I am a retired engineer and small business owner who has authored over 60 books on history and various topics.
Alexander Graham Bell was a teacher of speech and an innovative scientist, known as the inventor of the telephone. He was born in Scotland but spent his adult life in Canada and the United States. He came from a family of renowned elocutionists and had a lifelong interest in speech, at first as a way to communicate with his deaf mother and later as a way to put into practice his interest in science and innovation. He spent years researching and creating different electrical devices until 1876, when he finally developed a working model of the telephone, and his career rapidly evolved in multiple directions. After the success of the telephone, Bell spent his later life working on several other groundbreaking projects in aeronautics, hydrofoils, and even optical telecommunication systems.
Early Life and Education
Alexander Graham Bell was born on March 3, 1847, in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was the son of Alexander Melville Bell, a renowned educator of the deaf, and Eliza Grace. He had two older brothers, Melville James and Edward Charles.
From an early age, Bell showed an innate curiosity about the natural world. At the young age of twelve, he made his first invention by building a device that simplified the working process at his neighbor’s small flour mill. Besides his interest in science, he also possessed a natural talent for music and loved playing the piano. The only thing that disturbed his serene childhood was his mother’s gradual deafness, which compelled him to find inventive ways to communicate with her. This grew into a major occupation for him, and he decided eventually to study elocution, in line with family tradition—his grandfather, his father, and his uncle had dedicated their lives to the same field. In fact, his grandfather, Alexander Bell, had published several reputable works, including the bestselling The Standard Elocutionist (1860). His father had also developed a Visible Speech System, which he taught to his sons. The system allowed the deaf to articulate words they had never heard and read other people’s lip movements to understand what they were saying. Thus, Bell’s academic instruction began at home, where he was schooled exclusively by his father. His formal education began at Royal High School in Edinburgh, where he seemed indifferent to most of the school subjects, except biology.
After leaving high school, Bell moved in with his grandfather in London and, under his supervision, he engaged in serious study, discovering in himself a deep love for learning. Bell recalled how his grandfather inspired him to learn: “The ambition to remedy my defects of education by personal study.” A year later, Bell enrolled at West House Academy in Scotland and found a job as an assistant teacher of music and elocution at the same institution. He continued his studies at the University of Edinburgh.
Bell’s interest in the education of the deaf was heavily encouraged by his father, who even took him and his brothers to a demonstration to see an automaton, a mechanical device that simulated the human voice. Amazed by the possibilities the device opened in the field of speech, Bell decided to build his own version of the automaton, with the help of his brother Melville. Intrigued, their father supported the project, and the two boys built an automaton that was able to pronounce some simple words.
This successful project encouraged Bell to continue his series of experiments with sound and speech. He became especially interested in how sounds could be transmitted and compiled the results of his research in a report, hoping to publish it. Although Bell’s material was indeed groundbreaking, similar work had been already published in Germany. Despite his initial disappointment, Bell moved on by diving deeper into his research.
When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.
— Alexander Graham Bell
Bell’s family moved to London in 1865, and he resumed his teaching but continued his individual study. Inspired by other works in the field, he incorporated electricity in his experiments, even installing a telegraph wire to connect a friend’s room to his own. In late 1867, he became an instructor at Somerset College in Bath, England, but returned home by the end of the year when his brother Edward died of tuberculosis.
While at home, Bell decided to seek a degree from University College London and spent his time studying for the examinations. During this period, he also helped his father run his Visible Speech lectures, which eventually brought Bell a job at a private school for deaf pupils in London. In 1870, everything changed for the Bell family when Bell’s brother Melville died due to complications from tuberculosis. The death of their second son was a truly traumatic event for the parents. Since Alexander’s health was also frail, the family decided to sell everything they had and start a new life in a better climate.
In 1870, Alexander Graham Bell traveled to Canada with his parents and his brother’s widow, and they settled in Ontario, buying a large farm near Brantford. The change in climate led to a quick improvement in Bell’s health, and he soon resumed his studies and experiments. His father also resumed his work as an elocutionist and public lecturer, and his Visible Speech System became popular in Canada as well. In 1871, the elder Bell received an offer for a teaching position at Boston School for Deaf-Mutes in Massachusetts, but he suggested his son instead.
Alexander Graham Bell arrived in Boston in the spring of 1871, and after providing a successful training to the school’s instructors, his reputation grew, and he was invited to offer the same training to instructors from other American institutions for deaf-mutes. After a six-month tour, he returned home and started to work intensely on a new device, the “harmonic telegraph.” Unsure of what path to take from this point on, he sought his father’s advice, and they decided that the best course of action would be to for Bell to open a private practice. In 1872, Alexander Graham Bell opened the School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech in Boston, intending to teach his father’s system.
