Alexander Graham Bell

An Extract from
Journal of the Institution of Post Office Electrical Engineers

Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 3 March 1847, the son of Alexander Melville Bell, a highly successful teacher of elocution and author of text books on the principles of correct speech.  His mother, Eliza Grace Symonds, was a portrait painter and accomplished musician.  The child was christened Alexander after his grandfather hut, on his eleventh birthday, adopted the middle name Graham, from the name of one of his father’s friends, Alexander Graham.

Bell’s formal education was undertaken at the Royal High School in Edinburgh and, later, at University College, London, where he studied physiology and anatomy. As a young man, he became interested in, and experimented with, telegraphy.  He also showed a flair for music and, for a short while, planned a musical career, but later decided to follow his father’s profession in speech studies, becoming a teacher of elocution.  When he was 22, his father took him into partnership in London, where he was then established.

Following the deaths of his 2 brothers from pulmonary tuberculosis, Bell’s family sailed for Canada on 21 July 1870, and settled in the province of Ontario.  There they bought a farmhouse on Tutelo Heights, overlooking a wide sweep of the Grand River, just outside the small town of Brantford.

Bell’s parents had been concerned about Alexander’s health, but it rapidly improved in his new home.  Within a few months, he was once again helping his father in his studies concerning speech and ways to help the deaf and the mute, and was eagerly involved in his own experiments.  In 1871, he achieved great success in Boston with his methods for teaching the deaf to speak, and a year later, opened a school of vocal physiology in Boston for the Instruction of the deaf and “for the correction of stammering and other defects of utterance”.  This was primarily a school for teachers of the deaf, but he gave direct instruction to deaf children in order to demonstrate teaching methods.  It was through his pupils that Bell met 2 other important figures in his life, who were later to become advisors and financial backers: Thomas Sanders and Gardiner Greene Hubbard.  Sanders had a son who had been born deaf, and Hubbard a daughter, Mabel, who had become deaf as a result of scarlet fever.  She was later to become Alexander Graham Bell’s wife.  In 1873, Bell became Professor of Vocal Physiology at Boston University.

The events that led to the invention of the telephone began in 1872.  Bell was attempting to send several telegraph messages simultaneously over a single wire by using a number of tuning forks.  This system he called the harmonic telegraph.  It was through these experiments, plus his knowledge of music, human speech and hearing, that Bell found the way to the principle of the telephone.  The idea was first formed at Bell’s home in Brantford during the summer of 1874. In the following year, after further experiments, he wrote the patent specification for the telephone, but it was not until 10 March 1876, at Boston, that the telephone carried its first intelligible sentence, when Bell, speaking to his assistant, said, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want (to see) you” (The actual phrase is disputed; see Dr. Watson's account).  Shortly after his marriage to Mabel Hubbard in July 1877, Bell and his bride sailed for England and, during the next year, he successfully introduced the telephone to this country.  Following his return to America, Bell seemed to lose interest in his invention and after 1881, took no active part in its development, but continued his work in the cause of the deaf.

For his invention, many great and famous universities and institutions honoured him and, in 1880, he was made an Officer of the Legion of Honour and awarded the Volta Prix of 50 000 francs by the French Government.  With this money, Bell founded the Volta laboratory in Washington.  There he was responsible for the development of the basic method of making gramophone records on wax discs and, from the sale of the patents, Bell established the Volta Bureau to carry on his work for the deaf.  He also founded the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf, and held numerous other distinguished offices.

For many years after the invention of the telephone, Bell lived a vigorous and creative life, pioneering in many fields.  One of his many achievements was the development of a hydrofoil boat which, in 1919, set a world marine speed record of 114.04km/h (70.86miles/h).  He worked on the problems of flight and, with his associates, invented the aileron, the device still used today to give lateral control to aircraft.  He was also partly responsible for man’s first powered flight in the British Empire, in 1909.

In 1920, Bell revisited Edinburgh to receive the freedom of the city.  Two years later, on 2 August 1922, he died, a citizen of the United States of America, at his summer residence at Beinn Bhreagh, near Baddeck, Cape Breton, at the northern end of Nova Scotia.

He was buried on Friday 4 August and, for one minute during the ceremony, telephone communication was suspended throughout North America as a tribute to the inventor of the telephone.  His grave is marked only by a rock, into which is set a tablet bearing Bell’s name, dates and his vocation: “Inventor”.


BACK Home page BT/GPO Telephones Search the Site Glossary of Telecom Terminology Quick Find All Telephone Systems

Last revised: November 28, 2010