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Alexander Graham Bell

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Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) was an eminent scientist, inventor and innovator. Most often associated with the invention of the telephone, Bell was also called "the father of the deaf".

1847 Born in Edinburgh. His father, grandfather and brother had all been associated with work on elocution and speech, and both his mother and wife were deaf, profoundly influencing Bell's life's work.

From his early years, Bell showed a sensitive nature and a talent for art, poetry and music that was encouraged by his mother. With no formal training, he mastered the piano and became the family's pianist.

1861 Age 14, he went to London where he was instructed by his grandfather

1870 At age 23, Bell, his brother's widow, and his parents travelled to Canada. After landing at Quebec City, the Bells boarded a train to Montreal and later to Paris, Ontario to stay with the Reverend Thomas Henderson, a family friend. After a brief stay with the Hendersons, the Bell family purchased a ten and a half acre farm at Tutelo Heights (now called Tutela Heights), near Brantford, Ontario.

His research on hearing and speech further led him to experiment with hearing devices that eventually culminated in Bell being awarded the first U.S. patent for the invention of the telephone in 1876.

1880 The development of The Photophone. Description at The Engineer 1880/10/15.

In 1882, Bell became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

Many other inventions marked Bell's later life including groundbreaking work in hydrofoils and aeronautics, and the metal detector.

1888 Bell was one of the founding members of the National Geographic Society.

1922 August 2nd. Bell died of pernicious anemia, at his private estate, Beinn Bhreagh, Nova Scotia, at the age of 75.

1922 Obituary [1]

ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL, LL.D, Ph. D., D.Sc, who first joined the Institution in 1877 as a Member and was elected an Honorary Member in 1913, died on Wednesday, 2nd August, 1922, at the age of seventy-five, at his summer home in Nova Scotia, near Baddeck. He was buried on 4th August, at sunset, on the summit of a mountain overlooking the Bras d'Or Lakes.

The manifold activities of his life, devoted to the service of mankind, would require volumes to portray. The medals and other honours which he received from learned societies, his honorary degrees from universities at home and abroad, and special recognition by Governments, all testify to the esteem in which he was held. His scientific researches in the field of heredity and eugenics, his experiments in aeronautics, his work in improving the phonograph and in teaching the dumb to talk, and his invention of the photophone, reveal the scope of his mind. This record alone is enough to ensure his fame, but his fundamental discovery of the method of transmitting articulate speech by electricity, and his invention of the apparatus to do this, have placed his name among the immortals.

Dr. Bell was born on 3rd March, 1847, in Edinburgh, Scotland. He went to Canada in 1870; and the next year, at the age of twenty-four, he removed to Boston. After introducing into New England schools improved methods of teaching deaf-mutes to speak, he was appointed a professor in the School of Oratory of Boston University. In his spare time he conducted experimental researches in electrical wave transmission. He was assisted financially in these experiments by two gentlemen of Boston, Thomas Sanders and Gardiner Greene Hubbard.

By the summer of 1874, he had worked out his fundamental theory that the successful transmission of speech by electricity could be accom- plished by producing " electrical undulations similar in form to the vibrations of the air " which accompany the original words or sounds. In spite of great difficulties and discouragements, he succeeded in reducing his theory to practical form, when at Boston, in the summer of 1875, he invented a telephone which faintly transmitted parts of words and even entire words. Mr. Thomas A. Watson, Bell's assistant, relates that it was on 10th March, 1876, over a line extending between two rooms in a building at No. 5, Exeter-place, Boston, that the first complete sentence was ever spoken and heard through the electrical telephone. It was spoken by Bell and heard by Watson, who recorded it in his note book at the time. It consisted of these words: "Mr. Watson, come here; I want you." Thus the telephone was born. After completing his fundamental invention, Bell in a remarkable document predicted with amazing foresight the telephone, system of the future. He also invented the photophone, which was the first method of transmitting speech by electricity without wires, and the induction balance and telephone probe for which he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Medicine by the University of Heidelberg. To his successors in the laboratories in which he was the original worker, he left the further conduct of telephone research and development. Turning to other departments of science, he displayed his remarkable intellectual gifts by the fruitful researches which he conducted In his work on behalf of the deaf, which he continued to the end, is revealed a dominant motive in his life.

To Bell was accorded a privilege so often denied to those who have advanced the world by their discoveries - he lived to see the triumph of his great idea. When the first sentence was transmitted, the public regarded the telephone as a mere toy. Then, the telephone plant of the entire world could be carried in the arms of a child. To-day, vast telephone systems of intercommunication have been developed, extending the spoken word among the peoples of the nations. The advances of the telephone art made by the successors of Bell were always a source of great satisfaction to him. Some of these, epoch-making in their nature, gave him special gratification.

