One hot July afternoon, three years
after the death of Morse, a tall young professor of elocution was toiling
grimily and busily in a workshop in one of the back streets of Boston,
U.S.A. He bent over a crude and makeshift arrangement, which seemed to
consist mainly of a clock-spring, magnet, and electric-bell wire. In the
next room a friend sat at a desk, bent over another similar apparatus. The
tall man bent his ear over his odd mechanism, obviously straining every
nerve. Suddenly there came a faint twang, a clear, unmistakable musical
note. It was the first sound ever transmitted by telephone, for the man in
the next room had just snapped a spring into his own instrument, and the
noise reproduced itself exactly in the ear of Alexander Graham Bell.
Bell sprang from a family of
elocutionists. His brothers, his father, and his grandfather, had taught the
art of correct speaking in the universities of London, Dublin, and
Edinburgh. The grandfather had specialized in the cure of stammering. The
father, author of a dozen and mere standard text-books, had changed
elocution from an art to a science, had begun the study of rational
phonetics, and had laid the foundations of lip-reading, by which the world
of busy human activity is opened to deaf-mutes.
The grandson, Alexander Graham Bell,
was born in Edinburgh on the 3rd March, 1847. He was educated in his native
city and in London, and he acquired a fair knowledge of such diverse
subjects as anatomy, music, electricity, and telegraphy. His schooldays
over, he spent a few years teaching elocution (for which he had an
hereditary gift) in various schools in and around London. During this period
he made the acquaintance of Alexander Ellis and Sir Charles Wheatstone, both
of whom unconsciously directed him towards his real career as a pioneer of
The "Musical Telegraph"
Ellis introduced him to the researches
which the famous physicist, Helmholtz, had made into the physical basis of
music. Bell conceived the notion that the results of these experiments might
be adapted to the purposes of a "musical telegraph"—a telegraph able to send
many messages over a single wire by the use of a variety of musical notes.
This notion gradually took form in his brain, and, as we shall see, proved
the starting-point of the invention of the telephone.
Full of this "musical telegraph" idea,
Bell approached Sir Charles Wheatstone, the famous scientist, then in his
sixty-seventh year, and the first British authority on matters of
telegraphy. Wheatstone showed the utmost kindness to this
twenty-two-year-old Scottish elocutionist, for he perceived in him the magic
fire of genius. He discussed the whole matter with Bell, showed him what
other inventors had already accomplished, and, by his
whole-hearted enthusiasm, convinced Bell
that science was the only possible career for him.
Suddenly, however, in the midst of all
his high hopes, Bell was struck down by incipient consumption—a disease
which had already caused the death of his two elder brothers. Medical men
decided that nothing except a complete change of climate could save his
Emigration to Canada
With a rare self-sacrifice, Bell’s
father abandoned his own career, and, together with his wife and his last
remaining son, he migrated to Canada, finding a home in the then tiny
township of Brantford. There for more than a year Bell fought against his
terrible illness, never despairing or giving in for a moment, while, to
occupy his time, he taught his father’s carefully evolved system of "visible
speech" to the local settlement of Mohawk Indians.
In April, 1871, vastly improved in
health, Bell obtained a post with the Boston Board of Education. His task
was to instruct a class of deaf-mutes in his father’s system of " visible
speech," a work for which he had the greatest enthusiasm, as he had already
met with some success in similar work in London. During the next two years
he abandoned all thoughts of the "musical telegraph," and threw himself
heart and soul into his new sphere of work. He was so successful that his
class became an educational sensation, and won for him a professorship at
Boston University. Scarcely had he entered upon his professional duties,
however, than two of his pupils suddenly brought him back to his projects in
One of these was a five-year-old
deaf-mute, named George Sanders, whose grandmother engaged Bell to teach the
little boy to speak. The Sanders family lived at Salem, sixteen miles from
Boston, so Bell went to live with them, travelling daily to Boston to
discharge his duties.
In the Sanders family he found truly
sympathetic friends, who allowed him the use of a cellar in which to fit up
a workshop. Within a month he had filled his underground lair with
batteries, coils, cells, and tuning-forks. Secretly he worked away far into
the night, oblivious of sleep, only conscious that he was on the brink of
His other stimulating pupil was a girl
named Mabel Hubbard, who had lost her hearing, and subsequently her speech,
owing to a severe attack of scarlet fever during infancy. She was fifteen
years old when Bell met her, and she seemed to him the incarnation of all he
most lacked in the world. Impulsive and headlong in all things, he fell in
love with her, and four years later they were married. She proved a wife in
a million. She encouraged and sustained him unceasingly, stood between him
and the practical everyday world, writing his letters and copying his
While living with the Sanderses, Bell
met Dr. Clarence Blake, a Boston ear specialist. To him the impulsive
inventor poured out all the difficulties of the moment!. He was then
intrigued by the idea that the deaf might be taught to speak by sight. Dr.
Blake suggested that Bell should use a real human ear for his experiments.
