ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL 1847-1922

         Alexander Graham Bell was born in 1847 in Edinburgh, the son of Alexander Melville Bell, a well-known and highly respected teacher of elocution and speech production, who as well as lecturing in Edinburgh Uni­versity also coached teachers, ministers, and private pupils.

          Young Alexander did not particularly shine at the two schools that he attended, being described as lazy, although he showed con­siderable interest in science (particularly zoology and botany) and in technology (in­venting a device with rotating blades for de-husking cereal grains). He left school at the age of 13, and went off to polish up his education by spending a year with his pa­ternal grandfather who was Professor of Elocution in the University of London. It is not surprising that under the influence of his grandfather and his father, his interest in speech therapy was developing apace. And he was growing up in a stimulating envi­ronment. Back in Edinburgh, when his fa­ther challenged him to produce a speaking machine he obtained a lamb’s larynx from the local butcher, dissected it (his knowledge of zoology came in handy) and noting the position of the vocal organs, he built a model in which mechanical organs could be manipulated by levers. Blowing through a tube linked to them he made a fair shot at producing human sounds.

          It was in Edinburgh that he came across a piece of apparatus that was to change his, and our, lives. A school teacher, Philipp Reis*, had made what he called a telephone.

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*Reis, Johann Philipp (1834-1874) — German physicist. De­signed several instruments for transmission of sound, forerunners of Bell’s telephone, first described publicly an electrical telephone.

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            It consisted of two boxes connected to each other by electric wires fed from a battery. In one of the boxes was a metal knitting needle and if someone spoke or played a musical instrument into the empty box then the sound was transmitted along the wire causing the needle to vibrate and give off sounds resembling the speech or music. It was primitive, and it was not a piece of apparatus that aroused a great deal of in­terest at the time. Bell reflected on its pos­sibilities without at the time realizing its enormous potential.

            When his father was appointed to succeed his own father as Professor of Elocution at London University, Alexander moved with him. In a nearly school he taught four little deaf girls by means of “Visible Speech”, a method using symbols to represent words and letters, that had been invented by his father. He also became his father’s assist­ant and when Professor Bell was invited to the USA, young Alexander stood in for him in London.

           Unfortunately, the family scourge, tuber­culosis, that had already swept away his two brothers, looked like manifesting itself in Alexander too. He was 21 years of age and the family doctor advised that only a com­plete change of climate would save his life. After some discussion, the Bells decided to emigrate to Canada where the air was pure and the climate bracing. Almost from the time of landing, his health began to improve.

          He began teaching again and in 1872 he was appointed Professor of Vocal Physiology in Boston University, Massachusetts, to con­tinue the work that his father had begun with “Visible Speech”.

         Bell had become intensely interested in deaf­ness from an early age. Not only was it his father’s specialism: his mother was deaf and although she was a very talented pianist, she could only make sound contact by re­versing her hearing tube and attaching the ear-piece to the soundboard of the piano.

         Boston was the leading centre of American science and technology. It was not surpris­ing that Bell’s inventive spirit was stimu­lated in such an atmosphere. His great am­bition was to devise an instrument by means of which the deaf could hear. He found that if an iron diaphram were made to vi­brate near a magnet with a coil of wire in the coil. Thus the vibrations of air caused by human speech (or music, or any other sound) could be converted into varying elec­trical current and conveyed wire the sound could be reconstructed by means of the current affecting another magnet and thus vibrating another diaphram to produce the original sounds that had bееn fed in. In his attempts to produce a “hearing aid” he had invented a system for transmitting sound.

          But this was only the beginning. On June 2, 1875, Bell and his assistant, Thomas Watson*, were tinkering with the apparatus when Bell found, to his utter astonish­ment, that it would transmit sounds along an electrical wire without help from a bat­tery.

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*Watson, Thomas Augustus (1854-1934) — American tele­phone technician. Assistant to Bell in his experiments (1874— 1877); became research and technical head of the Bell Tele­phone Co. (to 1881).

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          He had invented the telephone (as he called it, remembering Philip Reis and his Edinburgh days).

           Several months later, he and Watson fit­ted up a transmitter in the attic of his house and a receiver in a room downstairs. Watson stood by the receiver while Bell spoke into the transmitter. The words that he spoke have become world famous. They were: “Mr Watson, please, come here, I want you”. One minute later Watson was bounding up the stairs. “I could hear you”, he cried. “I could hear you!”

