Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Frank P. Bachman

Alexander Graham Bell and the Invention of the Telephone

THE electric telegraph of Morse was a wonderful invention. A still more wonderful method of sending messages was to be found. There is scarcely a boy or girl old enough to read this book, who has not used the telephone time and time again. So useful is the telephone, that it would now be very difficult for the world to get along without it. Yet it was not invented until 1876. The inventor was Alexander Graham Bell.

Birthplace and Education

Alexander Graham Bell was born at Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1847. He was educated at the Royal High School of Edinburgh, and also attended the University of Edinburgh and the University of London. From boyhood, he was taught at home by his father, about sound and oral speech, and he also received training in music. When he was more than sixty years old, he wrote the following account of his early experiences.

"As I look back and see what points in my early life had an influence on this result, I think that one important element was my love of music. I could play the piano before I could read or write. I could play anything by ear . . . In fact as a little chap I was considered quite a musical prodigy, by a distinguished Italian teacher . . . who, when I was about nine or ten years of age, took me under his charge to make a musician of me, but he did not succeed. Anyway, I had this love of music. I could play all sorts of musical instruments in a sort of a way. I also knew how the different musical instruments were made. I was just as familiar with beating reeds and free reeds, and the way in which the sounds were produced, as a person could be who had really studied the subject.

"A second element was of even greater importance. I came of a family that had made a . . . study of oral speech for two generations before me. My grandfather, Alexander Bell, a distinguished teacher of elocution in London, was the first. Both of his sons,—my father, Alexander Melville Bell, and my uncle, David Charles Bell,—took up the same work. They also . . . devoted their attention to the correction of defects of speech. People who lisped, or stammered, or did anything of that sort, came to my father, to be taught, for example, how to place the organs of speech in forming sounds.

"In my early boyish days, I had the destructive faculty very fully developed. My toys never remained whole in my hands. I would always pull them to pieces to see how they were made, and one of my earliest studies in that respect was plants. I had a delight in puffing plants to pieces to see how they were made. When I was quite a little fellow, I actually took up the study of botany, and I had my collection of plants. My father encouraged me in it. He always encouraged me in making collections of all sorts, and that is a most important thing in the case of a boy. He taught me to observe, compare, and classify. I passed through the stamp-collecting age, the egg age, and the coin age, but the things I took most interest in were the flowers.

"There was another thing which now, as I look back upon it, was of the greatest consequence in its bearing upon the telephone. My father encouraged his boys to study everything relating to the mechanism of speech. We were very much interested in reading of the construction of an automaton speaking machine . . .

"My father proposed to his boys that they should try to make a speaking machine . . . The work was parceled out between my brother Melville and myself. He was to make the lungs and the throat, and the vocal chords, and I was to undertake the mouth . . . I made a mouth modeled from a skull . . . My brother had finished his larynx about the same time that I had made the mouth, and it was a great day when we put the two together. We did not wait for the wind chest that was to represent the lungs . . . but we stuck the thing together. My brother blew through the tube that was to lead from the wind chest, and I took the lips of my machine and moved them. Out came a sound like a Punch and Judy show, and we were delighted when we moved the lips up and down to hear 'Ma-ma! Ma-ma!' distinctly . . .

"My father used the machine to impress upon us the mechanism of speech, but we cared more for the effects produced. I remember very well, one time, when my brother and I took this machine out to the common stairway at Edinburgh . . . My brother blew, and there came a sound like a regular squalling baby, 'Ma-ma! Ma-ma!' in a most distressing tone of voice. Then we were perfectly delighted to hear a door open upstairs and some person come out. When we made it cry for all it was worth, we heard someone say, 'My goodness! What is the matter with the baby?' That was just what we wanted. We crept into our own house softly and shut the door and left our neighbors to look for the baby.


