Alexander Graham Bell (March 3, 1847 – August 2, 1922) was an eminent scientist, inventor, engineer and
innovator who is credited with inventing the first practical telephone.
Bell's 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. His research on hearing and
speech further led him to experiment with hearing devices which eventually culminated in Bell being awarded
the first US patent for the telephone in 1876. In retrospect, Bell considered his most famous invention an
intrusion on his real work as a scientist and refused to have a telephone in his study.
Many other inventions marked Bell's later life, including groundbreaking work in optical
telecommunications, hydrofoils and aeronautics. In 1888, Alexander Graham Bell became one of the founding
members of the National Geographic Society. Bell has been described as one of the most influential figures
in human history.
Alexander Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on March 3, 1847. The family home was at 16 South Charlotte
Street, and has a stone inscription, marking it as Alexander Graham Bell's birthplace. He had two brothers:
Melville James Bell (1845–70) and Edward Charles Bell (1848–67). Both of his brothers died of tuberculosis.
His father was Professor Alexander Melville Bell, and his mother was Eliza Grace (née Symonds). Although he
was born "Alexander", at age 10, he made a plea to his father to have a middle name like his two brothers.
For his 11th birthday, his father acquiesced and allowed him to adopt the middle name "Graham", chosen out
of admiration for Alexander Graham, a Canadian being treated by his father and boarder who had become a
family friend. To close relatives and friends he remained "Aleck" which his father continued to call him
into later life.
As a child, young Alexander displayed a natural curiosity about his world, resulting in gathering botanical
specimens as well as experimenting even at an early age. His best friend was Ben Herdman, a neighbor whose
family operated a flour mill, the scene of many forays. Young Aleck asked what needed to be done at the
mill. He was told wheat had to be dehusked through a laborious process and at the age of 12, Bell built a
homemade device that combined rotating paddles with sets of nail brushes, creating a simple dehusking
machine that was put into operation and used steadily for a number of years. In return, John Herdman gave
both boys the run of a small workshop in which to "invent".
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.
Despite being normally quiet and introspective, he reveled in mimicry and "voice tricks" akin to
ventriloquism that continually entertained family guests during their occasional visits. Bell was also
deeply affected by his mother's gradual deafness, (she began to lose her hearing when he was 12) and
learned a manual finger language so he could sit at her side and tap out silently the conversations
swirling around the family parlour. He also developed a technique of speaking in clear, modulated tones
directly into his mother's forehead wherein she would hear him with reasonable clarity. Bell's
preoccupation with his mother's deafness led him to study acoustics.
His family was long associated with the teaching of elocution: his grandfather, Alexander Bell, in London,
his uncle in Dublin, and his father, in Edinburgh, were all elocutionists. His father published a variety
of works on the subject, several of which are still well known, especially his The Standard Elocutionist
(1860), which appeared in Edinburgh in 1868. The Standard Elocutionist appeared in 168 British editions and
sold over a quarter of a million copies in the United States alone. In this treatise, his father explains
his methods of how to instruct deaf-mutes (as they were then known) to articulate words and read other
people's lip movements to decipher meaning. Aleck's father taught him and his brothers not only to write
Visible Speech but to identify any symbol and its accompanying sound. Aleck became so proficient that he
became a part of his father's public demonstrations and astounded audiences with his abilities. He was able
to decipher Visible Speech representing virtually every language, including Latin, Scottish Gaelic and even
Sanskrit, accurately reciting written tracts without any prior knowledge of their pronunciation.
As a young child, Bell, like his brothers, received his early schooling at home from his father. At an
early age, however, he was enrolled at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, Scotland, which he left at age 15,
completing only the first four forms. His school record was undistinguished, marked by absenteeism and
lacklustre grades. His main interest remained in the sciences, especially biology, while he treated other
school subjects with indifference, to the dismay of his demanding father. Upon leaving school, Bell
travelled to London to live with his grandfather, Alexander Bell. During the year he spent with his
grandfather, a love of learning was born, with long hours spent in serious discussion and study. The elder
Bell took great efforts to have his young pupil learn to speak clearly and with conviction, the attributes
that his pupil would need to become a teacher himself. At age 16, Bell secured a position as a "pupil-
teacher" of elocution and music, in Weston House Academy, at Elgin, Moray, Scotland. Although he was
enrolled as a student in Latin and Greek, he instructed classes himself in return for board and £10 per
session. The following year, he attended the University of Edinburgh; joining his older brother Melville
who had enrolled there the previous year. In 1868, not long before he departed for Canada with his family,
Aleck completed his matriculation exams and was accepted for admission to the University of London.
