Alexander Graham Bell

Tech Corner

This month we are fudging a bit as I expect most everyone knows something about Alexander Graham Bell.  Of course, every time we use the term decibel or ask for the bass to be turned up 3dB we are in a sense honoring his memory.  He is also the most recent of the men we have written about.  He was born on March 3, 1847 and died in August 1922.  Ok, so 1922 for many of you seems like a very long time ago, and I suppose it was. Yet my grandfather was 11 years old when Bell died…  just saying!  Anyway moving on, Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland to parents Alexander Melville Bell and Eliza Grace Symonds.  Normally this is where the story would begin.  In this story however, we need to go back a few years to the first Alexander Bell to really understand what drove Alexander Graham Bell (AGB).  Alexander Bell (AGB’s grandfather) was born in St Andrews , Scotland on the 3rd of March in 1790.  To help keep all the Alexanders in this story separate, let’s call this one Alex I.  Alex I took up the trade of shoemaker as had many generations of Bells before him.  He married in 1814 and by 1818 he moved to Edinburgh where, according to the Annals of the Edinburgh Stage,  we find him working as an actor in the theater.  By 1822 Alex I’s career had waned and he found himself in the lowly role of prompter.  However, Alex I was blessed with a deep rich voice and the ability to project well.  During his time in the prompter’s box he learned English very well and started giving private lessons to the upper class in elocution – the art of public speaking. [1]

To make a long and fascinating story short, Alex1 became well known for his methods for teaching speech and even helping people with speech impediments and stuttering.  Alex I published a book in the early 1830s called The Practical Elocutionist  and another book a few years later called Stammering and other Impediments of Speech. By the late 1830s Alex I was known as “The Celebrated Professor of Elocution”. [2]

Alex I had 3 children, David born in 1817, Alexander Melville born March 1 ,1819 and Elizabeth born in 1822.  The story now moves to Alexander Melville who we will call Alex II, the father of AGB.  Alex II was a student of his father’s methods and was also passionate about helping people with speech issues.  In 1837 Alex I sent Alex II from Scotland to Canada in hopes that the sickly Alex II would benefit from the healthier climate. Alex II Stayed in Canada for 5 years doing a variety of jobs including teaching a class on Shakespeare and tutoring amateur actors in the “Bell Method” of elocution.

Alex II returned to Scotland in 1842 and joined his father in his speech tutoring business.  By now David had settled in Dublin and became a teacher of Elocution as well.   Alex II became almost obsessed with understanding speech and read everything he could get his hands on.  He soon discovered that no one had fully researched the mechanics of speech, and began what was to be a 25 year long original investigation into how the vocal organs worked. In 1844 Alex II married Eliza Grace Symonds.  Eliza was hard of hearing and could only hear with the aid of a hearing tube.  Their first child Melville James was born in 1845.  Their second son Alexander (the name Graham was not added until he was 10) was born in 1847 with the same birthday as his grandfather March 3. The youngest was Edward was born in 1849.  Alex I born on March 3rd, Alex II born on March 1st, AGB born on March 3rd, what are the odds of that?

Alexander (AGB) was home schooled for a number of years and at age 11 he enrolled in the Edinburgh Royal Highschool and stayed for four years.  Alexander was not a particularly gifted student, but was fascinated by the sciences and had a very keen and inquisitive mind.  Once when he was playing at a flour mill owned by friends, he saw that the de-husking of the grain was really hard work.  Using a variety of brushes mounted on paddles that rotated with a crank, he built a machine that did the job quite well.  He was later to call this his first invention. [3]

At 15 Alexander moved to London to be with his grandfather who home schooled him and not surprisingly gave him an education in elocution and speech therapy.  A year later Bell enrolled in Westin House back in Scotland where he studied Greek and Latin.

By 1870 Alexander was a young man and in poor health.  His brothers had both died from TB by this time and his parents, fearing they would lose their remaining son, decided to move the family to Brentford, Ontario Canada hoping that the climate would prove to be curative for AGB as it had for Alex II.   Fortunately for us, the move had its desired effect and Alexanders’ heath improved dramatically.

During his time at Brentford, Alexander who, not surprisingly, was fascinated by human speech, not only learned the Mohawk language, but also developed a writing system for it for the first time.  In appreciation Alexander was made an honorary chief of the Mohawk Tribe.[4]

It was clear that the passion of the grandfather was passed down to the grandson. By the time Alexander was 25 he had opened his School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech in Boston, where using work pioneered by his father he was teaching hearing impaired people to speak.  A year later, although he held no university degrees at all, Alexander was named Professor of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech at Boston University School of Oratory.

