Alexander Graham Bell was born in 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland. His parents were educated people and they educated their children. His mother was nearly deaf, while his father and grandfather were speech experts. This irony may have contributed to Bell's early interest in the phenomenon of sound. His other interests included art, music and poetry, and he had a natural understanding of science. He attended University in Edinburgh and in London. Then in 1870, he moved to the United States with his father and became the professor of vocal physiology at Boston University. There he specialized in the mechanics of speech.
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Summarizing his approach to life and invention, Bell once said, "Leave the beaten track occasionally and dive into the woods. Every time you do so you will be certain to find something that you have never seen before. Follow it up, explore all around it, and before you know it, you will have something worth thinking about to occupy your mind. All really big discoveries are the result of thought." Bell's own journey to invention illustrates this curiosity-driven approach.
Hoping his research would lead to an improved telegraph, Bell began studying the phonoautograph. This is device consisted of a human ear with an attached reed which translated sound waves into visual etchings on smoked glass. Misunderstanding the work of another scientist, Bell assumed sound waves had already been produced successfully using electricity. If he had known he was pioneering something that was thought to be impossible, he may never have succeeded. By June of 1875, Bell had constructed a "harp apparatus," which created an electrical current using sound waves and a long magnet. With some modification, this device became what we know as the telephone.
At the last minute, Bell entered his invention in the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Due to his late entrance, he received a poorly located booth in a corner of an exhibit on education. But it was not long before the telephone in the corner became the center of everyone's attention, and the news of the invention spread quickly even to Europe. By 1884, the technology had been improved, and one could make long-distance calls between Boston and New York City.
Alexander Graham Bell began by seeking to help the deaf, and he ended up with the telephone. Since then, there has been an incredible revolution in the telecommunications industry. Bell never could have imagined that video images would be transported over phone lines, or that light would travel through fiber-optic cable carrying information to our fingertips. These words are brought to you by technology which resulted from Bell's "electrical speech machine" of 1876.
Costain, Thomas B., The Chord of Steel: The Story of the Invention of the Telephone. (New York; Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1960).
Dunlap, Orrin E. Jr., Radio's 100 Men of Science: Biographical Narratives of Pathfinders in Electronics and Television. (New York; Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1944).
Edited by: Nathan L. Seldomridge
Researched by: Hanne C. Pedersen
Written by: Debra R. Hendriksma
April 19, 1997
Revised September 2003
Text copyright 1996-1999 by David W. Koeller. All rights reserved.