First experiments with sound
Bell's father encouraged Aleck's interest in speech and, in 1863, took his sons to see a unique automaton,
developed by Sir Charles Wheatstone based on the earlier work of Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen. The
rudimentary "mechanical man" simulated a human voice. Aleck was fascinated by the machine and after he
obtained a copy of von Kempelen's book, published in German, and had laboriously translated it, he and his
older brother Melville built their own automaton head. Their father, highly interested in their project,
offered to pay for any supplies and spurred the boys on with the enticement of a "big prize" if they were
successful. While his brother constructed the throat and larynx, Aleck tackled the more difficult task of
recreating a realistic skull. His efforts resulted in a remarkably lifelike head that could "speak", albeit
only a few words. The boys would carefully adjust the "lips" and when a bellows forced air through the
windpipe, a very recognizable "Mama" ensued, to the delight of neighbors who came to see the Bell
Intrigued by the results of the automaton, Bell continued to experiment with a live subject, the family's
Skye Terrier, "Trouve". After he taught it to growl continuously, Aleck would reach into its mouth and
manipulate the dog's lips and vocal cords to produce a crude-sounding "Ow ah oo ga ma ma." With little
convincing, visitors believed his dog could articulate "How are you grandma?" More indicative of his
playful nature, his experiments convinced onlookers that they saw a "talking dog." However, these initial
forays into experimentation with sound led Bell to undertake his first serious work on the transmission of
sound, using tuning forks to explore resonance.
At the age of 19, he wrote a report on his work and sent it to philologist Alexander Ellis, a colleague of
his father (who would later be portrayed as Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion). Ellis immediately wrote
back indicating that the experiments were similar to existing work in Germany, and also lent Aleck a copy
of Hermann von Helmholtz's work, The Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of
Dismayed to find that groundbreaking work had already been undertaken by Helmholtz who had conveyed vowel
sounds by means of a similar tuning fork "contraption", he pored over the German scientist's book. Working
from his own errant mistranslation of the original German edition, Aleck fortuitously then made a deduction
that would be the underpinning of all his future work on transmitting sound, reporting: "Without knowing
much about the subject, it seemed to me that if vowel sounds could be produced by electrical means, so
could consonants, so could articulate speech." He also later remarked: "I thought that Helmhotz had done it
... and that my failure was due only to my ignorance of electricity. It was a valuable blunder ... If I had
been able to read German in those days, I might never have commenced my experiments!"
In 1865, when the Bell family moved to London, Bell returned to Weston House as an assistant master and, in
his spare hours, continued experiments on sound using a minimum of laboratory equipment. Bell concentrated
on experimenting with electricity to convey sound and later installed a telegraph wire from his room in
Somerset College to that of a friend. Throughout late 1867, his health faltered mainly through exhaustion.
His younger brother, Edward "Ted," was similarly bed-ridden, suffering from tuberculosis. While Bell
recovered (by then referring to himself in correspondence as "A.G. Bell") and served the next year as an
instructor at Somerset College, Bath, England, his brother's condition deteriorated. Edward would never
recover. Upon his brother's death, Bell returned home in 1867. His older brother Melville had married and
moved out. With aspirations to obtain a degree at the University College London, Bell considered his next
years as preparation for the degree examinations, devoting his spare time at his family's residence to
Helping his father in Visible Speech demonstrations and lectures brought Bell to Susanna E. Hull's private
school for the deaf in South Kensington, London. His first two pupils were "deaf mute" girls who made
remarkable progress under his tutelage. While his older brother seemed to achieve success on many fronts
including opening his own elocution school, applying for a patent on an invention, and starting a family,
Bell continued as a teacher. However, in May 1870, Melville died from complications due to tuberculosis,
causing a family crisis. His father had also suffered a debilitating illness earlier in life and had been
restored to health by a convalescence in Newfoundland. Bell's parents embarked upon a long-planned move
when they realized that their remaining son was also sickly. Acting decisively, Alexander Melville Bell
asked Bell to arrange for the sale of all the family property, conclude all of his brother's affairs (Bell
took over his last student, curing a pronounced lisp), and join his father and mother in setting out for
the "New World". Reluctantly, Bell also had to conclude a relationship with Marie Eccleston, who, he had
surmised, was not prepared to leave England with him.
In 1870, at age 23, Bell, his brother's widow, Caroline (Margaret Ottaway), and his parents travelled on
the SS Nestorian 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 farm of 10.5 acres (42,000 m2) at Tutelo Heights (now called Tutela
Heights), near Brantford, Ontario. The property consisted of an orchard, large farm house, stable, pigsty,
hen-house and a carriage house, which bordered the Grand River.
