Bell’s Early Life and Education
Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922) was born in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father, Alexander Melville Bell, was a teacher and author specializing in the physics and physiology of speech.
Bell’s father saw to his son’s earliest education at home. A little later, the boy was sent to Edinburgh’s Royal High School. He left the school at the age of 15.
As a young boy, Bell enjoyed studying botany and gathering specimens. He also began tinkering early on with various materials in order to come up with new practical gadgets and processes.
Around the age of 12, Bell invented a new type of dehusking device for use in the milling of flour. The device was intended as a gift for a neighbor of the family who ran a flour mill. In return, the neighbor allowed the young man to use his workshop.
In addition to his tinkering, the young Bell also took an interest in poetry, art, and, especially, music. Through his own efforts, he was able to learn the piano well enough to provide entertainment for family visitors.
In addition to his other avocations, Bell taught himself to be a proficient amateur ventriloquist.
His mother began to lose her hearing when Bell was still an adolescent. For this reason, he also explored the science of acoustics, in addition to his other interests.
Bell’s father published a book on elocution in 1868, which became an international bestseller. Among other things, he explained in this book the methods to use to teach deaf people to read lips and to produce articulate speech understandable to hearing people.
The elder Bell also created a system of phonetic notation he called “Visible Speech.” Bell fils mastered the system so well that he was able to participate in public demonstrations held by his father. An interesting aspect of these demonstrations was when the younger Bell would “speak” in foreign languages—including Latin, Sanskrit, and Scots Gaelic—based entirely on the Visible Speech representation of their sounds.
At the age of 16, the Bell family relocated to London, where one of Bell’s uncles already lived.
Before long, however, Bell returned to Edinburgh, where he spent a year as a “pupil-teacher” of elocution, music, Latin, and Greek at Weston House Academy. His “pupil-teacher” status meant that Bell both taught and studied (at a higher level) the same subjects, in return for board and spending money.
It was during his time at Weston House that Bell began to perform experiments with the production and transmission of vowel sounds. He also began to explore the potential of the recently invented telegraph at this time.
Bell next taught briefly at Somerset College in Bath, England, before attending the University of Edinburgh for two years.
In 1866, during his time at Edinburgh University, Bell discovered the work that was being done on human speech at that time in Germany—especially by the great German physicist/physiologist, Hermann von Helmholtz, whose book on the subject, Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik [On the Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music], had been published just three years earlier, in 1863. Bell read the book in a contemporary French translation.
In his book, Helmholtz described a simple tuning-fork mechanism that enabled him to produce any given vowel sound—a device not unlike one already invented by Bell. At first, Bell was dismayed that Helmholtz had beaten him to the punch.
However, Bell’s encounter with Helmholtz’s pioneering work also stimulated him to study electricity more profoundly, with a view to developing a new device that would be able to reproduce consonants as well as vowels.
Upon graduation from the University of Edinburgh, in 1868, Bell returned to London to apply to University College London. While in London, his father introduced him to Susannah E. Hull, who ran a private school for the deaf in the South Kensington neighborhood. By helping his father to mount a phonetics demonstration for the students at this institution, Bell attained more experience working with the deaf and mute.
Although Bell passed his entrance exams for University College, he had to leave London before he could begin his studies. His destination was Newfoundland, Canada.
Bell and his parents emigrated to Canada on the advice of their physician. All the male members of the family suffered from tuberculosis: one of Bell’s brothers had already died from the illness and the other brother was to die two years later. The move was made to save the lives of Bell’s brother and father, as well as Bell himself.
The ship Bell took landed in Newfoundland, where he was reunited with his parents, who had gone on ahead of him. His father had undergone a successful convalescence there once before.
Within two years, in 1870, the Bell family had purchased a farm near Brantford, Ontario, a town between Hamilton and London, Ontario.
Bell set up a laboratory on the premises of the farm. As it happens, the farm was not far from the Six Nations of the Grand River Indian reservation, near Hamilton. For one of his first projects, Bell traveled to the reservation to transcribe the sounds of the Mohawk language into Visible Speech.
During this period, Bell continued to accompany his father to demonstrations of Visible Speech, in Montreal and elsewhere.
In 1871, the father and son were invited to Boston by Sarah Fuller, principal of Boston School for Deaf Mutes (later, the Horace Mann School for the Deaf). For health reasons, the father declined, but the younger Bell successfully trained the staff at Boston. He was subsequently invited to hold similar training sessions as schools for the deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts, and Hartford, Connecticut.