              Bell was no businessman, so wisely he turned for help to Mr Hubbard, his prospective father-in-law. He was not disappointed. Hubbard quickly had the invention patent­ed and then persuaded Bell to demonstrate it at the International Centennial Exposi­tion which had opened at Philadelphia. Bell took three telephones there but they attract­ed little attention as people drifted past his exhibit. He was on the point of going home, but Hubbard persuaded him to stay a few days more. A very important group was to pay a visit on the Sunday.

            When the Emperor of Brazil* entered the hall he immediately recognized Bell, hav­ing attended one of his classes in Boston a few years before, and moved over to see his invention.

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*Pedro II (1825-1891) — Emperor of Brazil (1831-1889)

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           Giving him a receiver and instructing him to put it to his ear, Bell moved to the far end of the hall with the transmitter and spoke into it. It is reported that the Emperor jumped. “Great Heavens”, he said “the thing talks!”

          Despite the enormous interest that followed within the Exhibition, recognition was slow to develop in the big world outside. Bell and Watson decided to put on a public demonstration by establishing a line between a house in Boston where Watson was sta­tioned, and a hall in Salem, some 15 miles distant, where Bell took up his position. An organ thundered out “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Auld Lang Syne”* in Boston and was appreciated and loudly applauded in Salem.

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*“Yankee Doodle Dandy” — a patriotic song, composed by G. M. Cohen; “Auld Lang Syne” — song written by the Scot­tish poet R. Burns about 1789, which is often sung at New Year’s Eve gatherings.

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          Mr Watson made a witty speech over the 15 miles distance and was loudly applauded by the audience in Salem. The demonstration ended with a conversation be­tween the two men. This was in fact the first broadcast programme. They received 85 dollars for their efforts.

          Bell’s invention was a great success in Lon­don. A telephone wire was set up between the high steeple of Bow Church and the street below. Londoners queued up and paid one penny to say “How do you do?” to a man on the top of the steeple and hear him reply “Very well, thank you.”

         For Queen Victoria, who had expressed great interest Bell established telephone connec­tion between her residence Osborne House and Osborne Cottage on the Isle of Wight. The queen was so delighted with the result that she had connection established between her residence at Cowes and London, so that she was able to enjoy an organ recital from the capital.

           A week later, Bell installed a telephone in the gallery of the House of Commons, and from there a reporter dictated the course of a debate on the floor below to his newspa­per in Fleet Street. Within a few months, telephone communication was established be­tween the mainland and the Island of Jer­sey, between Dover and Calais in France, between Holyhead and Dublin in Ireland. Telephone was called “one of the most interesting of the scientific inventions made in this century, or that has ever been made in the history of science”.

          In 1878, Bell returned to the USA to find that the telephone was booming there too. In New Jersey a switchboard, the first tele­phone exchange in the world, had been set up for 100 subscribers so that fires and burglaries could be reported immediately. Telephones were soon found in every civi­lized country in the world.

          Bell became an immensely rich man. He took little further interest in telephone (he would not even allow one in his study). He settled down in Washington and resumed his earli­er work of teaching the deaf, which was really his consuming position. With a prize of 50,000 francs, which he had received, he set up the Volta Laboratories to develop and spread knowledge relating to the deaf.

           In later years, when Bell went to live in Nova Scotia*, he became interested in the new science of flying machines that had been developed by the Wright brothers.

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*Nova Scotia — a province of southeast Canada, which sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean east of New Brunswick. It con­sists mainly of farmland and forests, and also produces min­erals.

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          Bell could be seen running across the field fly­ing his large kites as he studied aerody­namics. He formed a club to build the first Canadian airplane and in this machine, which he called a “Double-deck Aero­drome”, two Canadian fliers, in 1908, made the first flight in the British Empire. He realized the tremendous potential of the airplane as a weapon of war and he ad­vised the British Government to make Brit­ain strong in the air, warning that the day might come when airplanes of a foreign power might destroy London from the air.

        In 1915, coast-to-coast telephone communi­cation was established in a link-up between New York and San Francisco. Bell was asked to open it.

          Bell had taken out American citizenship in 1874, but he also loved Canada. Bell also made many visits to Scotland during one of which he set up a school for deaf children. Bell died at Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia on 22 August 1922. All the telephones in the USA and Canada were kept silent for a short period as a tribute to him.

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