Alexander Graham Bell

Copyright Michael D. Robbins 2006


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Alexander Graham Bell—Inventor of the Telephone, Educator of the Deaf

March 3, 1847, Edinburgh, Scotland, 7:00 AM, LMT. (Source: LMR cites Craswell who quotes B.C.  Same in Sabian Symbols No.81) Died of complications from diabetes on August 2, 1922, Baddock, Nova Scotia.

(Ascendant, Pisces; Mercury and Saturn in Pisces, Sun loosely conjunct Ascendant in H12; Moon in Virgo; Venus, Uranus and Pluto in Aries; Mars in Capricorn; Jupiter in Gemini on cusp on H3, Placidus)

Bell dedicated his early life to education, and became a professor of vocal physiology at Boston University in 1873, teaching deaf-mutes.  He produced the first telephonic transmission on

5 June 1875, and patented the telephone the following year.


Neither the Army nor the Navy is of any protection, or very little protection, against aerial raids.

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

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.

Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun's rays do not burn until brought to a focus.

Sometimes we stare so long at a door that is closing that we see too late the one that is open

When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.

Before anything else, preparation is the key to success

What this power is I cannot say; all I know is that it exists and it becomes available only when a man is in that state of mind in which he knows exactly what he wants and is fully determined not to quit until he finds it.

A man, as a general rule, owes very little to what he is born with - a man is what he makes of himself

"Great discoveries and improvements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds. I may be given credit for having blazed the trail, but when I look at the subsequent developments I feel the credit is due to others rather than to myself."

"The most successful men in the end are those whose success is the result of steady accretion. It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider - and progressively better able to grasp any theme or situation -"

"America is a country of inventors, and the greatest of inventors are the newspaper men"

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


Alexander Graham Bell

... made a series of exotic kites formed out of tetrahedonal elements. Buckminster Fuller learned about Bell's tetrahedrons after he'd made his geodesic dome the same way.

Here are old photos. Helen Keller, a friend and house guest, helps him fly a huge kite. His wife, Mabel, stands in an abstract tetrahedron kite frame. She leans out to kiss Alexander. It is a gentle life with fine texture and form.

Later, Bell flew people in his kites. He built a 70-foot tower from his tetrahedrons. Then he went on to build airplanes.

Finally, his studies of aerodynamics led him to invent the hydrofoil. That work culminated in his HD-4. The HD-4 was a hydrofoil driven by two airplane propellers. It went over 70 miles an hour. For years it was the fastest thing on water.

A wonderful mood surrounds all this invention. Photos show Bell with children -- always playing with children. They show Mabel, pulled halfway off her feet, measuring the stress in a kite line. Raw affection wells up everywhere. Bell writes to Mabel when she sits for her portrait:

... So what did happen after the telephone? A warm, inventive man kept right on creating. He left us a legacy of invention that reached far beyond the telephone. That legacy flowed from a great mind. But it flowed from a very large heart, as well.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

The Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers: Time Line of Alexander Graham Bell, 1847-1869

1847 March 3 Alexander Bell is born to Alexander Melville and Eliza Symonds Bell in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is the second of three sons; his siblings are Melville (b. 1845) and Edward (b. 1848).

[Alexander Melville Bell with his wife, Eliza Grace Symonds and their children, Melville James, Alexander Graham and Edward Charles].

[ca. 1852?] Reproduction Number LC-G9-Z1031. Gilbert H. Grosvenor Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

1858 Bell adopts the name Graham out of admiration for Alexander Graham, a family friend, and becomes known as Alexander Graham Bell.

1862 October Bell arrives in London to spend a year with his grandfather, Alexander Bell. Letter to Bell from his father

1863 August Bell begins teaching music and elocution at Weston House Academy in Elgin, Scotland, and receives instruction in Latin and Greek for a year.

1864 April Alexander Melville Bell develops Visible Speech, a kind of universal alphabet that reduces all sounds made by the human voice into a series of symbols. Visible Speech chartFall Bell attends the University of Edinburgh.

Chart, undated. Box 196, "Subject File: The Deaf--Visible Speech--Nature & Uses." Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers, Manuscript Division , Library of Congress.

