Alexander Graham Bell is born, March 3, 1847

-March 03, 2017

Though he is most associated with the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell's life and career focused mostly on the study of sound.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Bell's work was inspired by his family. His mother and wife were deaf and his father, uncle, and grandfather all taught elocution.

When he was 12, Bell built a machine to dehusk wheat for a flour mill near his house and in return got his first workshop. He would experiment with hearing devices and acoustics and became a teacher of elocution and music at age 16 before moving on to the University of Edinburgh.

Through his experiments with the transmission of sound using tuning forks to explore resonance, Bell discovered Hermann von Helmholtz's "Sensations of tone" which led him to believe speech could be produced by electrical means, so he began studying electricity and electromagnetism.

He immigrated with his family to Canada then spent time in Boston where he opened the "School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech" in 1872, and continued his research in sound while working at Boston University.

Bell began tutoring his future wife Mabel, who lost her hearing to scarlet fever as a child, and her father Gardiner Greene Hubbard became an important business partner for Bell.

Hubbard argued for the nationalization of the telegraph system and began financing Bell's experiments to develop an acoustic telegraph. In a letter to his father on November 11, 1872, Bell discussed a telegraph that would send numerous messages simultaneously along a single wire. Meanwhile Western Union contracted Elisha Gray to work on a similar project.

Combining innovations from pioneers like Michael Faraday, Antonio Meucci, and Philipp Reis, Bell was able to turn sound into an electrical impulse at a transmitter and then convert the signal back to audible speech through a receiver.

In 1875 Bell and his assistant Thomas Watson accidentally reproduced sound while tuning the reeds of transmitters and receivers in different rooms. When a reed was plucked by Watson, residual magnetism was used to induce an undulating current, which activated the electromagnets in Bell’s room, making the reeds vibrate audibly in the same way. Soon after, Bell made his first telephones.

In February of 1876 Hubbard filed a patent for Bell's “Improvements in Telegraphy," on the same day Gray filed his telephone patent. It was issued in March of that year, and would be one of 30 that Bell would receive.

The first intelligible sentence, "Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you," was transmitted by Bell's device soon after the patent was issued. In 1877, Bell, Hubbard, and another investor Thomas Sanders
incorporated the Bell Telephone Company of Boston. Within three years, telephone exchanges existed in most major cities and towns in the United States. 

That same year Bell made the first phone call over telegraph wires between two towns eight miles apart in Ontario, Canada and for the first transcontinental phone call in 1915, he called his former assistant Watson in San Francisco from New York.

The US Government moved to annul the patent issued to Bell in 1887 and a long court battle ensued. The Bell company eventually won a Supreme Court decision, but some claims were left undecided.

Bell would also patent the photophone, a wireless telephone that allowed for the transmission of both sounds and normal human conversations on a beam of light, which has been called the first wireless transmission of speech and a precursor of cell phone technology. His audiometer, used to measure hearing ability, led to his name being adopted as part of the unit of measuring sound intensity – the decibel.

In his later life, Bell experimented in aviation, forming the Aerial Experimental Association (AEA), which designed and built early aircraft, including the first to make a powered flight in Canada, the Silver Dart.

He also worked on x-ray technology, and patented a watercraft, the HD-4, which set a world marine speed record of 70.86 mph in 1919.  Bell was president of the National Geographic Society, founded by Hubbard in 1888.

He died of complications from diabetes on August 2, 1922.

In 1954, a museum was established at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site in Baddeck, Nova Scotia where memorabilia from his career is displayed.


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For more moments in tech history, see this blog. EDN strives to be historically accurate with these postings. Should you see an error, please notify us.

Editor's note
: This article was originally posted on March 3, 2014 and edited on March 3, 2017.


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