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Notable Britons in History

Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922)

Scottish Inventor of the Telephone.



Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland.  His father Melivell Bell 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 bell 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 Bell family moved to Canada to escape the tuberculosis then rampant in their native Edinburgh.

In 1871, Alexander Graham Bell went to Boston to teach at Sarah Fuller's School for the Deaf (later the world-famous Horace Mann School). In 1872, Bell 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.

Bell's success 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.

 In 1877, Bell formed the Bell Telephone Company, and in the same year married Mabel Hubbard, ten years his junior, and embarked on a yearlong honeymoon in Europe.

Bell might easily have been content with the success of his invention. Alexander Graham Bell's many laboratory notebooks demonstrate, however, that he was driven by a genuine and rare intellectual curiosity that kept him regularly searching, striving, and wanting always to learn and to create. He would continue to test out new ideas through a long and productive life. He would explore the realm of communications as well as engage in a great variety of scientific activities involving kites, airplanes, tetrahedral structures, sheep-breeding, artificial respiration, desalinization and water distillation, and hydrofoils.

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