1865-66Bell returns to Elgin to teach and experiments with vowel pitches and tuning forks. Letter from Bell to his father

1866-67Bell teaches at Somersetshire College in Bath.1867May 17Younger brother Edward Bell dies of tuberculosis at the age of 19.SummerAlexander Melville Bell publishes his definitive work on Visible Speech, Visible Speech: The Science of Universal Alphabetics.

1868May 21Bell begins teaching speech to the deaf at Susanna Hull's school for deaf children in London.

Bell attends University College in London.The Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers: Time Line of Alexander Graham Bell, 1870-1879

1870May 28Older brother Melville Bell dies of tuberculosis at the age of 25.

Bell, his parents, and his sister-in-law, Carrie Bell, emigrate to Canada and settle in Brantford, Ontario.

1871AprilMoving to Boston, Bell begins teaching at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes.

1872March-JuneBell teaches at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Boston and at the American Asylum for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut.

April 8Bell meets Boston attorney Gardiner Greene Hubbard, who will become one of his financial backers and his father-in-law.FallBell opens his School of Vocal Physiology in Boston and starts experimenting with the multiple telegraph. Brochure for Bell's School of Vocal Physiology

1873Boston University appoints Bell Professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at its School of Oratory. Mabel Hubbard, his future wife, becomes one of his private pupils.

1874SpringBell conducts acoustics experiments at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He and Clarence Blake, a Boston ear specialist, begin experimenting with the mechanics of the human ear and the phonautograph, a device that could translate sound vibrations into visible tracings.SummerIn Brantford, Ontario, Bell first conceives of the idea for the telephone. Bell's original sketch of the telephone Bell meets Thomas Watson, a young electrician who would become his assistant, at Charles Williams's electrician shop in Boston.

1875JanuaryWatson begins working with Bell more regularly.FebruaryThomas Sanders, a wealthy leather merchant whose deaf son studied with Bell, and Gardiner Greene Hubbard enter into a formal partnership with Bell in which they provide financial backing for his inventions.

March 1-2Bell visits noted scientist Joseph Henry at the Smithsonian Institution and explains to him his idea for the telephone. Henry recognizes the significance of Bell's work and offers him encouragement.

November 25Mabel Hubbard and Bell become engaged to be married.

1876February 14Bell's telephone patent application is filed at the United States Patent Office; Elisha Gray's attorney files a caveat for a telephone just a few hours later.

March 7United States Patent No. 174,465 is officially issued for Bell's telephone.March 10Intelligible human speech is heard over the telephone for the first time when Bell calls to Watson, "Mr. Watson -- Come here -- I want to see you." Page from Bell's notebook

June 25Bell demonstrates the telephone for Sir William Thomson (Baron Kelvin) and Emperor Pedro II of Brazil at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Letter from Bell to Mabel Hubbard Bell1877July 9Bell, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, Thomas Sanders, and Thomas Watson form the Bell Telephone Company.

[Elsie May Bell as a child, bust portrait, facing front]. Reproduction Number LC-G9-Z1-155,855-A. Gilbert H. Grosvenor Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. July 11Mabel Hubbard and Bell are married.August 4Bell and his wife leave for England and remain there for a year.1878January 14Bell demonstrates the telephone for Queen Victoria.May 8Elsie May Bell, a daughter, is born.September 12Patent litigation involving the Bell Telephone Company against Western Union Telegraph Company and Elisha Gray begins.1879February-MarchThe Bell Telephone Company merges with the New England Telephone Company to become the

[Marian Hubbard "Daisy" Bell, three-quarter length portrait, at eight years of age, standing, facing left, with dog]. Reproduction Number LC-G9-Z3-155,755-AB-2. Gilbert H. Grosvenor Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

February 15Marian (Daisy) Bell, a daughter, is born.Bell and his young associate, Charles Sumner Tainter, invent the photophone, an apparatus that transmits sound through light.FallThe French government awards the Volta Prize for scientific achievement in electricity to Bell. He uses the prize money to set up the Volta Laboratory as a permanent, self-supporting experimental laboratory devoted to invention.

1881At the Volta Laboratory, Bell, his cousin, Chichester Bell, and Charles Sumner Tainter invent a wax cylinder for Thomas Edison's phonograph.July-AugustWhen President Garfield is shot, Bell attempts unsuccessfully to locate the bullet inside his body by using an electromagnetic device called an induction balance.August 15Death in infancy of Bell's son, Edward (b. 1881).1882NovemberBell is granted American citizenship.1883At Scott Circle in Washington, D.C., Bell starts a day school for deaf children.