Back home on the farm in Brantford, Bell continued to pursue experiments, mostly focused on sending messages at various pitches over a telegraph wire (the “harmonic telegraph”). However, progress was slow.
Bell was thinking about returning to London to complete his higher education. However, he eventually decided to set himself up in private practice in Boston as what we would now call a “speech therapist.”
In 1872, Bell opened his School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech in Boston. The school soon attracted a large number of pupils, many of whom were deaf. His very first class numbered 30 pupils in all. He also tutored students on an individual basis.
Bell is criticized today for promoting the “oral method” of teaching the deaf to lip-read and to spea, as opposed to learning American Sign Language, which is now the favored practice.
Bell, however, sincerely believed it was in the best interest of the deaf to participate as fully as possible in mainstream hearing society, and that the oral method contributed to this goal better than sign language.
One of students to whom Bell gave private lessons in later years was Helen Keller, who always spoke of him with the highest affection and respect.
Later in 1872, Bell was hired by Boston University, where he became a Professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution. He was still just 25 years old.
Over the next two years, Bell acquired two financial backers and a technical assistant by the name of Thomas A. Watson.
In early 1876, Bell patented an early version of the telephone. This first device did transmit sound over a telegraph wire. Unfortunately, the sound was too indistinct to be useful as a means of transmitting speech.
Only a few days later, Bell tried to improve the instrument by using a “liquid transmitter,” which had been developed by the inventor Elisha Gray and caused a diaphragm to vibrate as a function of the resistance in the electrical circuit. The resulting device was finally able to reproduce intelligible speech.
The first words Bell transmitted over his telephone were, “Mr. Watson, come here—I want you.” Bell famously spoke these words into the improved transmitter in his main lab, and Watson clearly understood them at the receiver in an adjoining room.
Bell faced criticism for his use of Gray’s liquid transmitter, and some observers at the time and in the years since believe that credit for the telephone properly belongs to Gray. However, Bell had already received a patent for the rest of his telephone when he improved the transmitter by using Gray’s design.
Gray filed a lawsuit and a deal of legal wrangling followed. The suit was eventually settled by Bell’s agreeing to pay Gray a small sum in compensation for his use of the liquid transmitter.
Because the telegraph system was well established by this time, the use of Bell’s telephone was able to expand very rapidly. Only five months after his breakthrough, Bell had already sent a voice message as far as Paris, France.
These earliest telephone calls were “one-way,” meaning that the messages had to be sent sequentially. An important further innovation occurred just two months later, when Bell sent the first “two-way” (or “reciprocal”) telephone message, allowing for a much more natural conversation between the two parties.
In 1877, Bell founded the Bell Telephone Company to help develop the telephone’s full commercial potential.
That same year, Bell married Mabel Gardiner Hubbard. Deaf from the age of five, Mabel Bell, as she was known after her marriage, was a former pupil of Bell’s, while her father was one of his main financial backers.
Not long afterwards, Bell explored selling his company to the Western Union telegraph company, but the latter did not come up with the necessary money.
In 1885, Bell folded the Bell Telephone Company into a holding company called the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T).
Bell’s investors became multi-millionaires, while thanks to residual payments, Bell himself eventually accumulated a fortune of approximately $1 million.
AT&T went on to become an industrial behemoth. It remained a fixture of American society for nearly a century, until 1982, when it was broken up by the US government in a landmark federal anti-trust case.
Book by Bell
The Question of Sign-Language and the Question of Signs in the Instruction of the Deaf: Two Papers (out of print) (1898).
Selected Books About Bell and the Telephone
Bruce, Robert V., Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude (1990).
Gray, Charlotte, Reluctant Genius: The Passionate Life and Inventive Mind of Alexander Graham Bell (2006).
Grosvenor, Edwin S., Alexander Graham Bell: The Life and Times of the Man Who Invented the Telephone (1997).
Montgomery, Elizabeth Rider, Alexander Graham Bell, Man of Sound (1963).
Rosen, Fred, Murdering the President: Alexander Graham Bell and the Race to Save James Garfield (2016).
Shulman, Seth, The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret (2008).
Toward, Lilias M., Mabel Bell: Alexander’s Silent Partner (1988).
van der Kooij, B.J.G., The Invention of the Communication Engine ‘Telephone’ (2016).