Clearly speech was Bells’ passion.   For much of his life he had dreamed of somehow capturing and reproducing human speech.  Back when Alexander was 19 years old someone mentioned the work of the German scientist Helmholtz who was attempting to capture speech using electricity.  Bell tried to read Helmholtz work which was all published in German.  Alexander misunderstood the diagrams and believed that Helmholtz had succeeded in capturing speech electronically.  In reality Helmholtz had only managed to capture a few vowel sounds. This mistaken reading of Helmholtz work pushed Alexander to try to recreate his experiments, believing that speech could fully be captured.

Bell built a lab in Ontario with the express purpose of capturing sound electronically.  He was able to secure investors, and with this
money he hired Thomas Watson who was a very skilled electrical engineer who could complement Bells expertise. One of the investors Gardiner Hubbard had a daughter named Mable who was deaf and later became Alexanders wife.  There were now two influential people in Bell’s life who were hearing impaired; his mother and his wife.

By 1875 Alexander and Watson believed that they had enough understanding of how the telephone should work so they filed a patent
for a device that had yet to be shown to work.

This is where the story gets a bit fuzzy.  Another inventor by the name of Elisha Gray was also working on a telephone, using a slightly
different method from Bell.  They both filed for US patents on the same day in February 1876.  In March, Bell finally got his invention to work with the now famous first telephone call “ Come here Watson, I need you”.  Even though Gray never actually got his prototype to work, he claimed that Alexander had actually stolen his invention.  The story of the battle between Gray and Bell reads like a very intense legal novel, with the matter going all the way to the Supreme Court.  Finally, after around 600 lawsuits, Bell could officially claim that he had in fact invented the telephone.

In 1876 Bell and his investors offered to sell the patents to the telegraph company Western Union for $100,000.  Western Union could not imagine that this telephone would ever make any money.  Bell then founded his own company, the Bell Telephone Company.  By 1878 Western Union had a decidedly different opinion and were willing to offer $25 million!  As a point of interest, Elisha Gray was a co-founder of Western Electric.

Of course, the Bell Company was extremely successful and made Alexander Graham Bell very rich and famous.  However, by the early
1880s, Bell had basically lost interest in the telephone and sold off most of his stock in the Bell Telephone Company.  He remained intensely curious and continued to invent. In 1880 Bell invented the Photophone and successfully transmitted voice over a distance of over 650 feet using light. He made significant contributions to recording technology.  Edison invented the phonograph, but soon after lost interest and focused his energies on the transmission of electricity.  Bell after inventing the telephone, turned his energy a number of directions including improving on Edison’s phonograph. In 1881 Bell was awarded the prestigious French Volta Prize.  Bell and his colleagues used the prize money to found the Volta Laboratory to study telecommunications and other technologies like the phonograph.  In 1886 Bell was awarded a patent for a cardboard cylinder covered with wax which was a big improvement on the Edison cylinder. Bell went on to invent an early form of a metal detector which was used in the Boer war and in WW1 to help physicians detect bullets in gunshot victims. Over the next 15 years over 40 patents were issued to the Lab.  The Volta Lab was so successful that Bell was able to take some of the proceeds and form the Volta Bureau “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the deaf”[5].

Helping the deaf to communicate remained his lifelong passion.  The Volta Bureau survives to today and is now known as the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.  Three generations of Bells and their commitment to helping the deaf community has produced an association that can be a resource for people with hearing issues in perpetuity.

Alexander Graham Bell was not that enthusiastic about his most famous invention.  In fact, he refused to have a telephone in his office.[6] He felt that the telephone detracted from his other scientific contributions including the photo-phone which he felt was just as important as the telephone.

“The inventor…looks upon the world and is not contented with things as they are. He wants to improve whatever he sees, he wants to benefit the world; he is haunted by an idea. The spirit of invention possesses
him, seeking materialization.”   Alexander Graham Bell.

Alexander Graham Bell passed away on August 2 1922.  All telephones in North America were silenced for one minute in his honor.


[1] Bruce, Robert V; Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude. Cornell University Press 1990. P 10

[2] Ibid p13

[3] Alexander Graham Bell.” Famous Scientists. 14 Sep. 2014. Web. 1/30/2019

[4] ibid

[5] Wikipedia contributors. “Volta Laboratory and Bureau.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 11 Dec. 2018. Web. 31 Jan. 2019.

[6]  Pettinger, Tejvan “Alexander Bell Biography”, Oxford, UK. – Published 10 March 2015. Updated 1 February 2018