Testing Their Talking Machine on the Neighbors

"There came another period in which I took up what might be termed scientific research . . . Now a controversy arose . . . between my father and myself . . . He had shown that when you whisper vowel sounds you hear musical effects; and when you whisper the vowels in the order in which he had them in his system of Visible Speech, he would . . . hear an ascending scale of musical tones, whereas I as distinctly heard a descending scale . . . To my ear 'E' gave the highest sound and 'Ah' the lowest; to my father's ear 'E' gave the lowest sound and 'Ah' gave the highest. We really had a heated argument over it, until I made the discovery . . . that there were two series of musical tones, one going down and the other going up. My father was convinced that we were both right . . . advised me—I was only sixteen then—to communicate my discovery to a most distinguished man on the subject of phonetics and sound in Great Britain, Alexander Ellis.

"I wrote to him and sent him my analysis of sounds . . . I received a note from Mr. Ellis telling me that I had made a great discovery, but that someone had made it before me. The man who did it was a man by the name of Helmholtz, a great German physicist.

"I went to see Mr. Ellis, and he showed me Helmholtz's book. It was in German and I could not read German, but Mr. Ellis tried to tell me about Helmholtz. He said that . . . Helmholtz had not only analyzed vowel sounds, but had reproduced them by tuning forks . . . set in vibration by an electric current, . . . and I knew nothing of electricity. How I wished I knew how those tuning forks were set in vibration! . . .

"In my ignorance of electricity, I had a curious delusion, and that again had something to do with the telephone. I had the idea, in my ignorance of what Helmholtz had really done, that he had transmitted vowel sounds by electricity; that he had reproduced at the other end of a telegraph line, with those tuning forks, the various vowel sounds. That was my idea. It was all wrong. He never had any such idea, he never did any such thing, but that was my idea, and it occurred to me: 'If Helmholtz could transmit and reproduce vowel sounds, you could reproduce consonant sounds as well; you could reproduce speech.'

"About this time my two brothers died of consumption. As I had overtaxed my own health by overwork—I was teaching by day and studying by night—my father insisted on my stopping all work and going with him to Canada. He bought a farm near Brantford, Ontario, and for some months I lived out of doors."

Teacher of the Deaf and Dumb

"My father had suggested a use of his system of pictorial symbols representing the position of the vocal organ in forming sounds . . . which caught my fancy . . . He said: 'Here are symbols which have again and again enabled people to pronounce . . . the sounds of a language they have never heard . . . Why, then, might it not be possible through this means to teach the deaf and dumb, who have never heard English, to use their mouths?' I became infatuated with this idea and formed a plan for teaching the deaf and dumb." It was not long before Bell had an opportunity to put his idea into practice. The Board of Education of Boston employed him to teach in the public school for the deaf, and he began his work in April, 1871.

"The teachers in the school for the deaf had been trying to teach the children to speak, and had met with good success. But the teachers made a claim that seemed to me to be ridiculous. They claimed not only that deaf children could be taught to speak . . . but that after they had been taught to speak, they could come to understand speech by looking at the mouth of the speaker . . . I did not dare to say no, but I did not believe it, and out of my skepticism about lip reading grew the telephone."

Bell worked to develop a series of sound pictures, so that deaf children might learn to speak by sight. One of the instruments with which he worked was the phonautograph. The phonautograph used by Bell was a large cone, closed at the small end by a membrane of gold-beater's skin. Hung at one edge of the membrane and attached to the center was a light wooden lever. The other end of the lever extended forward beyond the membrane, and on the end of it was fastened a pig's bristle. Speak into the phonautograph, and the membrane and lever will vibrate, or move back and forth. The vibration of the bristle at the end of the lever traces a zigzag line on a smoked glass drawn underneath. Each sound, "A," "E," etc., has its own vibration or sound picture. Bell's idea was to photograph these sound pictures; then give the deaf child the sound picture of, for example, "A," and put him to work to produce on the phonautograph a sound that would make a similar zigzag line. In this way the child would learn to sound the different letters.

"It struck me," says Bell, "that in the phonautograph, there was a remarkable resemblance to the human ear.


