Alexander Graham Bell is generally regarded as one of the greatest inventors of the 19th and 20th century and is best remembered for inventing the telephone.
The scientist and inventor also helped advance the fields of wireless communications, aeronautics, the hydrofoil and much more during his life. He also did incredible work with the deaf community, with his passion here most likely due to the fact that his mother and wife were both deaf.
Born and educated in Scotland, Bell moved to Canada at the age of 23 and developed most of his inventions here. Throughout his life he maintained strong links to both countries, making him an excellent candidate for this month’s Canada 150 feature.
Bell was born in 1847 in Edinburgh, the middle of three boys. The Bell family pedigree in pioneering work was well established prior to Alexander’s exploits, as both his father and grandfather were experts in the field of speech and elocution. In his teens, Bell attended The Royal High School where, despite having an interest in science and music, he developed a reputation as a bit of a daydreamer.
Outside of school, Alexander showed a keen mind and by the age of 12 he’d already made his first invention. His father’s friend operated a flour mill and Alexander developed a method for removing the husks by adding a wire brush to an existing piece of machinery.
At 15, he was sent to London, but the period was marked with personal tragedy for the Bell family, with both his brothers dying of tuberculosis in the space of four years. The death of his older brother in particular is thought to be the cause of Alexander dropping out of university just two years into his degree.
Fearful for the health of their only remaining child, the Bell’s made the decision to leave the UK and immigrate to Canada, settling in Ontario. Alexander was soon on the move again, though, accepting a position in Boston teaching at a school for the deaf in 1871. This marked the beginning of a long period in education for Alexander – though he continued to spend his summers and free time in Canada with his family.
He filled a number of positions at several prestigious schools throughout the early 1870’s, as his skills and expertise in teaching the deaf became more well-known. Bell actually established his own school for training people on how to teach the deaf, which eventually became part of Boston University. It was during his time at Boston University that he became enamoured with a young deaf woman by the name of Mary Hubbard – marrying her in 1877.
Although he is best remembered for his inventions, Alexander remained committed to working with the deaf throughout his life. He established the Volta Bureau and became president of the American Association for the Promotion of the Teaching of Speech for the Deaf, which was later renamed in Bell’s honour.
It’s impossible to talk about Bell without talking about the telephone. Interestingly, the telephone owes its creation to a different invention that Bell, alongside his partner Thomas Watson, was working on called the multiple telegraph.
While arranging an experiment, one of the instruments malfunctioned and presented them with a breakthrough in something they weren’t even looking for. From this fortunate glitch, Bell and his partner quickly got to work on a new project, and a short time later they had built a primitive version of a telephone.
Bell submitted his patent, ‘Improvements in Telegraphy’, to the US Patent Office on 14 February 1876. A couple of weeks later, on 7 March, patent number 174,465 was granted and just three days after this, Bell completed the first telephone call, uttering the now famous words:
“Mr Watson – come here – I want to see you”.
The invention all but ended the reign of the telegraph as a means of long distance communication. Within a year, the first telephone exchange was built in Connecticut and despite spending years fighting off patent lawsuits, Bell quickly became very wealthy. In an amusing twist, he refused to actually have a phone in his office, seeing it as too much of a distraction from his work!
In the years after Bell’s landmark invention, his scientific curiosity continued to push him forward. He went on to develop further inventions across a range of different fields and made significant contributions to a great deal of industries.
In 1880, Bell developed a device called the ‘photophone’ – which he considered to be his greatest invention. The device wasn’t viable on a grand scale, but it showed that it was possible to transmit sound though beams of light. Today this work is considered by many to be a precursor to fibre optics and wireless communications.
Bell was also hugely interested in the world of aviation and spent a great deal of time developing various aircraft. His commitment to scientific research also saw him become one of the founders of National Geographic. It was actually his idea to make the magazine appeal to a wider audience and he suggested including photography – perhaps the magazine’s most famous modern attribute.