Accordingly he sent him a complete ear from the dissecting rooms, and Bell
spent his evenings in the cellar at the task of speaking into a dead man’s
ear, in order to see how exactly the sounds were transmitted through the
wonderful and delicate human aural mechanism. From his experiments he
concluded that some sort of a telephone, built on the principles of the
human ear, might be possible. Immediately, he turned from the teaching of
deaf-mutes to his electrical experiments once more.
He then abandoned his professorship
and instructed only George Sanders and Mabel Hubbard, snatching every moment
he could for his new experiments. This, however, did not please Mr. Sanders
or Mr. Hubbard, both of whom had financed Bell in his "musical telegraph"
idea. "You must abandon your foolish telephone," they said, but Bell did not
heed their exhortation. At this juncture, when on a visit to Washington,
Bell met Professor Joseph Henry, then by far the most learned authority on
electricity in America. A veteran of seventy-eight, Henry saw in Bell what
Wheatstone had perceived, and he started to work on an experimental
telephone apparatus, which Bell had brought with him from Boston, just as he
had worked at the first telegraph instruments before Bell was born.
Bell returned to Boston vastly
encouraged by Henry, and he moved his workshop thither from Salem. Bound by
an agreement with Sanders and Hubbard, he was forced to devote himself
chiefly to the "musical telegraph." Yet both he and his assistant, Thomas
Watson, believed secretly in the telephone, for had not Henry said, "You are
in possession of the germ of a great invention"? So the two men often left
the "musical telegraph," and toiled feverishly during stolen hours with
their embryo telephone, until some three months after his momentous visit to
Washington the first faint twang, transmitted by Watson, reached Bell’s ears
in the next room.
Having succeeded thus far, Bell
resolved to concentrate his attention solely upon his telephone. He won over
Sanders and Hubbard, while Watson was already an enthusiast, ready to face
poverty, starvation, anything, if only the telephone could be perfected. For
nearly a year Bell and the devoted Watson laboured on. They tried all sorts
of diaphragms, all strengths of currents, all manner of circuits. Still
their telephone would do nothing more than gasp, grunt, and sigh. Then,
quite unexpectedly, on the 10th March, 1876, it talked.
Bell set to work to draft a patent
specification. On his twenty-ninth birthday, he received the patent warrant,
No. 174,465, which proved to be "the most valuable single patent ever issued
in any country." A new faculty had been given by invention to the human
Exactly two months after the first
words had been transmitted by telephone the Centennial Exposition at
Philadelphia was opened. Moreover, Mr. Hubbard, Mabel Hubbard’s father and
Bell’s financial backer, happened to be one of the chief authorities there.
Naturally, great advantage was taken of such a piece of good fortune, and in
the department devoted to education a small table was installed, on which
rested the first telephones.
One day, as Bell stood by his
telephone exhibit, the last Emperor of’ Brazil, Pedro II, entered the room,
attended by a brilliant suite. He walked straight up to Bell~~ whose
acquaintance he had already made in connexion with his deaf mute classes at
Boston. The pair entered into conversation, and Bell showed his new
invention to the emperor. A wire had been strung from one end of the room to
the other, and after a few minutes Dom Pedro went to the receiver end, while
Bell himself spoke through the transmitter. The emperor placed the receiver
to his ear, listened, started, dropped the receiver, and exclaimed in utter
amazement, "It talks."
Among those who accompanied Dom Pedrol
were Henry, and Lord Kelvin, then William Thomson. Each in his turn made
various tests of the apparatus, and the two famous scientists spoke to each
other, as delighted with Bell’s invention as two children with a fine new
toy. Finally, Lord Kelvin passed judgment. "It
does speak," he
said, "and it is the most wonderful thing I have seen in all America." As a
judge, Lord Kelvin subsequently presented Bell with the highest possible
award, describing his telephone as "the greatest marvel hitherto achieved by
the electric telegraph." From a scientific point of view Bell’s telephone
now needed no other recommendation whatever, but what of its financial and
At first, business men were unanimous
in voting it nothing more than a scientific toy— a toy which could never
become of practical value. The whole thing was voted absurd, and poor Bell
had to submit to such epithets as "crank," "impostor," "impudent
ventriloquist." Nevertheless, Hubbard now took it upon himself to become the
champion of the telephone. He was a man widely known and universally
respected as a supporter of all sorts of public improvements, and was thus
the very person to bring such an invention before the public eye.
He preached the telephone day and
night, week in, week out. He borrowed a telegraph line from New York to
Boston, and Bell, with Watson’s aid, sent an audible message over it.
Wherever he went, he carried a telephone outfit in a suit-case and gave
demonstrations to all and sundry. Nothing seemed too small or too great for
his apostolic ardour to attempt. Finally, in October, 1876, Bell and Watson
arranged and carried out a three hours conversation by telephone between
Boston and Cambridge Observatory, in the presence of prejudiced and hostile
witnesses. This finally broke down the obstinacy of the "practical man," and
the telephone began to be taken seriously.