At the homestead, Bell set up his own workshop in the converted carriage house near to what he called his
"dreaming place", a large hollow nestled in trees at the back of the property above the river. Despite his
frail condition upon arriving in Canada, Bell found the climate and environs to his liking, and rapidly
improved. He continued his interest in the study of the human voice and when he discovered the Six Nations
Reserve across the river at Onondaga, he learned the Mohawk language and translated its unwritten
vocabulary into Visible Speech symbols. For his work, Bell was awarded the title of Honorary Chief and
participated in a ceremony where he donned a Mohawk headdress and danced traditional dances.
After setting up his workshop, Bell continued experiments based on Helmholtz's work with electricity and
sound. He designed a piano, which, by means of electricity, could transmit its music at a distance. Once
the family was settled in, both Bell and his father made plans to establish a teaching practice and in
1871, he accompanied his father to Montreal, where Melville was offered a position to teach his System of
Work with the deaf
Bell's father was invited by Sarah Fuller, principal of the Boston School for Deaf Mutes (which continues
today as the public Horace Mann School for the Deaf), in Boston, Massachusetts, to introduce the Visible
Speech System by providing training for Fuller's instructors, but he declined the post, in favor of his
son. Traveling to Boston in April 1871, Bell proved successful in training the school's instructors. He was
subsequently asked to repeat the program at the American Asylum for Deaf-mutes in Hartford, Connecticut,
and the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Returning home to Brantford after six months abroad, Bell continued his experiments with his "harmonic
telegraph". The basic concept behind his device was that messages could be sent through a single wire if
each message was transmitted at a different pitch, but work on both the transmitter and receiver was
needed. Unsure of his future, he first contemplated returning to London to complete his studies, but
decided to return to Boston as a teacher. His father helped him set up his private practice by contacting
Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the president of the Clarke School for the Deaf for a recommendation. Teaching his
father's system, in October 1872 Alexander Bell opened his "School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of
Speech" in Boston, which attracted a large number of deaf pupils with his first class numbering 30
students. While he was working as a private tutor, one of his most famous pupils was Helen Keller, who came
to him as a young child unable to see, hear, or speak. She was later to say that Bell dedicated his life to
the penetration of that "inhuman silence which separates and estranges."
Several influential people of the time, including Bell, viewed deafness as something that ought to be
eradicated, and also believed that with resources and effort they could teach the deaf to speak and avoid
the use of sign language, thus enabling their integration within the wider society from which many were
often being excluded. However in several schools children were mistreated, for example by having their
hands tied behind their backs so they could not communicate by signing—the only language they knew—and were
therefore forced to attempt oral communication. Due to his efforts to suppress the teaching of sign
language, Bell is often viewed negatively by those embracing deaf culture.
In the following year, Bell became professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at the Boston University
School of Oratory. During this period, he alternated between Boston and Brantford, spending summers in his
Canadian home. At Boston University, Bell was "swept up" by the excitement engendered by the many
scientists and inventors residing in the city. He continued his research in sound and endeavored to find a
way to transmit musical notes and articulate speech, but although absorbed by his experiments, he found it
difficult to devote enough time to experimentation. While days and evenings were occupied by his teaching
and private classes, Bell began to stay awake late into the night, running experiment after experiment in
rented facilities at his boarding house. Keeping up "night owl" hours, he worried that his work would be
discovered and took great pains to lock up his notebooks and laboratory equipment. Bell had a specially
made table where he could place his notes and equipment inside a locking cover. Worse still, his health
deteriorated as he suffered severe headaches. Returning to Boston in fall 1873, Bell made a fateful
decision to concentrate on his experiments in sound.
Deciding to give up his lucrative private Boston practice, Bell only retained two students, six-year old
"Georgie" Sanders, deaf from birth and 15-year old Mabel Hubbard. Each pupil would serve to play an
important role in the next developments. George's father, Thomas Sanders, a wealthy businessman, offered
Bell a place to stay at nearby Salem with Georgie's grandmother, complete with a room to "experiment".
Although the offer was made by George's mother and followed the year-long arrangement in 1872 where her son
and his nurse had moved to quarters next to Bell's boarding house, it was clear that Mr. Sanders was
backing the proposal. The arrangement was for teacher and student to continue their work together with free
room and board thrown in. Mabel was a bright, attractive girl who was ten years his junior but became the
object of Bell's affection. Losing her hearing after a near-fatal bout of scarlet fever close to her fifth
birthday, she had learned to read lips but her father, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, Bell's benefactor and
personal friend, wanted her to work directly with her teacher.