On 25th January, 1915, the transcontinental line spanning Bell's adopted country from ocean to ocean was, in the presence of dignitaries of state and nation, dedicated to the public service. This was a day of triumph for Bell, for, using a reproduction of the original instrument, he once again spoke the memorable words: "Mr. Watson, come here; I want you." But this time Bell was at New York, and Watson who heard him with perfect ease, was 3 000 miles away in San Francisco. Another advance attained the greatest distance over which the transmission of speech had ever been achieved. Early in the morning of 30th September, 1915, words were spoken through a radio telephone at Arlington, Virginia, to the Hawaiian Islands where they were plainly heard. But, as if to proclaim the telephonic conquest of time as well as space, the words reached these distant islands of the Pacific when it was there still the evening of 29th September. There yet remained to be realized that prophetic dream of the early telephonists—the bridging of the Atlantic by the human voice. But the day of its fulfilment was not far off, for on 21st October, 1915, during the dark days of the war, speech was for the first time in history successfully transmitted across the Atlantic Ocean. This was accomplished by the radio telephone, which carried the words spoken at Arlington, to the Eiffel Tower at Paris. The last memorable telephone development destined to occur in the life of Bell will always be associated with a great historic occasion. At the burial of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington, on 11th November, 1921, the voice of President Harding, by means of the new loud-speaking amplifiers, was easily heard by the great concourse of a hundred thousand people about him, even by those in the most distant parts of the vast cemetery. Corresponding multitudes numbered by tens of thousands, at New York and San Francisco heard over the wires every word spoken by their Chief Magistrate, as clearly as though in his actual presence. These distant multitudes heard also the invocation of the Chaplain, the music and the hymns, and the words of the commitment service used by the Bishop at the grave. They joined with each other and with those at the cemetery in the singing of the hymns, and they united with the President in reciting The Lord's Prayer with which he closed his address. They heard in amazement the salvos of artillery fired at the grave, and even those on the shores of the Pacific caught the loud reverberations thrown back by the Virginian hills. At the end, in profound silence and with heads bowed in sorrow, they listened to the plaintive notes of the trumpet sounding the soldiers' last farewell. On that day, the achievements of science imparted a mystical power to the most solemn national ceremony in the history of America. This ceremony, its deep significance so enriched by the art of Bell, we can now believe contained an exalted sanction of the greatest of all the achievements of his life.

1922 Obituary [2]

"To Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, whose death occurred on Wednesday of this week, the world owed a great debt for the invention of the telephone. Bell was born in Edinburgh in March, 1847, and at the age of fourteen he came to London, where he was instructed by his grandfather in elocution and the theory of speech. Returning later to Edinburgh he studied at the University and subsequently became a schoolmaster at Elgin. Later still he acted as assistant to his father, who was at that time lecturer on elocution in the University College, London; and, having matriculated at the London University, he then attended medical classes. During this time, it seems, he met two eminent scientists, Alexander J. Ellis and Sir Charles Wheatstone, from whom he acquired knowledge which in later years proved of great assistance to him in connection with the development of his telephone. Mr Ellis, it appears, called his attention to the experiments of Helmholtz, which showed that tuning forks could be kept in a state of vibration by electro-magnets; whilst Sir Charles Wheatstone provided him with knowledge relating to telegraphy and an ingenious talking machine devised by Baron de Kampelin.

When quite a young man Bell crossed the Atlantic with his father, and at the age of twenty-five he was appointed Professor of Vocal Physiology at the Boston University. Whilst working on multiple telegraphy at Brantford in Ontario in the middle of 1874 he realised that speech could be transmitted over wires if the variations in current produced by speech could be made to move an iron diaphragm in the same way as the air is moved during the passage of sound. The first telephone was made in 1875, whilst the first experiments in what was then considered long distance transmission were carried out in 1876, when the Dominion Telegraph Company placed lines at his disposal in order that he might test the practical possibilities of his idea. The transmitting apparatus was in Paris, Ontario, and the receiver in Brantford, eight miles away. Speech was first transmitted in one direction only, but subsequently conversations were carried on by two persons at opposite ends of the line."...[more]

1922 Obituary[3]

"The late Dr. Alexander Graham Bell.—The death of Dr. Graham Bell, the famous inventor of the telephone, took place at Baddeck, Nova Scotia, on the 2nd inst. Dr. Bell was born in Edinburgh in 1847, and was thus in his 76th year. The invention on which his fame rests was perfected in its original form in 1876, and was the outcome of attempts to construct an electrical apparatus which would enable the deaf to hear. Dr. Bell was a man of considerable scientific attainments, and had other important inventions to his credit in addition to the telephone. He also did original early work in connection with aeronautics. We will hope to deal fully with his work and career in our next issue."