Sound Waves Made with Human Ear Apparatus

"I went to a distinguished aurist of Boston, and told him I wanted to make a phonautograph, modeling it after the ear. He replied, 'Why don't you use a human ear itself, taken from a dead man, as a phonautograph?' That was quite a new idea, and I said, 'I shall be very glad to do that, but where can I get a dead man's ear?' 'Oh,' he said, 'I will get it for you,' and he did. This was in 1874.

"When my summer vacation came, I ran up to Brantford, Ontario, to spend the time with my parents. I took the human ear with me in order to get tracings. I moistened the membrane with glycerine and water, attached a piece of hay to one of the little bones, and rigged up an apparatus for dragging a piece of smoked glass underneath. Through a speaking trumpet I spoke into that dead man's ear, and obtained beautiful tracings of the vibrations upon smoked glass."


Phonautograph Tracings on Smoked Glass

Birth of the Telephone

From his study of Helmholtz, Bell thought he saw how to use tuning forks vibrated by an electric current, to send at one time many telegraph messages over one wire. Bell called his invention the multiple or harmonic telegraph. But up to the time he left Brantford for Boston, in April, 1871, the multiple telegraph was merely an idea.

After reaching Boston, Bell was busy instructing teachers how to teach deaf children to talk, and in teaching little deaf children himself. There were many deaf children whose parents were willing to pay almost any sum to have them taught to speak, and Bell was so successful in doing this, that he opened a private school of his own in October, 1872. To this school there came deaf-mutes, teachers of the deaf and dumb, and persons with defective speech.

Bell also took complete charge of the education of a deaf child, George Sanders, and often gave public talks to interest people in the education of the deaf.

In the fall of the next year, Bell went to Salem, Massachusetts, to make his home with the grandmother of his little pupil, George Sanders. In the attic of his new home he fixed up a workroom. This was supplied with tuning forks, reeds, magnets, electric batteries, wire, and the like. His days were spent in Boston at his school, but many an evening found him in his attic workshop, busy with his multiple telegraph.


Talking in First Form of Telephone

"Often in the middle of the night Bell would wake me up," said Thomas Sanders, the father of George. "His black eyes would be blazing with excitement. Leaving me to go up to the attic, he would rush wildly to the barn and begin to send me signals along his experimental line. If I noticed any improvement in his machine, he would be delighted. He would leap and whirl around in one of his 'war dances,' and then go contentedly to bed. But if the experiment was a failure, he would go back to his bench and try some different plan."

When Bell arrived at Brantford, in the summer of 1874, he was thus carrying on two studies. He was working on his multiple telegraph, and he was trying to make tracings of the vibrations of sounds so as to get sound pictures to use in teaching the deaf.

Bell had with him, as has been said, a phonautograph made from a dead man's ear. "As I was holding the human ear in my hand, it struck me," says Bell, "that the bones of that human ear were very massive compared to the membrane. The membrane was like a little piece of tissue paper, hardly the size of a finger nail, and the bones that were moved by the little membrane were really very heavy. It suddenly occurred to me, that if such a small membrane as that would move bones so massive in comparison, why would not a larger membrane move my piece of iron? At once the idea of a membrane speaking telephone became complete in my mind. All I had to do was to attach a steel reed, not tuned to any definite pitch, to the center of a stretched membrane, just as in the phonautograph, so that it would vibrate in front of an electromagnet, and put another at the end of a telegraph wire, and we would have . . . a speaking telephone."

The idea of a membrane electric-speaking telephone was thus complete in Bell's mind in the summer of 1874. But he did not try to make one, for he felt it would not work. On his return to Boston, in the fall of 1874, Bell succeeded in interesting Thomas Sanders and Gardner Hubbard in his ideas. Sanders was the father of George Sanders, the little boy who was being instructed by Bell, and Hubbard was the father of Mabel Hubbard, also one of his pupils. Sanders and Hubbard promised to pay the cost of Bell's experiments. But he gave his time chiefly to the multiple telegraph, because they thought this invention would be more profitable than the telephone.

The next year was full of work. Bell toiled day and night, making experiment after experiment. Such was the progress on the multiple telegraph, that an application for a patent was made in February, 1875, for "Improvement in Transmitting Telegraph Messages." The patent was granted in April, 1875. Like so many other patents, nothing ever came of the multiple telegraph, though Bell worked on it for some years to come.

