Profile Alexander Graham Bell circa 1895

Alexander Graham Bell Portrait and Signature circa 1895 from Cassier

Alexander Graham Bell Portrait and Signature circa 1895 from Cassier

[as reprinted from Cassier’s magazine v. 8 May-Oct. 1895]

With the publication, in this number, of several articles on telephony and telegraphy, it would seem appropriate to give space also to an account, however brief, of Alexander Graham Bell, whose investigations and practical developments in the field of electrical transmission of speech have given us the telephone of the present day. It is with special pleasure, therefore, that the appended particulars are reproduced from a much-condensed biographical sketch published in The Electrical Trades Directory, of The Electrician, of London.

Alexander Graham Bell was born at Edinburgh, Scotland, on March 3, 1847. His father and grandfather were both teachers of languages, and his father, Alexander Melville Bell, long enjoyed a reputation in the field of philology and linguistics, being the deviser of an ingenius system of “visible speech.” He intended that his son should follow his profession, and therefore early gave him instruction in the anatomy of the vocal organs, their various functions, and the different subjects belonging generally to the science of vocal physiology. When quite a child, Bell was told by his father of an automaton speaking-machine which he had seen. The boy was so interested that he determined to attempt the construction of such an apparatus himself, and he, then and there, invented a speaking machine, built it and made it articulate one or two simple words. While at Elgin, in Scotland, he became interested in the important work done by Helmholtz, relating to the quality of vocal sounds.

In 1865 the family removed from Scotland to London, and about 1866, at Bath, in England, Bell conceived the idea of following up Helmholtz’ s synthetical experiments in the reproduction of sound, by attempting to transmit speech electrically. Between the years 1867 and 1870 he made numerous electrical inventions based on the Helmholtz vowel apparatus, and, before he left England, had resolved to pursue one of these inventions, that of harmonic or multiple telegraphy, to a practical outcome. The idea of actual speech transmission was running in his mind all this time, like an undercurrent of thought that he could hardly formulate in definite expression ; but it gradually took clearer shape, and Professor Bell has stated on the witness stand that to friends in England, before 1870, he avowed his belief that we should ” one day speak by telegraph.”

In August, 1870, the Bell family emigrated from England to Brantford, Canada, and in April, 1871, Bell went from there to Boston, on the invitation of the Boston school board, to carry on a series of experiments with his father’s system of “visible speech,” or physiological symbols for the deaf. He remained permanently in the neighborhood of Boston from October 1, 1872, until he removed to Washington in 1881. From the very moment of his arrival in Canada, in 1870, up to the beginning of 1874, hi s mind was full of the scheme for the multiple transmission of telegraphic messages by means of musical tones, and he had other telegraphic inventions also in hand; but the old idea of speech transmission was persistent in claiming his attention, and gradually his thoughts and energies were narrowed down to this one field of investigation. He has himself narrated more than once the manner in which he proceeded, stage by stage, from his experiments with phonautographic apparatus, human ear-drums and apparatus for obtaining undulatory currents, up to the period when he and his assistant, Mr. T. A. Watson, were able to talk to each other telephonically over a short line in the Boston University, and when, by rapid strides, the crude apparatus was improved and brought to a fair degree of efficiency.

The first tests of the telephone as a speech transmitter were watched with great interest by many scientific men to whom Bell communicated his results freely, and from whom he received many valuable suggestions ; but the press and public were skeptical in regard to the reports which began to circulate. Bell’s first public lecture on the telephone was delivered before the Society of Arts at Boston, on May 25, 1876 ; but the first transmission of speech over a real line was effected in August, 1876, at Brantford. Bell hastened to patent his invention, and in the same year exhibited it at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, where a memorable display of its speaking powers was made on Sunday, June 25, 1876, before Sir William Thomson, now Lord Kelvin, the Emperor of Brazil, Prof. T. Sterry Hunt, Dr. Draper, Dr. Koenig, and others.

From first to last Prof. Bell has taken out twenty-one United States patents, as sole or joint inventor, the most important being, of course, the one on which is based the speaking telephone of to-day. The photophone, however, upon which he has worked, stands high also as a scientific achievement. Having received the French Volta prize, he devoted the money to the establishment, at Washington, of the Volta Laboratory, with a view to original investigation in the transmission and reproduction of articulate sounds Prof. Bell has also, to some extent, given attention to devising improved methods of electrical communication between vessels at sea. Of late years, however, Prof. Bell has mainly devoted himself to his original pursuit, namely, the study of the instruction of the deaf and dumb in connection with his father’s system of “visible speech,” and he has given much thought, with no small measure of success, to the amelioration of the condition of such unfortunates.

Immediately after the invention of the telephone and its introduction into commercial use, Prof. Bell was called upon for papers and lectures, and for a time he yielded to the demand. Among the most noteworthy of his productions are “Researches in Electric Telephony,” a paper read before the Society of Telegraph Engineers in 1877 ; “The Production and Reproduction of Sound by Light,” a paper read before the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in 1880, relating to discoveries made by himself and Mr. Sumner Tainter in the art of “radiophony;” and the “Production of Sound by Radiant Energy,” a paper read before the National Academy of Sciences, in 1881, relating to further investigations of the same nature.