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Issue 40 - Alexander Graham Bell

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 40
August 2008

 

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Alexander Graham Bell

The latest in our series of famous Scots leads us to the inventor of the telephone.

What do you think of when you hear the name Alexander Graham Bell? It’s probably safe to say that most people know the name to be synomymous with telephones; Bell was the great inventor of the telephone and the founder of the Bell Telephone Company, but there was a great deal more to the life and inventions of Alexander Graham Bell.

Many people might also know that this status at ‘the first’ has long been contested.

A race was on, but Bell was the first to register for the patent, submitting his application on 14th February 1876 only two hours before his rival, Elisha Gray. Imagine if the American immigrant Antonio Meucci had won the race, and we all referred casually to speaking on the ‘teletrofono’.

Bell was a prolific inventor, and it is a little sad that his other inventions are less well known. Particularly ironic, given that he is said to have disliked using the telephone, saying, “I never use the beast.” Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh on 3rd March 1847. His father was a teacher of elocution and speech correction, pioneering a method of teaching the deaf called ‘Visible Speech.’ Largely self-taught and educated at home, with two years at the Edinburgh Royal High School, the young Alexander Graham Bell displayed a thirst for knowledge and an early fascination with modes of communication. By the time the family emigrated to Canada in 1870, Bell had already followed in his father’s footsteps as a teacher of Visible Speech.

The move to Brantford, Ontario, proved a wise move, both for Bell’s health and his career. He soon travelled to Boston in the United States to give lectures on Visible Speech, and was appointed professor of vocal physiology at Boston University in 1873. Three years later he succeeded in transmitting the famous telephonic message, “Mr Watson, come here. I want you.” The telephone made Bell hugely successful and he was able to step down from the board of the Bell Telephone Company at the tender age of 32, in 1879.

With such fame and riches already attained, Bell now had the opportunity to pursue other ideas and ‘invent’ to his heart’s content. He purchased land on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia in 1885, established laboratories and continued his research and his long line of inventions.

The telephone was only one of his soundrelated inventions; he also created the gramophone and the photophone, which transmitted sound via a beam of light, and was the precursor of modern fibre optics.

Bell’s interests were wide. In 1898 he became the president of the National Geographic Society, believing that photographs of the world could bring an understanding of geography to the vast majority of people who would never travel and see these things first hand.

Branching out from sound and communication, Bell developed a passion for aeronautics, kites and even the genetics of sheep. He constructed some truly bizarre man-carrying kites, researching in meticulous detail the strength to weight ratio of the tetrahedron. It was a kite of Bell’s design, the Cygnet, that achieved the first controlled manned flight in 1907.

Something of a record-breaker by now, it is no surprise that Bell also invented a hydrofoil that set the world water speed record in 1919.

By the time Bell died in 1922, he had amassed 18 patents in his own name, and a further 12 that he shared with others.

Among them were telephonic and telegraphic inventions, the photophone, the phonograph, a number of aircraft, hydrofoils and selenium cells.

He had been showered with honours in his time, among them the French Legion d’honneur, the Volta Prize, an honourary PhD from the University of Wurzburg in Bavaria, and the Albert medal from the Royal Society of Arts in London.

On the day of Bell’s funeral, telephone systems across the United States and Canada were shut down and one minute of silence observed in respect for the man who had done so much to further knowledge and communication around the world. He is well remembered in the history books, on commemorative bank notes, and in popular culture, as one of Scotland’s greatest sons.