In 1873, Bell became a professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at the Boston University School of Oratory, where he found himself surrounded by people with similar interests. He returned to his experiments, searching eagerly for ways to transmit articulate speech. Since he was busy at school during the daytime, he devoted many hours at night to his experiments, but this affected his health. In the fall of 1873, he decided to abandon his private practice and focus solely on his research. He retained, however, two students: Georgie Sanders and Mabel Hubbard. Sanders’s father even provided Bell with accommodations and a workshop.
Alexander Graham Bell: A Life of Innovation and Controversy
Inventing the Telephone
A change in his circumstances proved efficacious for Bell and by 1874, he made considerable progress with the harmonic telegraph. He had multiple other ideas but struggled with demonstrating their feasibility. Since the telegraph was a vital instrument in the growth of business and commerce, the president of Western Union Telegraph Company, William Orton, was seeking developments that could reduce the costs of constructing and operating new lines. As Bell’s work had the potential to represent a pivotal change in the field of communications, the parents of his pupils decided to become his patrons. Georgie’s father, Thomas Sanders, and Mabel’s father, Gardiner Hubbard, were both wealthy businessmen and, knowing Bell personally, they had no reluctance to invest in his ideas.
Despite having secured financial means, Bell lacked the equipment and the knowhow that led from an idea to an actual prototype. Things changed after a providential meeting with a talented electrical designer named Thomas A. Watson, who became his assistant. Watson recalled Bell as “a tall, slender, quick-motioned young man with a pale face, black side-whiskers and drooping mustache, big nose and high, sloping forehead crowned with bushy jet-black hair.” From the beginning of their collaboration, the two men focused on acoustic telegraphy and by June 1875, they had already developed an early prototype of the telephone that could transmit only indistinct noise, but not actual words. On February 14, 1876, Bell’s lawyer filed Bell’s application with the U.S. Patent Office for the telephone. That same morning, another inventor, Elisha Gray, also filed a caveat (a statement of concept only) for a telephone model with a liquid transmitter.
This coincidence led to a lasting dispute between Gray and Bell, but Bell’s patent was accorded primacy. After solving the patent issues, Bell went home to focus on improving his model. Using a new drawing similar to the one from Gray’s caveat, he made important advances. While working in his laboratory, Bell spilt battery acid on his pants while working on a prototype of the telephone and instinctively cried out to his assistant, “Watson, please come here. I want you.” Thomas Watson, at the other end of the circuit and on a different floor of the building, heard Bell’s call for help over the primitive phone and ran down the stairs, beside himself with joy. This would be the first time a human voice was carried over electrical wire.
Considering the circumstances surrounding Bell’s development of the telephone, he was often blamed for stealing the invention from Gray. In reality, Bell used Gray’s model involving a liquid transmitter only to test if electrical transmission of articulate speech was indeed possible. After that first experiment with Gray’s model, Bell directed his attention towards the electromagnetic telephone. Further controversy ensued, however, when the person who examined the patent applications later revealed having shown Gray’s application to Bell’s lawyer.
Bell was neither the first nor the only one to conceive of the telephone, and none of the work that led to the invention of the telephone could have progressed without Michael Faraday’s pioneering experiments on electromagnetism and induction of currents. Besides Gray, another inventor claimed credit for the telephone. Inventor Antonio Meucci had shared a laboratory with Alexander Graham Bell and accused him of stealing the telephone design from him. Two years before Bell filed for the patent, Meucci had sent drawings of a telephone model to Western Union, hoping that the popularity of the telegraph would push his own invention forward. However, the executives refused to meet Meucci and his documents were never returned. Moreover, Meucci had no money to pay for the patent application. When Bell got the patent, Meucci sued him. In 1889, Meucci died and the legal proceedings were halted. Many believe that Meucci would have won the case eventually.
Formation of the Bell Telephone Company
With a working model of the telephone, Bell focused on introducing his work to the world by improving its functionality. In 1876, he began a tour of lectures and demonstrations, looking to present the telephone to the world’s scientific community and to the public as well. His demonstrations made the invention internationally famous, and an explosion an enthusiasm from all over the world followed Bell. In 1877, he founded his own company with the help of Sanders and Hubbard, the Bell Telephone Company, hiring teams of engineers that made important improvements on the initial model.
Alexander Graham Bell married his former pupil, Mabel Hubbard, at the Hubbard estate in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on July 11, 1877. Mabel’s deafness came about as a child because of a near-fatal case of scarlet fever. She became Bell’s student in 1873, when she was 15 years old. After their honeymoon, the couple went to England for an extended trip, during which Bell demonstrated his telephone to Queen Victoria and sought to interest British capitalists. During their marriage the couple had four children, two of whom lived to adulthood. The deafness of his wife inspired him to work even harder to find ways to improve communication with the deaf.
The telephone quickly became the most successful product in history and just nine years after the foundation of Bell’s company, 150,000 Americans owned telephones. Although the telephone had gained instant popularity, it became a profitable venture only gradually and until 1897, Bell’s main source of income was his lectures. The controversies surrounding the invention of the telephone put the Bell Telephone Company and Bell himself through long legal battles as it seemed that several inventors were working on a model of the telephone at the same time. Although it faced dozens of court challenges, the company won all cases since Bell’s laboratory notes kept a clear track of the technical developments in his work.