Making the First Telephone

Bell's hard work on the multiple telegraph told on his courage. At one time he was about ready to give up trying to invent a telephone, but was encouraged to go on by the same great man who helped Morse, Professor Henry. Bell visited Henry, to consult with him about some experiments connected with the multiple telegraph. "I felt so much encouraged by his interest," wrote Bell to his parents, "that I decided to ask his advice about the apparatus I have designed for the transmission of the human voice. I explained the idea and said: 'What would you advise me to do, publish it and let others work it out, or attempt to solve the problem myself?' He said he thought it was 'the germ of a great invention,' and advised me to work at it myself . . . I added that I felt that I had not the electrical knowledge necessary to overcome the difficulties. His laconic answer was 'Get it.'

"I cannot tell you how much these two words have encouraged me . . . Such an idea as telegraphing vocal sounds would . . . to most minds seem scarcely feasible enough to spend time in working over. I believe . . . that it is feasible, and that I have the clue to the solution of the problem."

If Bell did not have the "clue," when writing to his parents, it was discovered by accident in June, 1875. On this eventful day in the history of the telephone, Bell and his assistant, Mr. Watson, were at work trying to send three messages at one time over one wire. Watson was in one room, and Bell in another. Each had three instruments. Each instrument was composed of an electromagnet and a vibrating steel used for an armature.

Bell completed the electric circuit connecting the instruments, and plucked the reed of instrument A. "I asked Watson," said Bell afterwards, "whether his instrument A responded. He said: 'No; the armature of A sticks to the magnet . . . 'I called to him to pluck it loose. It so happened that I had my eyes upon my instrument A, and when he plucked it loose, I saw the armature of my instrument A get into vigorous vibration. I thought that was strange, so I called to Watson, 'Pluck it again.' . . . Well, we did not do anything all that day but pluck reeds . . . Why did we pluck those reeds all that day? It was proof that the wave-like current produced by the vibration of an armature in front of an electromagnet was powerful enough to produce practical effects. The telephone I had had in mind since the summer of 1874 was really a practical thing. I instantly gave instructions to have the first telephone made."


Original Box Telephone

June was a busy and feverish month for both Watson and Bell. Everything about a membrane electric-speaking telephone had to be learned. Experiments were made to find out whether the best results could be obtained with permanent magnets at each end of the line or with electro-magnets. Tests were made with armatures of different thickness and size. Different ways were tried of fastening the armature to goldbeater's skin, which was used for the membrane. The different parts were put together now in this way and now in that way. At least two unsuccessful instruments were made. Finally the third instrument was ready for trial. The same instrument was used both as a transmitter and as a receiver. That is, one would speak into the instrument and then place his ear to it to hear what was said in reply.

The trial was made in a noisy electrical workshop. Bell was upstairs with one instrument, and Watson was downstairs with another; the two instruments were connected in an electric circuit. Of this trial Bell says: "I spoke, and shouted, and sang into the instrument upstairs. Presently Mr. Watson came upstairs in a state of great excitement. He said: 'I hear your voice; I could almost understand what you said!' I said: 'Try for me.' He tried for me, but I could not hear him. There was no doubt about it, that he could hear something that I said, but I could not very well make out what he said . . . I could account for the trouble. In the first place, we were in a noisy workshop. My ears, not being accustomed to that noisy workshop, were not so good as his. I was an elocutionist and knew how to throw out my voice; he was a mechanic who did not know. So I could speak better than he could, while he could hear better than I could. I had faith that the instruments were all right, and it turned out that they were. We tried the instruments in a quiet place and they worked all right."

Exhibiting the Telephone

Bell was granted a patent on his telephone on March 6, 1876. He was then twenty-nine years of age, and the possessor of what turned out to be the "most valuable single patent ever granted."

