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Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922)
Even as late as 1922, when Alexander Graham Bell was laid to rest in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, the world may not have been fully aware of what he had brought forth for the future benefit of mankind. It is inconceivable for us to contemplate a world without the telephone, Bell's superb invention, for which he was granted a patent in 1876 and for which the whole world owes him an absolutely unpayable gratitude.

The remarkable inventor and teacher of the deaf was born at 16 South Charlotte St., Edinburgh but was taken to live at 3 Hope St. when he was 9 months old. His father Melivell was a teacher of speech, the author of Standard Elocutionist, reprinted countless times, whose other textbooks on speech and phonetics were widely used in schools and colleges throughout the English-speaking world. In 1862, Melivell authored "Visible Speech," to be used for pronouncing words in all languages, but it was found that the symbols it employed could be used to teach the deaf. His wife, Eliza had begun to lose her hearing at age 12. After the death of two sons, the family moved to Canada to escape the tuberculosis then rampant in their native Edinburgh.

In 1871, Alexander went to Boston to teach at Sarah Fuller's School for the Deaf (later the world-famous Horace Mann School). In 1872, he opened his own School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech to utilize the "oral" method of teaching the deaf, rather than the more popular sign language. After accepting a position at Boston University, he began his experiments with electricity to send sound across the wires, taking on as his assistant an expert in electricity, Mr. Thomas A. Watson. In 1873, with financial backing from Gardiner Hubbard and Tom Sanders, he formed the Bell Patent Association.

The idea of talking over a wire was not new, and there had been many previous attempts, with some small measures of success achieved by Borseul in France, Reis in Germany and Elisha Gray in the United States. Bell's success however came through his novel ideas that electricity could be generated to "undulate' or vary in intensity as sound waves and that current could somehow be "shaped" by a practical transmitter. Bell also conceived of the idea that a single membrane or diaphragm could act like the human ear to gather the complexities of sound or speech in the air and through its vibration bring about the corresponding variations in the current flowing in the wire.

In the summer of 1874, visiting his father at Brantford, Bell conceived the idea that telegraphing speech was theoretically possible by means of the induced currents in the coil of an electromagnet. He was encouraged by Joseph Henry, considered the dean of American electrical scientists for his work with electromagnetic induction, whom Bell visited at the Smithsonian Institution. The big breakthrough came on June 2, 1875.

When Bell and Watson were testing their harmonic telegraph, one of Watson's reeds, screwed down too tightly, froze to the electromagnet. Watson plucked it to free it. Bell, at the other end of the line, had a receiver reed pressed to his ear and heard the twang of the plucked reed. Instead of the expected usual whine of the intermittent battery current, he heard a tone with some overtones. Running to the other room, he shouted "Watson, what did you do then? Don't change anything. Let me see."

It became apparent that the reed, too tight to send intermittent current, had sent an induced, undulating current over the line, one that would vary in intensity as the air varies in density when sound passes through it. The receiving reed had acted as a diaphragm enabling Bell to detect the sound. The current had proved strong enough to be of practical use. One day later, Bell was able to transmit his own voice to Watson.

Bell filed his application for his telephone patent on February 14, 1876, it was issued on March 7 of that year. Three days later, after more experiments and "fine tuning" Bell transmitted the message "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you." By June, Bell was able to place both magnetic and variable resistance transmitters on display at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, where they received considerable attention from the Emperor of Brazil, Don Pedro who had been using Bell's methods in his own country to teach the deaf. The Centennial Judges were impressed (this was the same day that the Battle of the Little BigHorn took place).

On October 9, 1876, the first two-way telephone conversation took place, Boston to Cambridgeport, and one month later, the first "long-distance" call, Boston to Salem. On April 4, 1877 the first telephone line was installed from Charles C. Williams' home in Somerville to his office in Boston. On January 28, 1878, the first commercial switchboard was opened at New Haven, Connecticut. Three years later, Bell began his work with Chichester Bell to improve the reproduction of sound over the metal foil methods of Edison's phonograph, receiving his first patent on wax recording in 1884.

In 1884, Bell established the Volta Bureau to work in the interests of the deaf, visiting England four years later to speak before a Royal Commission. He became the President of the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf in 1890, financing it with much of his own money. On October 18, 1892, he opened the New York to Chicago long-distance telephone line. In 1896, he became the President of the National Geographic Society.

During Bell's burial services, held on August 4, 1922, at the family home in Beinn Bhreach, Nova Scotia, every telephone throughout the Bell System was silenced for two full minutes. Of Bell, upon whose knee she had sat as a child, and to whom she wrote one of her very first letters, Helen Keller said, "His dominating passion is his love for children. He is never quite so happy as when he had a little deaf child in his arms." Miss Keller dedicated her autobiography to this remarkable Scotsman.


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