By 1874, Bell's initial work on the harmonic telegraph had entered a formative stage with progress it made
both at his new Boston "laboratory" (a rented facility) as well as at his family home in Canada a big
success. While working that summer in Brantford, Bell experimented with a "phonautograph", a pen-like
machine that could draw shapes of sound waves on smoked glass by tracing their vibrations. Bell thought it
might be possible to generate undulating electrical currents that corresponded to sound waves. Bell also
thought that multiple metal reeds tuned to different frequencies like a harp would be able to convert the
undulating currents back into sound. But he had no working model to demonstrate the feasibility of these
In 1874, telegraph message traffic was rapidly expanding and in the words of Western Union President
William Orton, had become "the nervous system of commerce". Orton had contracted with inventors Thomas
Edison and Elisha Gray to find a way to send multiple telegraph messages on each telegraph line to avoid
the great cost of constructing new lines. When Bell mentioned to Gardiner Hubbard and Thomas Sanders that
he was working on a method of sending multiple tones on a telegraph wire using a multi-reed device, the two
wealthy patrons began to financially support Bell's experiments. Patent matters would be handled by
Hubbard's patent attorney, Anthony Pollok.
In March 1875, Bell and Pollok visited the famous scientist Joseph Henry, who was then director of the
Smithsonian Institution, and asked Henry's advice on the electrical multi-reed apparatus that Bell hoped
would transmit the human voice by telegraph. Henry replied that Bell had "the germ of a great invention".
When Bell said that he did not have the necessary knowledge, Henry replied, "Get it!" That declaration
greatly encouraged Bell to keep trying, even though he did not have the equipment needed to continue his
experiments, nor the ability to create a working model of his ideas. However, a chance meeting in 1874
between Bell and Thomas A. Watson, an experienced electrical designer and mechanic at the electrical
machine shop of Charles Williams, changed all that.
With financial support from Sanders and Hubbard, Bell was able to hire Thomas Watson as his assistant and
the two of them experimented with acoustic telegraphy. On June 2, 1875, Watson accidentally plucked one of
the reeds and Bell, at the receiving end of the wire, heard the overtones of the reed; overtones that would
be necessary for transmitting speech. That demonstrated to Bell that only one reed or armature was
necessary, not multiple reeds. This led to the "gallows" sound-powered telephone, which was able to
transmit indistinct, voice-like sounds, but not clear speech.
The race to the patent office
In 1875, Bell developed an acoustic telegraph and drew up a patent application for it. Since he had agreed
to share U.S. profits with his investors Gardiner Hubbard and Thomas Sanders, Bell requested that an
associate in Ontario, George Brown, attempt to patent it in Britain, instructing his lawyers to apply for a
patent in the U.S. only after they received word from Britain (Britain would issue patents only for
discoveries not previously patented elsewhere).
Meanwhile, Elisha Gray was also experimenting with acoustic telegraphy and thought of a way to transmit
speech using a water transmitter. On February 14, 1876, Gray filed a caveat with the U.S. Patent Office for
a telephone design that used a water transmitter. That same morning, Bell's lawyer filed Bell's application
with the patent office. There is considerable debate about who arrived first and Gray later challenged the
primacy of Bell's patent. Bell was in Boston on February 14 and did not arrive in Washington until February
Bell's patent 174,465, was issued to Bell on March 7, 1876, by the U.S. Patent Office. Bell's patent
covered "the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically ... by
causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or
other sound" Bell returned to Boston the same day and the next day resumed work, drawing in his notebook a
diagram similar to that in Gray's patent caveat.
On March 10, 1876, three days after his patent was issued, Bell succeeded in getting his telephone to work,
using a liquid transmitter similar to Gray's design. Vibration of the diaphragm caused a needle to vibrate
in the water, varying the electrical resistance in the circuit. When Bell spoke the famous sentence "Mr
Watson—Come here—I want to see you" into the liquid transmitter, Watson, listening at the receiving end in
an adjoining room, heard the words clearly.
Although Bell was, and still is, accused of stealing the telephone from Gray, Bell used Gray's water
transmitter design only after Bell's patent was granted and only as a proof of concept scientific
experiment to prove to his own satisfaction that intelligible "articulate speech" (Bell's words) could be
electrically transmitted. After March 1876, Bell focused on improving the electromagnetic telephone and
never used Gray's liquid transmitter in public demonstrations or commercial use.
