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The 150th anniversary of the birth of Alexander Graham Bell

The 14 karat gold coin available from the Royal Canadian Mint

Where would we be without him?

By Roger Burford Mason, Editor, Electrical Business Magazine, 33, No.10, 1997

Telephone and answering machine, fax, cellular telephone, Email and the Intemet - as a society which relies ever more heavily on remote communication, and as an industry which supplies the means of satisfying that reliance, we owe an enormous debt to the work of Alexander Graham Bell, whose 150th birthday we celebrate this year. Indeed, in some quarters, 1997 is spoken of as "Year 121 of The Electronic Era", dating from Bell's first patent for useful Improvements in Telegraphy" on March 7,1876. Bell was born on March 3, 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He attended the city's prestigious Royal High School until he was 14 years of age, and then took some courses at Edinburgh University and University College in London, but never graduated in any discipline and was largely self-taught as a scientist and engineer. In 1870, the family immigrated to Canada, settling briefly in Brantford, ON before moving to Boston in the United States two years later. For two generations, Bell's family had been among the foremost teachers of elocution and speech, and when the family settled in Boston, Bell opened a training centre for teachers of the deaf, later being appointed professor of speech and vocal physiology at Boston University. From speech therapy - dealing with the transmission and reception of sound waves in the human body - it was a logical step for Bell to pursue other means of transmitting sound and speech and he became particularly interested in the use of electrical oscillations as a means of carrying sound along a wire. Not being adept with his hands, Bell was fortunate to find and employ a young mechanic, Thomas A. Watson, as his assistant. Watson was everything his employer was not in this respect, and he became an enthusiastic maker and manager of Bell's technical equipment as Bell strove to develop and perfect sets of apparatus for transmitting and receiving sound. For five years, the two men worked at a variety of approaches to the problem, creating a number of machines which, alas, simply transmitted and received a jumble of strange noises. Nevertheless, on April 7, 1875 he received the patent for a multiple telegraph which sent two signals at the same time, and in September of that year he began to write the specifications for the world's first telephone. In the event, success came accidentally. On the morning of March 10, 1876, Bell overturned a jar of acid in his laboratory. "Mr. Watson," he said, using words which have since become famous. "Come here. I want you."
"J.Watson reminisces" movie clip

In a nearby room, Watson heard Bell's words coming from the speaker of one of the machines they were working on. He ran to Bell's laboratory shouting, "I can hear you. 1 can hear the words." In his laboratory notebook entry for March 10, 1876, Bell described what had happened when the accident was repeated as an experiment: "Mr. Watson was stationed in one room with the Receiving Instrument. He pressed one ear closely against (the armature of the receiving instrument) and closed his other ear with his hand. The Transmitting Instrument was placed in another room and the doors of both rooms closed. I then shouted into (the mouth piece) the following sentence: 'Mr. Watson come here - I want to see you. 'To my delight, he came and declared he had heard and understood what I had said".

Bell's notebook illustration for an early version of the telephone

But exciting as the event was, as proof of Bell's system, the inventor himself had been so confident of creating something that worked that, 25 days prior to this momentous occasion, he had applied for a US patent. Returning briefly to Canada, Bell made the world's first long-distance telephone call the next year, 1876, when he called one-way between a store in the Ontario village of Mount Pleasant and the telegraph office in the town of Brantford, eight miles away.

trade fair in Philadelpia

His invention received its first public demonstration at a trade fair in Philadelpia later in 1876, a month after the US Patent Office had granted him a patent for an apparatus for transmitting vocal and other sounds telegraphically "by causing electrical undulations, sirnilar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying said vocal or other sounds..." It was an achievement which was eventually to make him extremely rich, although the road to success was not to be untrammelled, and it took Bell the next 20 years to fight off counterclaims in the federal court by other inventors, making the patent for the telephone the most fought-over patent litigation in history at that time. Bell moved from Boston to Washington DC - perhaps to be nearer to the US Supreme Court, through which his patent was slowly winding its way - and continued his experiments in communication which reached their highest point, many think, in his work on the photophone-transmission of sound - using a light beam as a carrier; obviously a precursor to current optical fiber systems. However, his interests diversified as the century went on. He became one of the founders of the National Geographic Society in 1888 and, through it, of the National Geographic Magazine, and his scientific experimentation turned to such things as sonar, solar distilation, the hydrofoil and the use of the tetrahedron in architecture and construction.

Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site

In his later years, Bell returned to Canada and settled in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, where Parks Canada maintains the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site, with its Internet WEB site which presents exhibitions, lectures events related to Bell and his work. Also in Canada, the Bell Institute at the University College of Cape Breton ( maintains an archive of Bell's notebooks, laboratory books and family papers and material, and promotes research into historical and contemporary issue relating to communications. Strangely, Bell Canada seems marking the 150th anniversary in a very low-key way, with a simple school promotion linking Bell and the school children of the Brantford region, while the Royal Canadian Mint is marking the occasion with the issue of a 14-carat gold commemorative coin. For many, Bell ranks as one of the giants of 19th century science, and certainly his achievements are hard to dismiss. By his death in 1922, he had been granted 18 patents in his own name and shared 12 others with collaborators. Among patents bearing his name were 14 for various forms of telephony, four for the photophone, one for the phonograph (in which he was in competition with Thomas Alva Edison), five for different kinds of aerial vehicle, four for hydroplanes and two for a selenium cell. As we face a future of wired, wireless, infrared and fiber optic communication, and perhaps technologies we presently can only dream about, it is well to remember, and celebrate, the man who laid the building blocks of moderm communications.

Acknowledgments: The IEEE Canada would like to cordially thank Roger Mason, Editor of Electrical Business Magazine for permission to use his article, and Owen Fitzgerald for permission to use the video clips from his Bell CD-ROM .
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(Created: October 24, 1997)
Last update / 2003-01-30 / la dernière mise à jour