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The Story Behind the World’s First Telephone

Alexander Graham Bell developed the world’s first working telephone, receiving a patent on the 7 March 1876.

Scottish-born Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), developed the world’s first working telephone, receiving a patent from the United States Patent Office 7 March 1876.

Reputedly, the very first successful words using his new ‘instrument’, as Bell called it, were spoken by him to his associate Thomas Watson who was out of earshot in another room: ‘Mr Watson, come here – I want to see you.’

Bell’s family background – a grandfather, father and uncle all elocutionists; a mother and wife who were deaf – led him to obsessively research hearing and speech. Eventually, his work with deaf people and years of experimentation into acoustics and the human voice culminated in the momentous invention that changed the world.

2022 marks a centenary after his death. Here we look at the sometimes controversial life of this remarkable scientist and inventor.

Please note: some of Bell’s views on Deaf people and Deafness are controversial and considered incorrect and offensive today. Some people might find these views distressing, so please read with discretion.

The early life of Alexander Graham Bell

A blue door with a plaque besides it reading 'Alexander Graham Bell, Inventor of the Telephone. Born here 3rd March 1847.'
A plaque marking Alexander Bell’s birthplace, South Charlotte Street, Edinburgh, listed Grade A by Historic Environment Scotland. Bell had two younger sisters, Elsie and Marian, and two brothers, Edward and Melville, who would both die of tuberculosis as young men. Image via Creative Commons.

Alexander Bell was unexceptional at his Scottish school – Weston House Academy in Elgin – but became a fine self-taught pianist and had a clever inquiring mind. At 12 years old he invented a simple device to dehusk wheat, using nail brushes, that a neighbour employed in his grain mill.

In 1862, he left school at 15, moving to London, partly to escape from his over-bearing father, but also to care for his grandfather who encouraged his precocious intellect and sharpened his mind through serious discussion. Bell later returned to Weston House, becoming first a teacher of elocution and music and then as assistant master. In his spare time he experimented with electricity to transmit sound. He later briefly attended the University of Edinburgh, studying anatomy and physiology.

Early experiments with sound

A chart with an illustration of the mouth  with the title 'Illustration of Visible Speech.'
‘Visible Speech’ chart created by Alexander Bell’s father, Professor Alexander Melville Bell. Image in the Public Domain.

Bell’s mother’s hearing had started to fail when she was a child. The young Bell developed a method of talking in a deep resonant way close to her ear which helped her to hear, sparking his later research into acoustics.

Bell’s father – an eminent elocutionist and author on the subject – encouraged his son’s interest in speech and sound. Inspired by an automated ‘talking’ head that they had been to see, the teenage Bell and his brother Melville (who later opened his own elocution school) made their own. It appeared to say ‘mama’ when air was blown into it as Bell worked the lips. They also created a living ‘talking dog’ by teaching the family terrier to growl on command, then manipulating the pet’s lips so the animal seemed to say ‘how are you grandmama?’

Bell began helping his father at ‘Visible Speech’ demonstrations. The elder Bell had developed a method of translating sounds made by the human voice into a series of written symbols in order to teach deaf people to speak (‘oralism’). The symbols indicated how to use and shape the tongue and mouth.

Moving to Canada

A yellow house with a white porch.
Melville House, Brantford, Ontario, bought by the Bell family when they relocated to Canada, Summer 1870. It is now a museum – the Bell Homestead National Historic Site. Image via Creative Commons.

Bell’s younger brother Edward had died of tuberculosis Spring 1867Three years later, his older brother Melville died of the same disease. Now, with Bell himself ill with tuberculosis, his bereaved parents decided to relocate the surviving family to a healthier climate, buying a farm near Brantford, Ontario.

The 23 year old Bell moved to Canada very reluctantly, having had some success in London working with pupils who were then described as ‘Deaf-Mute’ – an archaic term, now considered offensive, that meant a person who was unable to hear or speak. Bell continued using the Visible Speech method, set up a workshop and pursued his experiments into sound.

Working with deafness

A photograph of a group of school pupils
Pupils at the ‘Boston School for Deaf-Mutes’, Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Alexander Bell stands top right. Image in the Public Domain.

In 1871, Bell took up a post at the Boston School, successfully teaching the Visible Speech system, then moved on to teach the same programme at the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb – the first school for the deaf in America – and the Clarke Institution for the Deaf-Mutes. A year later he set up in private practice in Boston – the School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech – attracting a large number of pupils. Bell became a US citizen in 1882.

At the time, the prevailing philosophy about deafness was that to speak was to be human and that deaf people – ‘unfortunates’ – should learn to speak in order to fully engage with society. Communication by sign language was mostly prohibited by teachers and often punished. Oralism was perceived as the right way forward. Thus Bell, while genuinely committed to helping deaf people, encouraged speech therapy and lip reading over sign language.

He infamously said: ‘We should try ourselves to forget that they are deaf. We should try to teach them to forget they are deaf.’

