bell developed his first invention at age 14. The simple agricultural device served the purpose of removing wheat husks and involved a nail brush and paddle connected into a rotary-brushing wheel, which greatly reduced the time and labor required to husk wheat.
Bell set about developing a “harmonic telegraph,” a telegraph capable of carrying sound, in the 1870s. Inspired by a mistranslated passage from a writing of German physicist Hermann Von Helmholtz, Bell believed the human voice could be carried over a wire. Bell worked with Thomas Watson on the invention, and their first major breakthrough came on June 2, 1875, when the pair managed to produce an audible “twang” noise that carried from the transmitting room to the receiving room. Their efforts eventually led to the filing for a patent for the telephone, on March 7, 1876; the first sentence wasn't spoken over a telephone line until three days later, on March 10.
Look Mom, No Wires
Bell’s photophone, invented in 1880, preceded Guglielmo Marconi’s radio by 16 years. It transmitted the human voice over wavelengths of light, thus serving as the world’s first wireless communication device.
Bell developed a rudimentary precursor to the modern metal detector in 1881. He originally invented the device in order to find the bullet that assassinated President James Garfield. Although the bullet wasn’t removed in time to save the president’s life, the device gained wider use for many years before being replaced by modern X-ray technology.
Inspired by Italian engineer Enrico Forlanini’s work with hydrofoil, Bell and the engineer Casey Baldwin designed a hydrofoil boat in 1919. It broke the speed records at the time by moving at speeds of 60 knots (about 70 miles per hour).
Most Americans know Alexander Graham Bell as the inventor of the telephone, but few are aware that the central interest of his life was deaf education or that he was one of the most prominent proponents of oralism in the United States. Like his father before him, Bell spent his life studying the physiology of speech, once said that “to ask the value of speech is like asking the value of life.” After emigrating from England to Canada in 1870 and to the United States a year later, Bell began to teach speech to deaf students using a universal alphabet invented by his father called “Visible Speech.” In 1872 he opened a school in Boston to train teachers of deaf children.
Bell’s second chief interest was the study of heredity and animal breeding, and he became an early supporter of the eugenicsmovement to improve human breeding. Bell did not go so far as to advocate social controls on reproduction, as many eugenicists did. He did, however, decry the immigration into the United States of what he termed “undesirable ethnical elements,” calling for legislation to prevent their entry in order to encourage the “evolution of a higher and nobler type of man in America.” His views on immigration, deaf education, and eugenics overlapped and intertwined. He described sign language as “essentially a foreign language” and argued that “in an English speaking country like the United States, the English language, and the English language alone, should be used as the means of communication and instruction at least in schools supported at public expense.” He maintained that the use of sign language “in our public schools is contrary to the spirit and practice of American Institutions (as foreign immigrants have found out).”
“I think Alexander Graham Bell’s greatest crime was keeping deaf people apart from each other. It wasn’t so much that he thought speech was important. Worse than that was that he didn’t want deaf people to marry each other. He didn’t want them to be near each other. He wanted them to be apart.”
In 1884, Bell published a paper “Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race,” in which he warned of a “great calamity” facing the nation: deaf people were forming clubs, socializing with one another and, consequently, marrying other deaf people. The creation of a “deaf race” that yearly would grow larger and more insular was underway. Bell noted that “a special language adapted for the use of such a race” already was in existence, “a language as different from English as French or German or Russian.” Some eugenicists called for legislation outlawing intermarriage by deaf people, but Bell rejected such a ban as impractical. Instead he proposed the following steps: (1) Determine the causes that promote intermarriages among the deaf and dumb; and (2) remove them. The causes he sought to remove were sign language, deaf teachers, and residential schools. His solution was the creation of special day schools taught by hearing teachers who would enforce a ban on sign language.
As oralism became the dominant method of instruction in schools for deaf students, the National Association of the Deaf and other community organizations rose to the defense of sign language in the classroom. They called it the “natural language of the deaf” and argued that a reliance on oral communication alone would be educationally disastrous for most deaf students. They took the debate to Deaf community newspapers, to journals of education, to teachers’ conventions, to any forum accessible to them. The National Association of the Deaf began production of a series of films, in 1910, under the direction of its president, George Veditz. The NAD raised $5,000 to make eighteen films. The fear and the hope that animated the project was that the elimination of sign language and deaf teachers in the schools would lead to the deterioration of their beloved language and the hope was that the new technology of film could preserve examples of the “masters of our sign language” for future generations. Veditz’s own contribution to the film series, an impassioned call for “The Preservation of the Sign Language” denounced the damage caused by the “false prophets.” These films provide us with an early glimpse of the language Deaf Americans created.
HISTORIC FILM QUOTE:
“We American deaf are now facing bad times for our schools. False prophets are now appearing, announcing to the public that our American means of teaching the deaf are all wrong. These men have tried to educate the public and make them believe that the oral method is really the one best means of educating the deaf. But we American deaf know, the French deaf know, the German deaf know that in truth, the oral method is the worst. A new race of pharaohs that knew not Joseph is taking over the land and many of our American schools. They do not understand signs for they cannot sign. They proclaim that signs are worthless and of no help to the deaf. Enemies of the sign language, they are enemies of the true welfare of the deaf. We must use our films to pass on the beauty of the signs we have now. As long as we have deaf people on earth, we will have signs. And as long as we have our films, we can preserve signs in their old purity. It is my hope that we will all love and guard our beautiful sign language as the noblest gift God has given to deaf people.” George W. Veditz, “The Preservation of the Sign Language,” 1913, (translated from ASL by Carol Padden and Eric Malzkuhn)