Wednesday would have marked the 163rd birthday of Alexander Graham Bell, were he still alive. While his invention of the telephone has always been subject to controversy, there is no denying that the man was quite a genius. To celebrate the life of this great inventor, let’s take this opportunity to get to know Mr. Bell a little better.
He Wasn’t Always Alexander Graham Bell
At first, he was just Alexander Bell. When he turned ten though, he begged his parents to give him a middle name like they had given to each of his brothers. It wasn’t until his 11th birthday that the famous “Graham” was added to his name. His father chose the name in honor of a family friend, Alexander Graham, who had boarded with the family.
Of course, his family continued to just call him “Aleck” throughout his life. When he was married to his wife (seen with him in the above image) though, she insisted that he begin calling himself “Alec” and from that point on, he started signing his name as “Alec Bell.”
He Was Born Into His Line Of Work
Alexander’s entire family was tied in with the fields of elocution and speech. His father and grandfather (both of whom were also named Alexander Bell) worked in the field before Alec was born, and his brother also started working in the science. Additionally, both his mother and wife were deaf, which gave him even more reason to be dedicated to easing systems of communication. Even as a kid, Bell was fascinated with sound and he taught himself both ventriloquism and piano without any training.
Aleck Started Inventing Young
He finished his first invention, a dehusking device for a flour mill, when he was only 12. When his best friend, Ben Herdman, told him about the laborious process of dehusking at his parent’s flour mill, Bell quickly threw together a machine that combined rotating paddles with nail brushes. The mill used the machine for years to come and the boy’s father was so impressed that he gave the two boys complete access to a workshop in the mill so they could continue to work on inventions.
Despite His Brilliance, He Wasn’t Big On School
When Bell entered the Royal High School, he was known for having bad grades and a history of absenteeism. He excelled at science, but remained indifferent to all other courses. Eventually, he dropped out at only 15 and then moved to London, where he lived with his grandfather, who was able to finally get Bell interested in learning. It paid off too. Before he invented the phone, Bell was a teacher. He used his father’s teaching system to educate deaf students. One of his most famous students was Hellen Keller, who once said that Bell had dedicated his life to breaking through the “inhuman silence which separates and estranges.” Later in his life, he earned a series of honorary degrees from quite a few colleges, including Harvard, Dartmouth, the University of Edinburg in Scotland, the University of Würzburg in Bavaria and more.
The Road to Creation
Bell’s first work with what would later result in the invention of the telephone started when he was hired, along with Elisha Gray, to help find a way to send multiple telegraph messages along the same line. A few years later, he approached the director of the Smithsonian Institute, Joseph Henry, for his advice on an apparatus that would enable the human voice to travel via telegraph. Bell said he was worried he didn’t have the right knowledge to do it though and Henry inspired him by merely replying, “get it!”
Bell May Not Actually Be The Inventor of the Telephone
At the same time that Bell was working on his idea, the other man hired, on the telegraph project Elisha Gray (seen at left) had also been inspired to find a way to transmit speech through the telegraph. He filed a design for an acoustic telegraph that sent vocal transmissions through water the same day that Bell’s lawyer filed a patent for his telephone device. Aleck hadn’t actually gotten his phone working before he filed his patent. Three days after he was issued the patent, he used a liquid transmitter --just like the one Gray had designed, to get the device to work. He only used the water design as part of an experiment and never used the liquid transmitter in his demonstrations or commercial products, but he is still, to this day, accused of stealing the phone from Gray.
A man that worked at the patent office later swore in an affidavit that he had shown Gray’s patent to Bell’s attorney in an effort to pay off part of the debt he owed him. He also claimed that he showed the patent to Bell a few days later and that he was given $100 in return. While Alexander admitted that he learned some of the technical details from Gray’s patent, he swore that he had never paid the patent office employee, Zenas Fisk Wilber, any money.
Bad Business Calls
After Bell finished his work on the telephone, he offered to sell the patent for the device to Western Union for $100,000. The president of the company refused, claiming that the telephone was nothing more than a toy. Two years later, he changed his mind, saying he would consider it a bargain if he could buy the patent for $25 million. Of course, by that point, the Bell Telephone Company was not interested in selling the patent.
Continued Invention Theft Accusations
Throughout the years, the Bell company continued to make improvements on the telephone, even buying Edison’s carbon microphone in 1879. Unfortunately, quite a few inventors had started to work on improving the phone by this point and in only 18 years, the company had to fight over 600 lawsuits over legal rights to the patent. Fortunately, the fact that Alec had been working on sound and speech for his entire life gave him the credibility he needed to fight the lawsuits. Even so, the government moved to annul his patent on grounds of fraud and misrepresentation in 1887, but the Supreme Court ruled in the company’s favor and many other suits were dropped as a result. Through this entire period, the Bell company never lost a case, but the strain put on Alexander from all these court appearances eventually cause him to resign from the company.
His Work Didn’t Stop With The Telephone
While his most famous invention was the phone, Bell continued to invent throughout his life. He worked on optical telecommunications, hydrofoil planes and aeronautics. In 1880, he created the photophone, which he considered to be his most important invention. This creation would allow sound to pass through a beam of light and was the first wireless phone technology ever created. By the time he died, he had thirty patents. He had one patent for the phonograph, nine for transportation devices and two for selenium cells. He also invented a metal jacket that was supposed to help with breathing problems, a meter to detect hearing problems, a device to locate icebergs and more. He invented the first metal detectors, which he used in an attempt to uncover the bullet in President Garfield’s body. Although it worked perfectly in lab tests, it could not help doctors find the bullet, but that was partially because the president was laying on a bed with a metal frame and metal springs that disturbed the instrument and the surgeons refused to move him to a new location.
He Considered His Greatest Invention An Intrusion On His Work
While the telephone was Bell’s best known contribution to society, he considered his real work to be as a scientist and he refused to have a telephone in his study for fear it would intrude on his work.
He Was Far Ahead of His Time
At one point in his career, Bell and his team had considered the idea of pressing a magnetic field onto a record as a way to reproduce sound. While they couldn’t get their idea to work, this same concept was the basic idea behind tapes, hard discs, floppy discs and other media that were invented almost a century later. Also impressive was Bell’s environmentally-friendly inventions that were developed long before anyone had ever considered the idea of global warming. He worried about the effects of methane gas on the environment and experimented with composting toilets and devices that would capture water from the atmosphere. In an interview shortly before his death, he even mentioned the idea of using solar panels to heat houses.
The End of A Legend
Alexander Graham Bell died in August of 1922. Every phone in North America was said to be silenced during his funeral in his honor. Sources: AlexanderGrahamBell.org, Idea Finder, Biography.com, The Franklin Institute, American Heritage and Answers.com