His approach is still highly controversial and divisive within the Deaf community to this day.

Bell’s benefactors

Portrait of a man with a large beard wearing glasses and a cowboy hat.
One of Bell’s benefactors – Gardiner Greene Hubbard – photographed in 1875. He launched the Clarke Institution for Deaf-Mutes where Bell worked. Image in the Public Domain.

During this period of his life, Bell became exhausted and unwell trying to juggle teaching with his continuing research into sound. As a result, he largely gave up his private practice to concentrate on his experiments.

Bell kept on two deaf pupils – 6 year old ‘Georgie’ Sanders and 15 year old Mabel Hubbard. They both had wealthy fathers – Thomas Sanders and Gardiner Greene Hubbard – later becoming Bell’s patrons and friends and financially supporting his research.

Bell grew gradually closer to his pupil Mabel, 10 years his junior, and she to him, eventually marrying July 1877. They had four children – two sons who died shortly after birth and two daughters, Elsie and Marian.

Bell experiments with improving the telegraph

The construction of the first intercontinental telegraph watched by a rider from the Pony Express that delivered express mail across the USA. The illustration may infer that the telegraph offered much speedier text communication than a horse and rider. The telegraph led directly to Bell inventing the telephone. Image in the Public Domain.

From around the mid-19th century, before Bell’s invention of the telephone, communication over distance was by means of the electric telegraph, which allowed the wire transmission of text messages more rapidly than the sending of letters. It used an electric current to move magnetic needles to transmit a message in code, translated at the other end by a skilled operator

Bell had long been investigating the ‘harmonic telegraph’ – trying to make this conventional telegraphy more sophisticated in order to transmit several messages simultaneously, using tuned electronic metal reeds, to send/receive multiple frequencies along a single wire, avoiding the cost of constructing new lines.

This led him to conclude that there might be a way to transmit the human voice by telegraph over a wire – an acoustic telegraph.

The invention of the telephone

Illustration of both the multiple telegraph and the telephone.
A drawing from Alexander Graham Bell’s Telephone Patent, 7 March 1876, that included features of both the multiple telegraph and the telephone. Image via Creative Commons.

Bell did not have sufficient technical knowledge to develop his idea, but a chance meeting with a clever 20 year old electrical engineer – Thomas Watson (1854-1934) – in a Boston, Massachusetts, electrical shop changed everything

Backed by Sanders’ and Hubbard’s money (Hubbard wanted to break Western Union’s monopoly of the telegraph), in 1875 the pair worked together in Boston on the acoustic telegraph and the telephone.

On 14 February 1876, Bell’s lawyer applied for a patent at the US Patent Office for ‘…transmitting vocal or other sounds…’, even though as yet there was no working telephone.

Securing a patent for the telephone

US Patent certificate 174,465 for ‘Improvement in Telegraphy’ awarded to Alexander Graham Bell, 7 March 1876. Image in the Public Domain.

On the exact same day that Bell filed for his patent, 14 February, another inventor working on the acoustic telegraph, Elisha Gray, filed for a similar patent. His used water to transmit sound. He also had no working telephone.

But it was Bell who was finally granted the patent three weeks later.

There is continuing controversy about whose application arrived first and was the most valid, as well as whether Bell misappropriated Gray’s idea of using liquid as a transmitter – 3 days after being awarded the patent, Bell succeeded in getting his telephone to work.

The very first words using his new ‘instrument’, as Bell called it, transcribed in his lab notes, were spoken by him to Thomas Watson who was out of earshot in another room: ‘Mr Watson, come here – I want to see you.’ Watson appeared.

Over the following nearly 20 years, the Bell Telephone Company founded July 1877 (later AT&T), successfully fought off 587 challenges to Bell’s patent.

Bell’s development of the telephone

Replica of Bell’s ‘Centennial’ telephone, 1876.  Image via Creative commons.
Replica of Bell’s ‘Centennial’ telephone, 1876.  Image via Creative commons.

The American Philadelphia Centennial was a enormous 19th century world fair showcasing new inventions – including typewriters, sewing machines and Heinz ketchup. It opened May 1876. Here, in public, Bell successfully demonstrated his prototype telephone, proving that it worked.

illustration of Bell demonstrating the telephone transmitting sound from Salem to Boston in front of an audience
Bell demonstrating the telephone transmitting sound from Salem to Boston, Massachusetts, 1887.  Image in the Public Domain.
 

Back in Boston, reunited with Watson, the pair continued experimenting, gradually extending the distance over which the telephone would work. A continuing series of countrywide lectures and demonstrations followed. Interest in the telephone grew rapidly, both with the public and in the wider scientific community.

Bell calling Chicago from New York, 1892, inaugurating the 1520 kilometre link.
Bell calling Chicago from New York, 1892, inaugurating the 1520 kilometre link. The first official trans-Atlantic telephone call took place 7 January 1927. Image in the Public Domain.