Bell is elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

With Gardiner Greene Hubbard, Bell funds the publication of Science, a journal that would communicate new research to the American scientific community.

[Hellen Keller, Annie Sullivan and Alexander Graham Bell, full-length portrait, seated outdoors]. Reproduction Number LC-G9-Z1 137 816-A. Gilbert H. Grosvenor Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress. November 17Death in infancy of Bell's son, Robert (b. 1883).1885March 3The American Telephone & Telegraph Company is formed to manage the expanding long-distance business of the American Bell Telephone Company.1886Bell establishes the Volta Bureau as a center for studies on the deaf.SummerBell begins buying land on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. There he eventually builds his summer home, Beinn Bhreagh.1887FebruaryBell meets six-year-old blind and deaf Helen Keller in Washington, D.C. He helps her family find a private teacher by recommending that her father seek help from Michael Anagnos, director of the Perkins Institution for the Blind.The Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers: Time Line of Alexander Graham Bell, 1890-1899

Born Alexander Bell in Edinburgh, Scotland, he later adopted the middle name Graham out of admiration for Alexander Graham, a family friend.

His family was associated with the teaching of elocution: his grandfather in London, his uncle in Dublin, and his father, Alexander Melville Bell, in Edinburgh, were all professed elocutionists. The latter has published a variety of works on the subject, several of which are well known, especially his treatise on Visible Speech, which appeared in Edinburgh in 1868. In this he explains his method of instructing deaf mutes, by means of their eyesight, how to articulate words, and also how to read what other persons are saying by the motions of their lips.

Alexander Graham Bell was educated at the Royal High School of Edinburgh, from which he graduated at the age of 13. At the age of 16 he secured a position as a pupil-teacher of elocution and music in Weston House Academy, at Elgin in Morayshire. The next year he spent at the University of Edinburgh. From 1866 to 1867, he was an instructor at Somersetshire College at Bath, England. While still in Scotland he is said to have turned his attention to the science of acoustics, with a view to ameliorate the deafness of his mother.

In 1870, he moved with his family to Canada where they settled at Brantford, Ontario. Before he left Scotland, Bell had turned his attention to telephony, and in Canada he continued an interest in communication machines. He designed a piano which could transmit its music to a distance by means of electricity. In 1873, he accompanied his father to Montreal, Quebec, where he was employed in teaching the system of visible speech. The elder Bell was invited to introduce the system into a large day-school for mutes at Boston, but he declined the post in favor of his son, who became Professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at Boston University's School of Oratory.

At Boston University he continued his research in the same field, and endeavored to produce a telephone which would not only send musical notes, but articulate speech. With financing from his American father-in-law, on March 7, 1876, the U.S. Patent Office granted him Patent Number 174,465 covering "the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically ... by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sound", the telephone.

After obtaining the patent for the telephone, Bell continued his many experiments in communication, which culminated in the invention of the photophone-transmission of sound on a beam of light — a precursor of today's optical fiber systems. He also worked in medical research and invented techniques for teaching speech to the deaf. The range of Bell's inventive genius is represented only in part by the eighteen patents granted in his name alone and the twelve he shared with his collaborators. These included fourteen for the telephone and telegraph, four for the photophone, one for the phonograph, five for aerial vehicles, four for hydroairplanes, and two for a selenium cell.

In 1882, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States. In 1888, he was one of the founding members of the National Geographic Society and became its second president. He was the recipient of many honors. The French Government conferred on him the decoration of the Légion d'honneur (Legion of Honor), the Académie française bestowed on him the Volta Prize of 50,000 francs, the Royal Society of Arts in London awarded him the Albert medal in 1902, and the University of Würzburg, Bavaria, granted him a Ph.D. He was awarded the AIEE's Edison Medal in 1914 for "For meritorious achievement in the invention of the telephone."

Bell married Mabel Hubbard, who was one of his pupils at Boston University, on July 11, 1877. He died at his estate at Beinn Bhreagh, near Baddeck, Nova Scotia, in 1922 and is buried alongside his wife atop Beinn Bhreagh Mountain overlooking Bras d'Or Lake. He was survived by two of their four children.

In a testament to Bell's internationality, he was named one of the top ten Greatest Canadians, Greatest Britons, and "American Greats".