Around 1880, Bell and his then-assistant, Charles Sumner Tainter, developed a wireless telephone, named photophone, which was able to transmit sounds and human conversations on a beam of light. On June 21, 1880, they managed to transmit a wireless voice telephone message across 700 feet. Personally, Bell considered the photophone his greatest invention and now the photophone is considered the precursor of the fiber-optic communications system.
In 1882, Bell became a naturalized citizen of the United States and settled with his wife and children in Washington, D.C. Four years later, the family started building a massive estate in Nova Scotia, including a large complex of buildings and a new laboratory. Their residence overlooked the Bras d’Or Lake and since Bell had a lifelong interest in boats, the family sailed often and even got involved in manufacturing boats.
Bell met Helen Keller, his most famous deaf student, in 1887, when her father brought the six-year-old to him in Washington, D.C. Her blindness and deafness made her solitude complete, but she later said of Bell that she loved him at once: “I did not dream that that interview would be the door through which I should pass from darkness into light.” Bell maintained his relationship with the Kellers for over three decades. In addition to teaching Helen, he established a trust fund for her education at Radcliffe College and often welcomed her into his home. Keller’s main teacher, Anne Sullivan, was struck by Bell’s courtesy and stated, “He answered every question in the cool, clear light of reason.”
Although Alexander Graham Bell’s most popular invention was the telephone, he later conducted other groundbreaking work in several scientific areas. At the end of his life, he had 18 patents granted in his name and 12 shared with his collaborators, including patents for aerial vehicles, hydro airplanes, and selenium cells, besides those for the telephone, telegraph, and the photophone. He also worked to improve Thomas Edison’s phonograph and called his device the Graphophone. Additionally, he invented smaller devices for all sorts of medical or technical situations and even came up with ideas for inventions that only became feasible decades after his death. In his own home, Bell developed a primitive form of air conditioning, experimented with compost toilets, and even talked about the possibility of heating houses with solar panels. He also anticipated problems of the modern world, such as industrial pollution. Some of Bell’s most extensive research pertains to the medical field, where he sought to develop systems that could teach deaf people to speak.
In the summer of 1908, inspired by an article he had read in an older issue of the Scientific American about hydrofoils and hydroplanes, Bell began his own experiments in the field, at his estate in Nova Scotia, and he even traveled to Europe to meet the inventor of the hydrofoil boat, Enrico Forlanini. Upon his return, he and his team of assistants and engineers began building successful experimental model boats. The hydrofoil research led to a much more complex venture and Bell decided to found the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA) on his estate. His interest in aeronautics led him to conduct experiments with kites and gliders. AEA developed several important inventions and innovative aircraft over time.
Alexander Graham Bell died from complications of diabetes on August 2, 1922, ironically just one year after the Canadian physician Frederick Banting discovered insulin. He was at his estate in Nova Scotia, with his wife Mabel, daughters Elsie May and Marian, their husbands, and their children when he died. His grave is located in Canada on top of Beinn Bhreagh Mountain, overlooking the Bras D'or Lakes in Cape Breton. The wording on his gravestone reads simply, "Teacher - Inventor - Citizen of the U.S.A."
- Alexander M. Bell Dead. Father of Prof. A. G. Bell Developed Sign Language for Mutes. August 8, 1905. New York Times. Accessed September 20, 2018.
- Alexander Graham Bell. July 31, 2015. Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed September 20, 2018.
- Bell did not invent telephone, US rules. June 17, 2002. The Guardian. Accessed September 20, 2018.
- BELL, ALEXANDER GRAHAM. 2005. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. XV (1921–1930). University of Toronto Press. Accessed September 20, 2018.
- Inventing the Telephone—And Triggering All-Out Patent War. March 7, 2006. American Heritage. Accessed September 20, 2018.
- Asimov, Isaac. Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of science and Technology. Second Revised Edition. Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1982.
- Challoner, Jack (editor). 1001 Inventions That Changed the World. Quintessence. 2009.
- Goddard, Jolyon (editor). Concise History of Science & Invention: An Illustrated Timeline. National Geographic. 2010.
- Hubert, Philip G. Jr. Men of Achievement: Inventors. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1896.
© 2018 Doug West
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on September 29, 2018:
Such an interesting life, one that has a major contribution to society. It is our drive to make lives better for our loved ones that lead to some inventions, cures and discoveries. The power of love.
Tim Truzy from U.S.A. on September 28, 2018:
Excellent article, Doug. Bell was fascinating. He was truly an innovator. I'm very curious about the "photophone." I'm wondering how he was able to produce a beam of light to carry a voice. I will be reading up on that one.\
I knew he had worked with Hlen Keller, but I didn't know it turned into a life long friendship.
He was a great Scottish- American. Thanks for telling his story so well.
I really enjoyed this one.
Much respect and admiration,