Newspapers took a keen interest in
Bell and his invention, and he was inundated by requests for lectures and
demonstrations. A month or so later six Boston banks, which were connected
by a common burglar-alarm circuit, had telephones attached to the ends of
the wires. Hubbard lent the necessary instruments free, and, needless to
say, managed to see that they were used. The popularity of the new invention
soon spread. Obviously it was incredibly useful and handy, and by the time
Bell’s patent was sixteen months old there were no less than 778 telephones
Although the telephone had overcome
many difficulties, the battles already fought were but skirmishes compared
with those to follow. Before the end of 1878 a perfect mob of rivals and
pretenders were in the field. A host of men suddenly presented claims that
they were the real and original inventors of the telephone. The most
plausible, persistent, and formidable of these was Elisha Gray. A
professional inventor, Gray had been busy on the "musical telegraph" notion
for many years, and had conceived the idea that some sort of a telephone
might possibly be invented.
Oddly enough, a few hours later, on
the very day on which Bell filed his application for a completed patent,
Gray filed a caveat on the same subject. Now a caveat merely implied that
the filer of it believed that he might be able to invent a certain device,
but explicitly declares that he has not yet done so. Thus it was absurd for
Gray to pretend that he was in the field before Bell. Nevertheless, he took
his claims to court, only to meet with disappointment.
This would have been enough for most
men, but Gray was nothing if not persistent, and for a dozen years he
continued to put forward all manner of claims against the Bell patent. In
some quarters he is still considered a hardly used, almost a cheated, man.
But examination of the evidence and judgments in his numerous suits will
completely prove the truth of one lawyer’s opinion: "Of all the men who
didn’t invent the telephone, Gray was the nearest."
A far more serious adversary, however,
than any inventor with a grievance was the Western Union Telegraph Company.
At that time the Western Union was far and away the largest and richest
telegraph company in the world. Its directors saw in Bell’s company a
potential source of danger to its own monopoly, and at once set to work to
overcome it. Three inventors, Edison, Gray, and Dolbear, were employed to
invent a telephone which should be as good as Alexander Bell’s, and yet not
infringe his patent.
The Western Union’s chief electrical
expert attempted to find an invention which preceded Bell’s. He even
employed a linguist, who knew eight languages, for purposes of translation.
All to no purpose, however, for, as the final report to his directors
states, "I am entirely unable to discover any apparatus... anticipating the
invention . . . and I conclude that his patent is valid. . . ."
Then the Western Union tried to
squeeze out the Bell Company by means of influence and its own long purse.
For a time things looked as black as possible for Bell and his partners.
They were neither rich, influential, nor powerful enough to fight such a
vast concern as the Western Union. Each day people expected to see the Bell
headquarters hoist the white flag of surrender. Finally the Western Union
espoused Gray’s claims to be the real inventor of the telephone, and
instructed its lawyers to proceed against Bell for infringement of Gray’s
The resulting lawsuit began during the
autumn of 1878, and was waged from court to court throughout twelve months.
After this prolonged struggle the Western Union’s chief counsel, George
Gifford, came to the conclusion that a decision could never be obtained in
favour of Gray, and the proceedings were therefore dropped.
Six Hundred Lawsuits
Soon afterwards the litigants came to
an agreement, almost wholly in favour of the Bell Company. Thus the tiny
company defeated the huge power of the Union and made its own terms, and as
a result its stocks rose by leaps and bounds on the Exchange. This, however,
was by no means the last battle fought by the Bell Company. In all, the
company fought no less than 600 lawsuits, and only in the case of two minor
matters of contracts did it fail to gain the verdict.
During 1882 Bell, true to his
character, went out of the telephone business. He transferred all his stock
to his wife, and resumed his task of teaching deaf-mutes to speak. He felt
he had played his part by his invention. The endless lawsuits and wrangles
in which his company had become involved affected his highly strung nervous
temperament beyond endurance. In vain did the Bell Company offer him a vast
retaining fee to continue as its chief inventor. Bell cheerfully answered
that he was not the man to invent to order, and went back to the instruction
of his deaf-mutes.
Champion of Many Causes
During a further thirty active years
Bell championed many more causes, engaged his ardent intellect and character
in a multitude of interests, and received many honours and decorations. To
the end of his life he remained one of the most picturesque and intriguing
personalities in American public life. No citizen of the great republic has
been held in more universal respect than he. He was, above all else,
genuine, transparently honest, and candid, and also one of the most charming
creatures in the world. He died in 1922, mourned by a host of friends and
Though his achievements and glories
were many, none can compare with the result of those exciting night hours
spent experimenting in the Sanders’ cellar at Salem.
[See "Samuel P. B. Morse, His Letters and
Journals," edited by E. L. Morse (2 vols., 1914); "The History of the
Telephone," by H. N. Carson (1910); and "The Age of Invention," by Holland