Bell was a prolific inventor, and had a keen interest in many fields.

The telephone and patent issues

Bell filed an application to patent his speaking telephone in the United States on February 14, 1876, and by a strange coincidence, Mr. Elisha Gray applied on the same day for patent caveat (a preliminary notice of a patent application) of a similar kind only 2 hours after Bell had filed for his patent.

Gray's transmitter is supposed to have been suggested by the very old device known as the "lovers' telephone," in which two diaphragms are joined by a taut string and in speaking against one the voice is conveyed through the string, solely by mechanical vibration, to the other. Gray employed electricity, and varied the strength of the current in conformity with the voice by causing the diaphragm in vibrating to dip a metal probe attached to its centre more or less deep into a well of conducting liquid in circuit with the line. As the current passed from the probe through the liquid to the line a greater or less thickness of liquid intervened as the probe vibrated up and down, and thus the strength of the current was regulated by the resistance offered to the passage of the current. His receiver was an electromagnet having an iron plate as an armature capable of vibrating under the attractions of the varying current.

But Gray allowed his idea to slumber, whereas Bell continued to perfect the apparatus designed by Gray. An official at the patent office later admitted to selling Gray's idea to Bell's lawyers for money. Gray never knew this. However, when Bell achieved an unmistakable success, Gray brought a suit against him, which resulted in a compromise, one public company acquiring both patents.

Philipp Reis, a German self-taught scientist and inventor, also worked on a version of the telephone many years before Bell. Reis' telephone was fairly crude and roused little interest in the scientific community, but his work appears to have been used by Bell when designing the telephone. [1]

Of the people who have challenged Bell's patent and claimed to have invented the telephone, the most interesting case was that of Antonio Meucci, an Italian emigrant, who produced a mass of evidence to show that in 1849, while in Havana, Cuba, he experimented with the view of transmitting speech by the electric current. He continued his research in 1852-1853, and subsequently at Staten Island, U.S.; and in 1860 deputed a friend visiting Europe to interest people in his invention. In 1871, he filed a caveat in the United States Patent Office and tried to get Mr Grant, President of the New York District Telegraph Company, to give the apparatus a trial. Ill health and poverty, from injuries of an explosion on board the Staten Island ferry boat Westfield, retarded his experiments and prevented him from completing his patent.

Meucci's experimental apparatus was exhibited at the Philadelphia Exhibition of 1884 and attracted much attention. But his evidence showed lack of electrical understanding and incomplete models. In the caveat of 1871, he says "I employ the well-known conducting effect of continuous metallic conductors as a medium for sound, and increase the effect by electrically insulating both the conductor and the parties who are communicating. It forms a speaking telegraph without the necessity of any hollow tube" . Meucci was eventually recognised as the original inventor of the telephone by the Congress of the United States in Resolution 269, dated June 11, 2002.

Bel and decibel
The bel is a unit of measurement invented by Bell Labs and named after Bell. The bel was too large for everyday use, so the decibel (dB), equal to 0.1 B, became more commonly used. Now, dB is commonly used as a unit for measuring the sound intensity.

The photophone
Another of Bell's inventions was the photophone, a device enabling the transmission of sound over a beam of light, which he developed together with Charles Sumner Tainter. The device employed light-sensitive cells of crystalline selenium, which has the property that its electrical resistance varies inversely with the illumination (i.e., the resistance is higher when the material is in the dark, and lower when it is lighted). The basic principle was to modulate a beam of light directed at a receiver made of crystalline selenium, to which a telephone was attached. The modulation was done either by means of a vibrating mirror, or a rotating disk periodically obscuring the light beam.

This idea was by no means new. Selenium had been discovered by Jöns Jakob Berzelius in 1817, and the peculiar properties of crystalline or granulate selenium were discovered by Willoughby Smith in 1873. In 1878, one writer with the initials J.F.W. from Kew described such an arrangement in Nature in a column appearing on June 13, asking the readers whether any experiments in that direction had already been done. In his paper on the photophone, Bell credited one A. C. Browne of London with the independent discovery in 1878—the same year Bell became aware of the idea. Bell and Tainter, however, were apparently the first to perform a successful experiment, by no means any easy task, as they even had to produce the selenium cells with the desired resistance characteristics themselves.