Within three months of Bell, Hubbard, Sanders and Watson founding the Bell Telephone Company, July 1877, to commercialise the telephone, around 1,300 devices were in operation in America. By New Year 1880, there were 30,000. 

However, Bell’s interest in the telephone waned in the early 1880s. He was already wealthy. He sold off most of his holdings in the Bell Telephone Company and, by the mid-1880s, his role in the telephone industry was peripheral. 

In 1888, Bell became a founding member of the National Geographic Society, and was its president three years later. His restlessly inventive mind wanted to keep pushing forwards the boundaries of scientific knowledge:

Some of Alexander Bell’s other inventions

AEA Silver Dart bi-plane that made the first controlled powered flight in Canada, 23 February 1909. Image in the Public Domain.

In 1888, Bell became a founding member of the National Geographic Society, and was its president three years later. His restlessly inventive mind needed more challenges:

He created, among other inventions, a metal detector that was later used to locate bullets and shrapnel in wounded soldiers during the Boer War (1899-1902) and the First World War (1914-1918), as well as the AEA Silver Dart bi-plane, and designs for winged hydrofoil boats that could zip across water at high speed. He also designed the aileron – a key part of aircraft manoeuvrability, helping it bank left or right.

The telephone comes to Britain

Three female workers operating a switchboard
Switchboard operators at work. Image via Creative Commons.

Bell’s fame spread round the world, to such an extent that he was invited to demonstrate his telephone to Queen Victoria at Osborne House, Isle of Wight, 14 January 1878. The Queen is reputed to have said that the device was: ‘Most extraordinary…’ later asking for the equipment to be installed. That same year, the Telephone Company Ltd was established to market Bell’s phones in Britain.

Two years later saw the General Post Office (from 1969 renamed the Post Office) awarded the monopoly on telephone services. The first phone book was published that year too. From this point, telephone companies could only continue trading if licensed by the General Post Office.

However, although telephone networks swiftly expanded in Britain, a caller using a telephone could not directly contact another. This was overcome by developing a telephone exchange where switchboard operators (almost all women) manually connected callers on request. Exchanges were constructed across Britain.

A black rotary telephone
Rotary dial telephone, 1929. Image via Creative Commons.

But manual connection was expensive in terms of labour. In May 1912, the General Post Office opened the first automatic exchange at Epsom, Surrey. Callers could use automatic dialling with a rotary dial. 

1912 also saw nationalisation of the telephone networks which created an almost universal telephone system throughout most of Britain, and the growth in numbers of telephones able to be installed in homes. Only the better-off could afford their own.

Today, telephone systems across the globe use digital technology, with the ubiquitous keypad replacing the rotary dial­­.

His final years

Bell’s compilation of his researches into hereditary Deafness: ‘Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race.’  The paper was presented November 1883. Image in the Public Domain.

At Beinn Bhreagh, Bell continued his search for knowledge – including designing experimental boats (he had built the Bell Boatyard on his estate employing 40 people), and trying unsuccessfully to breed sheep with multiple nipples that would give birth to twins.

With his lifelong interest in deafness, Bell was interested in heredity. He became honorary president of the 1921 Second International Congress of Eugenics – although he did not take part in any sessions or present any papers, his high profile status lent the organisation scientific credibility.

Bell is a controversial figure in the Deaf community to this day due to his belief that deaf people should be taught to speak. This was in part a result of his genetic studies and research into deafness, which concluded that marriage between two deaf people were more likely to produce deaf children. If deaf people were assimilated into society by learning to speak, he reasoned, they would be less likely to marry other deaf people. He therefore advocated education to achieve this. He opposed laws on regulating marriage and did not support sterilisation.

Bell and Mabel in their later years at the estate they built – Beinn Bhreagh (Gaelic for ‘Beautiful Mountain’) – Nova Scotia, Canada. It was first the family’s summer retreat and later their permanent home. Image in the Public Domain.

Bell died at Beinn Bhreagh, 2 August 1922 aged 75. He was survived by his wife Mabel, his two daughters and nine grand-children.

At the very moment he was lowered into his grave, the whole telephone service of the United States was suspended for one minute in his honour.

Honours and memoralisation

Dedication of the Bell Telephone Memorial (24 October 1917), commemorating the invention of the telephone, in Brantford, Ontario – the town in Canada where the Bell family first relocated to from Scotland. Alexander Graham Bell is pictured centre back, with family members standing in the front, including his wife Mabel, second left. Image in the Public Domain.

Bell was showered with honours, major awards, honorary degrees, medals and memorials in his lifetime. Parks, museums, places where he lived and worked bear his name. Stamps have been issued in his honour, along with coins and banknotes. His personal correspondence, notebooks, writings and papers form important collections in institutions such as the United States Library of Congress.

He was the inventor who connected the world.

Alexander Graham Bell as a young man. Image in the Public Domain.

Written by Nicky Hughes.

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