1922 Obituary[4]

"Among the great inventions of the nineteenth 8 century, which have done so much to dictate the conditions of modern life, the telephone takes an important place, and it is likely that Alexander Graham Bell, by his work in connection with the instrument has ensured himself permanent memory in the history of scientific and mechanical advance. From the purely sociological point of view the telephone is probably of less importance than the telegraph, but it is none the less difficult to conceive the state of a modem Western community if deprived of the instrument. This admission may suggest a defective imagination since Bell’s first successful telephone was constructed as recently as 1876, but it is fairer to remember that the advances made in photography, telegraphy, telephony, prime movers, electrical work and aeronautics since that date have deeply modified the main part of the proceedings of Western mankind.

The death of Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, which took place at Beinn Bhreamgh, his summer residence near Baddeck, Nova Scotia, on the 2nd inst., raises memories of old controversies about priority in the invention of the telephone. Important early inventions were made by many workers, but it is certainly to Bell that we owe the employment of an iron disc clamped at the edge and vibrating in unison with the spoken voice, the vibration of the; disc being used to vary the magnetic flux through a coil. The currents so generated are used to vibrate a similar disc at the far end of the line and so reproduce the original speech. The practical value of Bell’s telephone was greatly extended by! Edison’s invention of the carbon transmitter about a year later, but it is remarkable that Bell’s instrument differs in no important particular from the telephone receiver in common use to-day. Bell patented his telephone in America on February 14, 1876, and in this country on December 9 of the same year. Edison patented his invention of the carbon transmitter in America on July 20, 1877, and in this country 10 days later.

Although the telephone as we now have it owes its success essentially to the work of Bell and Edison and particularly to Bell, as he independently produced an entirely practical instrument both for transmitting and receiving, none the less important work was done by others. It is not necessary to attempt here any complete history of the telephone, but some mention may be made of early inventions since it is likely Bell had some knowledge of many of them and may possibly have been influenced in his work by what others had done. When a young man in London he met Sir Charles Wheatstone1 and Mr. Alexander J. Ellis, and from the latter learned of Helmholtz’s work in connection with the vibration of tuning forks by electromagnets. Wheatstone himself, in 1831, had constructed a rudimentary mechanical telephone in which vibrations were conducted between two sounding boards through a rod of pine wood.

Before proceeding to the details of Bell’s own work, reference should be made to the famous . article by Charles Bourseul which appeared in L'Illustration of Faris, on August 26, 1854. This described a telephone in which a flexible plate, vibrating in response to varying air pressure, was used to open and close an electric circuit, the current pulsations being used to operate a similar plate at the receiving station by means of an electromagnet. It will be clear that this apparatus proposed an entirely different method from that used by Bell. It, however, had much in common with the telephone constructed by Philip Reis, who has been held by many, notably by the late Sylvanus Thompson, to be the inventor of the telephone. Reis used a membrane, the vibration of which opened and closed an electric circuit, the electric impulses noting on an electromagnet which gave out a sound corresponding to the number of times it was magnetised and demagnetised per second. This effect of an electromagnet had been pointed out by Dr. 0. G. Page, of Salem, Mass., in 1837. It is stated that Reis’ telephone reproduced the consonants “ pretty distinctly,” but that the vowels were defective. Reis seems to have considered only pitch and amplitude when dealing with the question of the transmission of speech, and to have overlooked the question of quality, or shape of the wave, altogether. It is difficult to believe that his instrument or his method could ever have formed the basis of a successful telephone system. This question of quality of sound was one not at all likely to be overlooked by Bell as he had been interested in it all his life.

Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh on March 3, 1847. His father and his grandfather were both teachers of vocal physiology and the laws of speech, so that Bell from very early years was interested in all matters pertaining to the human voice. When he was a boy his father told him about a talking machine he had seen, and the boy attempted to construct such a machine for himself, making a sort of artificial skull from rubber which produced sounds resembling simple words when it was blown into with a pair of bellows. When Alexander was 14 years of age he came to London, and was instructed by his grandfather in elocution and phonetics. He returned to Edinburgh to attend courses at the University and for a short time was a schoolmaster at Elgin. He was later, hut still quite as a young man, assistant to his father, who had obtained a post as lecturer in elocution at University College, London. It was at this time that Bell met Wheatstone and Ellis and became interested in Helmholtz’s work on the electromagnetic control of tuning forks. In 1870 the Bell family emigrated to Canada for reasons of health. Alexander was delicate and two of his brothers had died from tuberculosis. The family went to Brantford in Ontario, but in 1871 Alexander obtained an appointment in Boston; giving instruction to deaf and dumb children. He was 24 years of age at this time, and it was during the next few years that the invention on which his fame rests was worked out. He remained in , Boston until 1881, when he removed to Washington, and it was in Boston that his vital work on the telephone was done. At no time during these years does Bell appear to have lost his interest in, or slacked in his study of, all matters bearing on the mechanism of speech, and he gradually worked towards his practical instrument. The basic idea of varying the electric current in terms of the vibration of a diaphragm, rather than interrupting the current as Reis had done, seems to have been behind all Bell’s definite work on the telephone. In an early instrument the armature of an electro-magnet carried an arm, a study on the end of which pressed against a stretched membrane of parchment, Owing to the weight of the moving parts this did not prove successful and a piece of clock spring was substituted for the arm and was secured to the centre of the membrane. This arrangement was sufficiently satisfactory to show that the work was on the right lines, and as experiment showed that better results were obtained by increasing the size of the piece of clock spring which acted as the armature, Bell gradually arrived at the arrangement in which an iron disc acted both as armature and diaphragm. At this stage the modem telephone was achieved. Later work was in the direction of minor improvement, although, as we have said, the resemblance between a Bell instrument and a modern receiver is certainly remarkable.

In the early part of 1876 Bell was able to conduct satisfactory conversations with his T. A. Watson, between his laboratory and an attic at the University of Boston, and in the same year the instrument was successfully used over a telegraph line at Brantford. Bell’s claims were at first received with considerable incredulity, but he seems to have received great assistance from the display of his instrument - which he made at the Centennial Exposition held in Philadelphia in 1876. The matter was brought to the eye of authority through the Emperor of Brazil, who saw the instrument and was greatly impressed by it. The instrument was also seen by Lord Kelvin (then Sir William Thomson), who brought an example to England and exhibited it before the British Association. As may easily be understood, the telephone was not immediately a commercial success. The patent was attacked by Reis, Elisha Gray and others on the score of priority, but ultimately Bell’s claims were fully established and he was secure in one of the most valuable patents ever granted. A company was formed with the assistance of Mr. G. G. Hubbard, the father of Dr. Bell’s wife, and later Mr. T. N. Vail assisted on the commercial side. The extent to which the instrument has now spread to every civilised country requires no dwelling on.

Although it is on his work on the telephone that the fame of Dr. Bell will rest, he did much other scientific work of an important character, and his interests were wide. He made many researches in connection with the transmission of sound by means of light, by utilising the change in resistance of selenium when a varying light falls on it. The general lines of work of this class are well known. With the exception of the Optophone we are not aware that any apparatus depending on this property of selenium has proved of any important practical value, but the field would always appear to offer possibilities. Dr. Bell transmitted speech a distance of 213 m. by a beam of light from an instrument placed on the top of the Franklin school house in Washington. He found that articulate speech could be reproduced “by the oxyhydrogen fight and even by a beam from a kerosene lamp.”

Dr. Bell was also interested in mechanical flight and constructed at least two aeroplanes. The second, named Cygnet II, was tested in Nova Scotia in the year 1909. It was largely built of bamboo, and measured some 50 ft. from wing tip to wing tip. It was fitted with a 35-h.p. motor driving the single propeller through a chain. Like other early workers on' the aeroplane, Dr. Bell was a believer in a cellular construction, and Cygnet II was built up with an enormous number of tetrahedral cells disposed over a slightly inclined plane. The work on this machine followed fairly successful flights as a kite of an earlier machine. Cygnet I, which was built on the same lines. This kite machine reached a height of 168 ft. in December, 1907, and remained aloft for 7 minutes. These were, of course, early days in heavier-than-air aviation, and Dr. Bell does not seem to have been actively concerned in the practical developments of the last ten years. He believed that the cellular construction would give stability and would allow of safe, slow flight.

Dr. Bell visited this country for the last time towards the end of the year 1920, when he received , the Freedom of his native city of Edinburgh. He at that time attended a meeting of the Wireless Section of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, of which he was an honorary member, and spoke on the subject of wireless telephony. Dr. Bell was the recipient of many distinctions. He received the Hughes medal of the Royal Society and the Albert medal of the Royal Society of Arts. He was also presented with the French Volta prize, and with it established the Volta Laboratory at Washington for the study and investigation of the transmission and reproduction of articulate sounds. He had honorary degrees from various universities, including Harvard, Illinois and Heidelberg."

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