The question of priority for the variable resistance feature of the telephone was raised by the Examiner
before he approved Bell's patent application. He told Bell that his claim for the variable resistance
feature was also described in Gray's caveat. Bell pointed to a variable resistance device in Bell's
previous application in which Bell described a cup of mercury, not water. Bell had filed the mercury
application at the patent office a year earlier on February 25, 1875, long before Elisha Gray described the
water device. In addition, Gray abandoned his caveat, and because Gray did not contest Bell's priority, the
Examiner approved Bell's patent on March 3, 1876. Gray had REinvented the variable resistance telephone,
but Bell was the first to write down the idea and the first to test it in a telephone.
The patent examiner, Zenas Fisk Wilber, later stated in a sworn affidavit that he was an alcoholic who was
much in debt to Bell's lawyer, Marcellus Bailey, with whom he had served in the Civil War. He claimed he
showed Gray's patent caveat to Bailey. Wilber also claimed (after Bell arrived in Washington D.C. from
Boston) that he showed Gray's caveat to Bell and that Bell paid him $100. Bell claimed they discussed the
patent only in general terms, although in a letter to Gray, Bell admitted that he learned some of the
technical details. Bell denied in a sworn affidavit that he ever gave Wilber any money.
Continuing his experiments in Brantford, Bell brought home a working model of his telephone. On August 3,
1876, from the telegraph office in Mount Pleasant five miles (8 km) away from Brantford, Bell sent a
tentative telegram indicating that he was ready. With curious onlookers packed into the office as
witnesses, faint voices were heard replying. The following night, he amazed guests as well as his family
when a message was received at the Bell home from Brantford, four miles (six km) distant along an
improvised wire strung up along telegraph lines and fences, and laid through a tunnel. This time, guests at
the household distinctly heard people in Brantford reading and singing. These experiments clearly proved
that the telephone could work over long distances.
Bell and his partners, Hubbard and Sanders, offered to sell the patent outright to Western Union for
$100,000. The president of Western Union balked, countering that the telephone was nothing but a toy. Two
years later, he told colleagues that if he could get the patent for $25 million he would consider it a
bargain. By then, the Bell company no longer wanted to sell the patent. Bell's investors would become
millionaires while he fared well from residuals and at one point had assets of nearly one million
Bell began a series of public demonstrations and lectures in order to introduce the new invention to the
scientific community as well as the general public. Only one day after, his demonstration of an early
telephone prototype at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia made the telephone the featured
headline worldwide. Influential visitors to the exhibition included Emperor Pedro II of Brazil, and later
Bell had the opportunity to demonstrate the invention personally to William Thomson, a renowned Scottish
scientist. Later Bell demonstrated the invention to Queen Victoria who had requested a private audience at
Osborne House, her Isle of Wight home. She called the demonstration "most extraordinary". The enthusiasm
surrounding Bell's public displays laid the groundwork for universal acceptance of the revolutionary
The Bell Telephone Company was created in 1877, and by 1886, over 150,000 people in the U.S. owned
telephones. Bell company engineers made numerous other improvements to the telephone, which emerged as one
of the most successful products ever. In 1879, the Bell company acquired Edison's patents for the carbon
microphone from Western Union. This made the telephone practical for long distances and it was no longer
necessary to shout to be heard at the receiving telephone.
In January 1915, Bell made the first ceremonial transcontinental telephone call. Calling from the AT&T head
office at 15 Dey Street in New York City, Bell was heard by Thomas Watson at 333 Grant Avenue in San
Francisco. The New York Times reported:
On October 9, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Watson talked by telephone to each other over a
two-mile (3 km) wire stretched between Cambridge and Boston. It was the first wire conversation ever held.
Yesterday afternoon on January 25, 1915 the same two men talked by telephone to each other over a 3,400-
mile (5,500 km) wire between New York and San Francisco. Dr. Bell, the veteran inventor of the telephone,
was in New York, and Mr. Watson, his former associate, was on the other side of the continent. They heard
each other much more distinctly than they did in their first talk thirty-eight years ago.
As is sometimes common in scientific discoveries, simultaneous developments can occur, as evidenced by a
number of inventors who were at work on the telephone. Over a period of 18 years, the Bell Telephone
Company faced 587 court challenges to its patents, including five that went to the US Supreme Court, but
none was successful in establishing priority over the original Bell patent and the Bell Telephone Company
never lost a case that had proceeded to a final trial stage. Bell's laboratory notes and family letters
were the key to establishing a long lineage to his experiments. The Bell company lawyers successfully
fought off myriad lawsuits generated initially around the challenges by Elisha Gray and Amos Dolbear. In
personal correspondence to Bell, both Gray and Dolbear had acknowledged his prior work, which considerably
weakened their later claims.