Mr. Hubbard, Bell's friend and future father-in-law, had charge of the educational exhibit of the Centennial Exposition, in 1876. He persuaded Bell to exhibit his multiple telegraph and telephone. The telephone transmitter,—the part one speaks into,—which Bell sent to Philadelphia, was made like the transmitter he and Watson had used in their trial of July, 1875. But the form had been changed so that one could speak into the tube with greater ease, and could more easily throw the voice directly against the membrane. They had also learned by experience, that one could understand better what was said, if a different instrument was used as a receiver,—the part that is held to the ear. So Bell made what came to be known as the iron-box receiver; one of these was also sent to Philadelphia. In the iron-box receiver, instead of employing goldbeater's skin for the membrane, as was done in the transmitter, a thin circular piece of iron was used. With the iron-box receiver, it was easy to hear what was said at some little distance from the instrument.

Bell's telephone instruments were at the Centennial a month, but no one paid much attention to them. Then of a sudden the telephone became the most talked-of article at the great exhibition. The wonderful change came about in this way.


Bell's Centennial Receiver

On Sunday, June 25, the electrical instruments were to be shown to the judges. Dom Pedro, Emperor of Brazil, Sir William Thompson, the greatest electrical scientist at that time in the world, and other famous people were to be there. Mr. Hubbard was anxious that Bell should go to Philadelphia and exhibit his instruments himself, but Bell, because of his school work, refused to go.

"Then Mr. Hubbard took an unfair advantage of me," says Bell. "He appealed to a certain young lady to see what she could do to influence me." (The young lady was none other than Mabel Hubbard, whom Bell married a year later.) "I told her that, of course, I would be glad to go, but that it was impossible; that it was right in the midst of my examinations, and it would not be fair to my pupils. She said, 'Well, won't you come down to the station with me?' 'Yes, I will go down to the station, but you need not try to persuade me, as I cannot go.' So we went down to the station and walked up and down the platform. When the train was going off, and when she saw that I was really not going, she too used an unfair advantage. Who can bear to see a young girl weep? I just jumped on that train. I did not have any baggage or anything else. So, growling like a bear, I went to Philadelphia . . .

"On Sunday I went out to the exhibition. There were a whole lot of electrical exhibits to be shown, . . . and the poor judges were trotted around to see one thing after another until they were fairly ready to drop. I followed the judges around, while they looked at this thing and that thing. They came finally to an exhibit of Elisha Gray, who had a machine for transmitting musical tones like my multiple telegraph. He gave a very interesting talk. It was very interesting to me, because I came next, and he kept on and kept on, until at last, when he got through, the chairman of the judges said they would postpone the further examination of electrical apparatus to another day. That meant that they would never see the telephone . . . I could only stay that Sunday, and I felt that my whole exhibit was cut out. The judges began to disperse, when suddenly Emperor Dom Pedro saw me, and recognized me as the young man whom he had met in Boston, when he visited the school for the deaf and dumb. He came up to me and said, 'Mr. Bell, how are the deaf-mutes in Boston?' I told him they were very well, and that my exhibit was the next. He said he must go to see it, took my arm and walked off with me, and of course the judges followed like a flock of sheep. My exhibit was saved."


Dom Pedro and the Telephone

The instruments were ready for use. Dom Pedro took a seat at a table on which rested the little iron-box receiver, and was asked to hold his ear near the top of the strange little instrument. Bell sat down in another room and spoke slowly and with great distinctness into the tube of the transmitter. Dom Pedro, of course, did not know what to expect, nor did anyone else in the room. Suddenly the Emperor raised his head and with a look of utter amazement on his face exclaimed, "It talks!" Then came Sir William Thompson, who knew so much about electricity; he listened, and listened, and listened to that little iron disk talk with a human voice. Then with great emphasis said, "It does speak. It is the most wonderful thing I have seen in America . . . It is the greatest marvel hitherto achieved by the electric telegraph . . . Before long, friends will whisper their secrets over the electric wire!"


Modern Telephone

When Sir William Thompson spoke, the world believed.

"I went to bed the night before," said Bell, "an unknown man, and awoke to find myself famous. I owe it to Sir William Thompson, back of him to Dom Pedro, and back of him to the deaf-mutes of Boston."