In one experiment in Washington, D.C. the sender and the receiver were placed on in different buildings some 700 feet (213 metres) apart. The sender consisted of a mirror directing sunlight onto the mouthpiece, where the light beam was modulated by a vibrating mirror, focused by a lens and directed at the receiver, which was simply a parabolic reflector with the selenium cells in the focus and the telephone attached. With this setup, Bell and Tainter succeeded to communicate clearly.

The photophone was patented on December 18, 1880, but the quality of communication remained poor and the research was not pursued by Bell.

Metal detector
Bell is also credited with the invention of the metal detector in 1881. The device was hurriedly put together in an attempt to find the bullet in the body of U.S. President James Garfield. The metal detector worked, but didn't find the bullet because the metal bedframe the President was lying on confused the instrument. Bell gave a full account of his experiments in a paper read before the American Association for the Advancement of Science in August 1882.

Experimental aircraft
Bell was also interested in aircraft and was a supporter of aerospace engineering research through the Aerial Experiment Association. The Association was officially formed at Baddeck, Nova Scotia in October 1907 at the suggestion of Mrs. Mabel Bell and with her financial support. It was headed by the inventor himself. The founding members were four young men, American Glenn H. Curtiss, a motorcycle manufacturer who would later be awarded the Scientific American Trophy for the first official one-kilometre flight in the Western hemisphere and later be world-renowned as an airplane manufacturer; Frederick W. "Casey" Baldwin, the first Canadian and first British subject to pilot a public flight in Hammondsport, New York; J.A.D. McCurdy; and Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, an official observer of the U.S. government. One of the project's inventions, the aileron, is a standard component of aircraft today. (Note that the aileron was also invented independently by Robert Esnault-Pelterie.)

In 1909, Bell's Silver Dart made the first controlled powered flight in Canada. However, a series of Canadian flights failed to interest the Canadian military in developing the airplane.

The hydrofoil
The March 1906 Scientific American article by American hydrofoil pioneer William E. Meacham explained the basic principle of hydrofoils. Bell considered the invention of the hydroplane as a very significant achievement. Based on information gained from that article he began to sketch concepts of what is now called a hydrofoil boat.

Bell and Casey Baldwin began hydrofoil experimentation in the summer of 1908 as a possible aid to airplane takeoff from water. Baldwin studied the work of the Italian inventor Enrico Forlanini and began testing models. This lead him and Bell to the development of practical hydrofoil watercraft.

During his world tour of 1910–1911 Bell and Baldwin met with Forlanini in Italy. They had rides in the Forlanini hydrofoil boat over Lake Maggiore. Baldwin described it was as smooth as flying. On returning to Baddeck a number of designs were tried culminating in the HD-4. Using Renault engines a top speed of 54 miles per hour was achieved accelerating rapidly, taking wave without difficulty, steering well, showing good stability.

Bell's report to the navy permitted him to obtain two 350 horsepower (260 kW) engines in July 1919. On September 9, 1919 the HD-4 set a world's marine speed record of 70.86 miles per hour. This record stood for ten years.

Along with many very prominent thinkers and scientists of the time, Bell was connected with the eugenics movement in the United States. From 1912 until 1918 he was the chairman of the board of scientific advisors to the Eugenics Record Office associated with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, and regularly attended meetings. In 1921 he was the honorary president of the Second International Congress of Eugenics held under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Organizations such as these advocated passing laws (with success in some states) that established the compulsory sterilization of people deemed to be, as Bell called them, a "defective variety of the human race".

Much of his thoughts about people he considered defective centered on the deaf because of his long contact with them in relation to his work in deaf education. In addition to advocating sterilization of the deaf, Bell wished to prohibit deaf teachers from being allowed to teach in schools for the deaf, he worked to outlaw the marriage of deaf individuals to one another, and he was an ardent supporter of oralism over manualism. His avowed goal was to eradicate the language and culture of the deaf so as to force them to integrate into the hearing culture for their own long-term benefit and for the benefit of society at large. Although this attitude is widely seen as paternalistic and arrogant today, it was accepted in that era.

Although he supported what many would consider harsh policies today, he was not unkind to deaf individuals. He was a personal and longtime friend of Helen Keller, and his wife Mabel, a former student of his, was deaf. Together they had children, none of whom were deaf. Bell was well known as a kindly father and loving family man who took great pleasure playing with his many grandchildren.


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