On January 13, 1887, the US Government moved to annul the patent issued to Bell on the grounds of fraud and
misrepresentation. After a series of decisions and reversals, the Bell company won a decision in the
Supreme Court, though a couple of the original claims from the lower court cases were left undecided. By
the time that the trial wound its way through nine years of legal battles, the U.S. prosecuting attorney
had died and the two Bell patents (No. 174,465 and dated March 7, 1876 and No. 186,787 dated January 30,
1877) were no longer in effect, although the presiding judges agreed to continue the proceedings due to the
case's importance as a "precedent." With a change in administration and charges of conflict of interest (on
both sides) arising from the original trial, the US Attorney General dropped the lawsuit on November 30,
1897 leaving several issues undecided on the merits.
During a deposition filed for the 1887 trial, Italian inventor Antonio Meucci also claimed to have created
the first working model of a telephone in Italy in 1834. In 1886, in the first of three cases in which he
was involved, Meucci took the stand as a witness in the hopes of establishing his invention's priority.
Meucci's evidence in this case was disputed due to a lack of material evidence for his inventions as his
working models were purportedly lost at the laboratory of American District Telegraph (ADT) of New York,
which later, in 1901, was incorporated as a subsidiary of Western Union. Meucci's work, like many other
inventors of the period, was based on earlier acoustic principles and despite evidence of earlier
experiments, the final case involving Meucci was eventually dropped upon Meucci's death. However, due to
the efforts of Congressman Vito Fossella, the U.S. House of Representatives on June 11, 2002 stated that
Meucci's "work in the invention of the telephone should be acknowledged", even though this did not put an
end to a still contentious issue. Some modern scholars do not agree with the claims that Bell's work on the
telephone was influenced by Meucci's inventions.
The value of the Bell patent was acknowledged throughout the world, and patent applications were made in
most major countries, but when Bell had delayed the German patent application, the electrical firm of
Siemens & Halske (S&H) managed to set up a rival manufacturer of Bell telephones under their own patent.
The Siemens company produced near-identical copies of the Bell telephone without having to pay royalties.
The establishment of the International Bell Telephone Company in Brussels, Belgium in 1880, as well as a
series of agreements in other countries eventually consolidated a global telephone operation. The strain
put on Bell by his constant appearances in court, necessitated by the legal battles, eventually resulted in
his resignation from the company.
On July 11, 1877, a few days after the Bell Telephone Company was established, Bell married Mabel Hubbard
(1857–1923) at the Hubbard estate in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His wedding present to his bride was to turn
over 1,487 of his 1,497 shares in the newly created Bell Telephone Company. Shortly thereafter, the
newlyweds embarked on a year-long honeymoon in Europe. During that excursion, Alec took a handmade model of
his telephone with him, making it a "working holiday". The courtship had begun years earlier, however
Alexander waited until he was more financially secure before marrying. Although the telephone appeared to
be an "instant" success, it was not initially a profitable venture and Bell's main sources of income were
from lectures until after 1897. One unusual request exacted by his fiancée was that he use "Alec" rather
than the family's earlier familiar name of "Aleck." From 1876, he would sign his name "Alec Bell." They had
four children: Elsie May Bell (1878–1964) who married Gilbert Grosvenor of National Geographic fame, Marian
Hubbard Bell (1880–1962) who was referred to as "Daisy", and two sons who died in infancy. The Bell family
home was located in Cambridge, Massachusetts until 1880 when Bell's father-in-law bought a house in
Washington, D.C., and later in 1882 bought a home in the same city for Bell's family, so that they could be
with him while he attended to the numerous court cases involving patent disputes.
