Late great engineers: Alexander Graham Bell - founding father of audio communications

Holder of one of the most valuable patents ever issued, Alexander Graham Bell is credited with the invention of the telephone. But it’s a story that still causes controversy today. Written by Nick Smith.

Alexander Graham Bell (March 3, 1847 – August 2, 1922) was an eminent scientist, inventor, engineer and innovator who is credited with inventing the first practical telephone.
Alexander Graham Bell (March 3, 1847 – August 2, 1922) was an eminent scientist, inventor, engineer and innovator who is credited with inventing the first practical telephone. - GL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

On 3 August 1922, the day after the death of Alexander Graham Bell, the New York Times published a long obituary describing how the Scottish-born inventor and scientist had ‘lived to see the telephonic instrument over which he talked a distance of twenty feet in 1876 used, with improvements, for the transmission of speech across the continent’, eventually extending his transmissions across the Atlantic. More than that, the ‘little instrument he patented less than fifty years ago, scorned then as a joke, was when he died the basis for 13,000,000 telephones used in every civilized country in the world. The Bell basic patent, the famed No. 174,465, which he received on his twenty-ninth birthday and which was sustained in a historic court fight, has been called the most valuable patent ever issued.’

A century later, and the ‘member of many leading American societies of learning’ is a central figure in a controversy that shows few signs of abating. Today, there is vigorous debate over the legitimacy of the claim that Bell was the inventor of the telephone, a technology that evolved out of a period of intense multiple discovery. There’s even disagreement with the National that describes the co-founder of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) as ‘Scotland’s Greatest Inventor’. This is because both the United States and Canada claim Bell as their own. Few remember him as the inventor of, as the New York Times reminds us, ‘a new method of lithography, a photophone, and an induction balance,’ who spent ‘fifteen years and more than $200,000 in testing his tetrahedral kite, which he believed would be the basis for aviation.’ Britannica (of which Bell was an avid reader, scouring its pages for new areas of interest) adopts a neutral tone, describing Bell as a ‘teacher of the deaf whose foremost accomplishments were the invention of the telephone (1876) and the refinement of the phonograph (1886).’

Alexander Bell (the middle name Graham was added on his eleventh birthday), was born in Edinburgh in the mid 19th century, the heyday of the Victorian age of engineering; of bridges, tunnels and machines. He was the son of Alexander Melville Bell, a teacher and researcher of physiological phonetics, inventor of the phonetic symbol system known as Visible Speech and author on elocution, whose The Standard Elocutionist (1860) is still in print. Known as Aleck, by the age of 12 he was an accomplished pianist, and when his mother started to lose her hearing he learned manual finger language and other techniques to communicate with her. His preoccupation with her deafness led him to study acoustics.

The nation that secures control of the air will ultimately control the world.

Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922)

Bell made no academic impression at Edinburgh’s Royal High School, which he left aged 15 to travel to London where he lived with his grandfather Alexander, who nurtured his education to the point where he was eventually accepted at University College London. Inspired by one of Charles Wheatstone’s automaton inventions, Bell set about constructing a speech machine with his brother Melville. He even developed a parlour trick in which he taught his dog Trouve to ‘speak’ the words ‘how are you grandma?’ Meanwhile, his more serious research into sound transmission involved exploring resonance in tuning forks.

By the time he was 23 years old, Bell had emigrated to Canada where his family settled in Tutelo Heights, Brantford, Ontario where he continued research into the human voice, learned the Mohawk language and translated its unwritten vocabulary into Visible Speech. He established a workshop where he investigated Hermann von Helmholtz’s work on electricity and sound – while in London he had translated the German physicist’s The Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music – modifying a melodeon so that it could transmit music electrically over distance. After teaching the Visible Speech System in Connecticut and Massachusetts, he returned to Canada where he worked on his ‘harmonic telegraph device’. Throughout this time he taught the deaf, and while working as a private tutor in Boston he encountered Helen Keller who was later to say that Bell had dedicated his life to the penetration of the ‘inhuman silence which separates and estranges’. While Bell believed in the integration of the deaf and hard of hearing with the hearing world, he preferred speech therapy and lip reading to sign language, and in a paper published in 1898 he stated that with the correct approach deaf people could integrate with wider society. Bell’s views have not always been seen as helpful by the Deaf community, with the National Association of the Deaf (United States) stating that Bell supported a ban on deaf people marrying each other: which is not the case. And yet, in his Memoir upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race Bell observed that deaf people tended to marry each other, which could result in a ‘deaf race’.

Parallel to his work in teaching, Bell was busy researching methods to transmit several telegraph messages simultaneously over a single wire, which Britannica notes as ‘a major focus of telegraph innovation at the time and one that ultimately led to Bell’s invention of the telephone.’ The Western Union Telegraph Company had acquired the rights to Joseph Stearns’s duplex system and had hired inventor Thomas Edison to devise further multiple-transmission methods. Edison came up with the quadruplex that sent four simultaneous telegraph messages over a single wire, while other inventors including Bell and rival electrical engineer Elisha Gray produced systems that could subdivide a telegraph line into ten or more channels by using reeds or tuning forks that responded to specific acoustic frequencies. These performed well in the laboratory but proved unreliable in service.

The first telephone developed and patented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876. Replicas of the magnetic transmitter and receiver were exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, 1876 - Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo

Backing for Bell’s work came from the fathers of two of his pupils: six-year-old Georgie Sanders and 15-year-old Mabel Hubbard (who Bell would marry in 1877). When Bell mentioned to his benefactor Gardiner Greene Hubbard and friend Thomas Sanders that he was working on multi-tone transmission, their financial support meant that the inventor could hire the electrical designer Thomas A Watson to assist him. Watson would later become the first recipient of a phone call, his name among the earliest words spoken on the device, when Bell said from an adjoining room: ‘Mr. Watson. Come here. I want to see you.’

What followed was the so-called ‘race to the patent office’. In 1875, Bell drew up a patent application for his fledgling acoustic telegraph. Meanwhile, Elisha Gray was experimenting with acoustic telegraphy, and on 14 February 1876 filed a caveat with the U.S. Patent Office for a telephone design that used a water transmitter. That same morning, Bell filed his application via his lawyer. As one commentator has observed: ‘there is considerable debate about who arrived first’, and Gray later challenged the primacy of Bell’s patent for ‘the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically.’ It wasn’t to be until three days later that Bell got his invention to work using a liquid transmitter similar to Gray’s design. Bell was, and still is, accused of ‘stealing’ the telephone from Gray.

As the technology matured Bell, along with his partners Hubbard and Sanders, offered to sell the patent outright to Western Union for $100,000 (nearly $3m in today’s money). While the president of telegraph company countered that the telephone was nothing but a toy, two years later he regretted that if he could have bought the patent for $25 million (nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars), he would ‘consider it a bargain’. By then, the Bell company no longer wanted to sell, and his investors went on to become millionaires.

In 1878 Bell called at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight to demonstrate his invention to Queen Victoria who thought it ‘quite extraordinary’ and offered to buy the demonstration equipment from Bell, who instead had a special ‘set of telephones’ made for her. Within a decade there were more than 150,000 telephone users in the United States and the instrument was fast becoming one of the most successful products ever, with the Bell Telephone Company surviving 587 challenges to its patents in its first 18 years.

The strain of constant legal battles and court appearances eventually took its toll on Bell, who resigned from the company and would go on to have a long and successful career ‘unfettered across the scientific landscape’. Alexander Graham Bell died in 1922 and is buried on Beinn Bhreagh mountain in Nova Scotia. On the day of his funeral, at 18:25 Eastern Time, every phone in North America fell silent for one minute.