Bell was a British subject throughout his early life in Scotland and later in Canada until 1882, when he
became a naturalized citizen of the United States. In 1915, he characterized his status as: "I am not one
of those hyphenated Americans who claim allegiance to two countries." Despite this declaration, Bell has
been proudly claimed as a "native son" by all three countries he resided in: the United States, Canada and
By 1885, a new summer retreat was contemplated. That summer, the Bells had a vacation on Cape Breton Island
in Nova Scotia, spending time at the small village of Baddeck. Returning in 1886, Bell started building an
estate on a point across from Baddeck, overlooking Bras d'Or Lake. By 1889, a large house, christened The
Lodge was completed and two years later, a larger complex of buildings, including a new laboratory, were
begun that the Bells would name Beinn Bhreagh (Gaelic: beautiful mountain) after Alec's ancestral Scottish
highlands. Bell would spend his final, and some of his most productive, years in residence in both
Washington, D.C., where he and his family initially resided for most of the year, and at Beinn
Until the end of his life, Bell and his family would alternate between the two homes, but Beinn Bhreagh
would, over the next 30 years, become more than a summer home as Bell became so absorbed in his experiments
that his annual stays lengthened. Both Mabel and Alec became immersed in the Baddeck community and were
accepted by the villagers as "their own". The Bells were still in residence at Beinn Bhreagh when the
Halifax Explosion occurred on December 6, 1917. Mabel and Alec mobilized the community to help victims in
Although Alexander Graham Bell is most often associated with the invention of the telephone, his interests
were extremely varied. According to one of his biographers, Charlotte Gray, Bell's work ranged "unfettered
across the scientific landscape" and he often went to bed voraciously reading the Encyclopædia Britannica,
scouring it for new areas of interest. The range of Bell's inventive genius is represented only in part by
the 18 patents granted in his name alone and the 12 he shared with his collaborators. These included 14 for
the telephone and telegraph, four for the Photophone, one for the phonograph, five for aerial vehicles,
four for "hydroairplanes" and two for selenium cells. Bell's inventions spanned a wide range of interests
and included a metal jacket to assist in breathing, the audiometer to detect minor hearing problems, a
device to locate icebergs, investigations on how to separate salt from seawater, and work on finding
Bell worked extensively in medical research and invented techniques for teaching speech to the deaf. During
his Volta Laboratory period, Bell and his associates considered impressing a magnetic field on a record as
a means of reproducing sound. Although the trio briefly experimented with the concept, they were unable to
develop a workable prototype. They abandoned the idea, never realizing they had glimpsed a basic principle
which would one day find its application in the tape recorder, the hard disc and floppy disc drive and
other magnetic media.
Bell's own home used a primitive form of air conditioning, in which fans blew currents of air across great
blocks of ice. He also anticipated modern concerns with fuel shortages and industrial pollution. Methane
gas, he reasoned, could be produced from the waste of farms and factories. At his Canadian estate in Nova
Scotia, he experimented with composting toilets and devices to capture water from the atmosphere. In a
magazine interview published shortly before his death, he reflected on the possibility of using solar
panels to heat houses.
Bell is also credited with the invention of the metal detector in 1881. The device was quickly put together
in an attempt to find the bullet in the body of US President James Garfield. The metal detector worked
flawlessly in tests but did not find the assassin's bullet partly because the metal bed frame on which the
President was lying disturbed the instrument, resulting in static. The president's surgeons, who were
skeptical of the device, ignored Bell's requests to move the president to a bed not fitted with metal
springs. Alternatively, although Bell had detected a slight sound on his first test, the bullet may have
been lodged too deeply to be detected by the crude apparatus. Bell gave a full account of his experiments
in a paper read before the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in August
The March 1906 Scientific American article by American pioneer William E. Meacham explained the basic
principle of hydrofoils and hydroplanes. Bell considered the invention of the hydroplane as a very
significant achievement. Based on information gained from that article he began to sketch concepts of what
is now called a hydrofoil boat. Bell and assistant Frederick W. "Casey" Baldwin began hydrofoil
experimentation in the summer of 1908 as a possible aid to airplane takeoff from water. Baldwin studied the
work of the Italian inventor Enrico Forlanini and began testing models. This led him and Bell to the
development of practical hydrofoil watercraft.
During his world tour of 1910–11, Bell and Baldwin met with Forlanini in France. They had rides in the
Forlanini hydrofoil boat over Lake Maggiore. Baldwin described it as being as smooth as flying. On
returning to Baddeck, a number of initial concepts were built as experimental models, including the Dhonnas
Beag, the first self-propelled Bell-Baldwin hydrofoil. The experimental boats were essentially proof-of-
concept prototypes that culminated in the more substantial HD-4, powered by Renault engines. A top speed of
54 miles per hour (87 km/h) was achieved, with the hydrofoil exhibiting rapid acceleration, good stability
and steering along with the ability to take waves without difficulty. In 1913, Dr. Bell hired Walter
Pinaud, a Sydney yacht designer and builder as well as the proprietor of Pinaud's Yacht Yard in Westmount,
Nova Scotia to work on the pontoons of the HD-4. Pinaud soon took over the boatyard at Bell Laboratories on
Beinn Bhreagh, Bell's estate near Baddeck, Nova Scotia. Pinaud's experience in boat-building enabled him to
make useful design changes to the HD-4. After the First World War, work began again on the HD-4. Bell's
report to the U.S. Navy permitted him to obtain two 350 horsepower (260 kW) engines in July 1919. On
September 9, 1919, the HD-4 set a world marine speed record of 70.86 miles per hour (114.04 km/h), a record
which stood for ten years.
In 1891, Bell had begun experiments to develop motor-powered heavier-than-air aircraft. The AEA was first
formed as Bell shared the vision to fly with his wife, who advised him to seek "young" help as Alexander
was at the graceful age of 60.
In 1898, Bell experimented with tetrahedral box kites and wings constructed of multiple compound
tetrahedral kites covered in maroon silk. The tetrahedral wings were named Cygnet I, II and III, and were
flown both unmanned and manned (Cygnet I crashed during a flight carrying Selfridge) in the period from
1907–1912. Some of Bell's kites are on display at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site.
Bell was a supporter of aerospace engineering research through the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA),
officially formed at Baddeck, Nova Scotia, in October 1907 at the suggestion of his wife Mabel and with her
financial support after the sale of some of her real estate. The AEA was headed by Bell and the founding
members were four young men: American Glenn H. Curtiss, a motorcycle manufacturer at the time and who held
the title "world's fastest man", having ridden his self-constructed motor bicycle around in the shortest
time, and who was later awarded the Scientific American Trophy for the first official one-kilometre flight
in the Western hemisphere, and who later became a world-renowned airplane manufacturer; Lieutenant Thomas
Selfridge, an official observer from the US Federal government and the only person in the army who believed
aviation was the future; Frederick W. Baldwin, the first Canadian and first British subject to pilot a
public flight in Hammondsport, New York, and J.A.D. McCurdy —Baldwin and McCurdy being new engineering
graduates from the University of Toronto.
The AEA's work progressed to heavier-than-air machines, applying their knowledge of kites to gliders.
Moving to Hammondsport, the group then designed and built the Red Wing, framed in bamboo and covered in red
silk and powered by a small air-cooled engine. On March 12, 1908, over Keuka Lake, the biplane lifted off
on the first public flight in North America. The innovations that were incorporated into this design
included a cockpit enclosure and tail rudder (later variations on the original design would add ailerons as
a means of control). One of the AEA's inventions, the aileron, which was also created independently by
Robert Esnault-Pelterie and several others, was to become a standard component on all airplanes. The White
Wing and June Bug were to follow and by the end of 1908, over 150 flights without mishap had been
accomplished. However, the AEA had depleted its initial reserves and only a $15,000 grant from Mrs. Bell
allowed it to continue with experiments.
Their final aircraft design, the Silver Dart embodied all of the advancements found in the earlier
machines. On February 23, 1909, Bell was present as the Silver Dart flown by J.A.D. McCurdy from the frozen
ice of Bras d'Or, made the first aircraft flight in Canada. Bell had worried that the flight was too
dangerous and had arranged for a doctor to be on hand. With the successful flight, the AEA disbanded and
the Silver Dart would revert to Baldwin and McCurdy who began the Canadian Aerodrome Company and would
later demonstrate the aircraft to the Canadian Army.
Bell was connected with the eugenics movement in the United States. In his lecture Memoir upon the
formation of a deaf variety of the human race presented to the National Academy of Sciences on November 13,
1883 he noted that congenitally deaf parents were more likely to produce deaf children and tentatively
suggested that couples where both parties were deaf should not marry. However, it was his hobby of
livestock breeding which led to his appointment to biologist David Starr Jordan's Committee on Eugenics,
under the auspices of the American Breeders Association. The committee unequivocally extended the principle
to man. From 1912 until 1918 he was the chairman of the board of scientific advisers to the Eugenics Record
Office associated with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, and regularly attended meetings. In 1921,
he was the honorary president of the Second International Congress of Eugenics held under the auspices of
the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Organisations such as these advocated passing laws
(with success in some states) that established the compulsory sterilization of people deemed to be, as Bell
called them, a "defective variety of the human race". By the late 1930s, about half the states in the U.S.
had eugenics laws, and the California laws were used as a model for eugenics laws in Nazi Germany.
Bell died of complications arising from diabetes on August 2, 1922, at his private estate, Beinn Bhreagh,
Nova Scotia, at age 75. Bell had also been afflicted with pernicious anemia. His last view of the land he
had inhabited was by moonlight on his mountain estate at 2:00 A.M. While tending to her husband after his
long illness, Mabel whispered, "Don't leave me." By way of reply, Bell traced the sign for no—and then he
Upon the conclusion of Bell's funeral, "every phone on the continent of North America was silenced in honor
of the man who had given to mankind the means for direct communication at a distance".
Dr. Alexander Graham Bell was buried atop Beinn Bhreagh mountain, on his estate where he had resided
increasingly for the last 35 years of his life, overlooking Bras d'Or Lake. He was survived by his wife
Mabel and his two daughters, Elsie May and Marion.
Photograph Hand Oil Tinted by artist, Margaret A. Rogers.