HOW BELL INVENTED THE TELEPHONE
He danced Mohawk war dances and played around with a dead human ear. He worked on airplanes, speedboats and phonographs. His most famous brain child cost him twenty years of litigation. And even today three countries — including Canada — still squabble for his reflected fame
TO THE PEOPLE living in Brantford, Ont.., in the early 1870s, there were unmistakable signs that Alexander Graham Bell was a young man going places. Probably to an upholstered cell. People visiting the Bell home at Tutelo Heights a few miles outside town came away shaking their heads at the sight of him chanting odd noises into an open piano, entranced by the way his voice made the strings of the old upright quiver.
They were horrified when he spent an entire summer talking to a human ear he had borrowed
in Boston. He strung stovepipe wires all over his home and when they performed the way he hoped he threw his tall angular body into the wild Mohawk tribal war dances he had learned on the Six Nations Indian reservation nearby. In Brantford some people even called him “Crazy Bell.”
A few years later Brantford and the rest of Canada hastened to claim him, crazy or not. So did Boston, where he had also worked on equally weird experiments. So did Scotland, where he was born. Governments and universities in Europe and America heaped honors on him. The people of Brantford were startled to learn that all the time he had been singing to his piano and talking to the grisly ear he was piecing together one of the most remarkable inventions of any age, the telephone.
Envious scientists claimed —and Bell readily agreed that if he had known much about electricity he would never have invented the telephone. One, Moses G. Farmer, had tears in his eyes when he told Bell’s assistant, Thomas Watson, that he couldn’t sleep for a week after he heard the disturbingly simple details of Bell’s discovery.
Others lay awake scheming to steal it. For before the telephone made Bell famous and wealthy it very nearly ruined him. In American and British courts he sued and was sued no fewer than six hundred times over his invention. He was called a liar, a cheat and a fraud and for years many people believed that he was all of these. Other inventors, even one of his friends, amassed fortunes from the telephone before Bell made a cent. At one point, sick and disillusioned, he almost gave it up.
Bell’s name, of course, is today synonymous with the telephone. But the telephone was only a byproduct of his real life’s work: helping the deaf. His mother was deaf; his own wife never heard the sound of his strong voice. He taught the deaf to speak and read lips, invented devices to facilitate this teaching by others, and gave three hundred thousand dollars of the telephone’s earnings to help
this work. Yet through a misunderstanding many of the people he helped turned against him.
Driven by an enquiring mind that would not let him rest, Bell pursued knowledge until the day he died. Long before the Wright brothers lifted their first shaky aircraft into the sky in 1903 Bell had made thousands of experiments in heavierthan-air flight. When the world laughed at the Wrights’ claim that they had flown, Bell stood behind them and the prestige of his name convinced many doubters. At Baddeck, Nova Scotia, his summer home, he gave Continued on page 32
A MACLEAN’S FLASHBACK
How Bell Invented The Telephone
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 22
the British Empire its first flying machines.
His genius went still further. He invented the photophone which, using light rays to carry sound, was the forerunner of film sound tracks and the electric eye; the telephone probe for finding bullets in human bodies; devices for condensing sea water for drinking. With F. W. (Casey) Baldwin, of Toronto, he built the fastest speedboat of its time. He was the father of the modern phonograph record.
At Baddeck, Bell probed into such diverse subjects as the possibilities of seeing by electricity; measuring the light of fireflies; the use of radium in fighting cancer; rocket propulsion; the treatment of lung parasites in sheep and neuralgia in humans. He proposed a vacuum jacket, ancestor of the iron lung.
He dropped a cat (on a cushion) for hours to find out why cats always fall on their feet, and spoke of it as important scientific research. Years before comic strips were first published he advocated action drawings to tell stories. At seventy-five, just before his death, he went down in a submarine tube off Nassau to study sea life.
After he became an international celebrity and newspapers reported all that he said and did, Bell liked to embellish the story of his life with histrionic touches. It really needed none.
He was born in 1847 in Edinburgh. His father, Melville Bell, was a teacher of vocal physiology and his grandfather, Alexander, a professor of elocution.
Both were amateur actors. From them he inherited his searching interest in the mechanics of voice and his keen sense of the dramatic. From his mother, Eliza, young Bell got most of his early schooling. When he was twel ce years old she became deaf.
Bell’s preoccupation with the weird dated from childhood. When other boys were playing football he was happily dissecting dead animals. His hobby was collecting animal skulls. Once he kissed his father in grateful thanks for a present—a human skull. As a youth Bell practiced working his Skye terrier’s vocal cords with his fingers until he could make it say “Ow - ah - oo - ga - ma - ma,” a plausible ‘‘How are you grandmother?”
A brilliant student, Bell finished high school at thirteen. At sixteen he was teaching elocution and music. Later in London he helped his father teach ‘‘visible speech,” a code of printed symbols he had invented to show theaction of the throat, tongue and lips in shaping words.
Within three years Bell’s brothers, Edward and Melville, died of tuberculosis. Aleck, then twenty-three, went to a doctor in London and learned that he, too, had TB. The Bells sailed to Canada in search of a healthier climate and settled at Tutelo Heights. In later years Bell was fond of saying that the London doctor had given him six months to live and that he had come to Brantford to die.
Living in an old white farmhouse overlooking the winding Grand River, Bell quickly recovered. Soon he was riding out to the Six Nations reservation to teach deaf Indians his father’s visible speech. In return they took him into the Mohawk tribe and taught him the whirling war dances that became his symbol of triumph. Bell was the strangest looking Mohawk on the re-
serve. He was lanky, with an olive complexion, piercing dark eyes and wild black hair. He had a droopy mustache and mutton-chop whiskers, the badge of his era.
When the world’s first day-school for the deaf opened in Boston in 1871 he was invited to teach there. He also took private pupils. One of them was George Sanders, the deaf five-year-old son of Thomas Sanders, a wealthy leather merchant from Haverhill, Mass. The elder Sanders became Bell’s first patron.
For five years Bell had been experimenting with the new marvel, telegraphy. In Brantford and Boston he tinkered with tuning forks, trying to devise a telegraph that would send six or eight messages at a time on the same wire instead of merely two. The Western Union Telegraph Go. had announced a prize of one million dollars for a practical multi-telegraph patent.
Through his work with the deaf Bell met Gardiner Greene Hubbard, a wealthy Boston lawyer whose daughter Mabel had become deaf after scarlet fever. Hubbard joined Sanders in backing Bell’s experiments. In 1873 when the Sanders boy went to live with his grandmother Bell went with him and continued his tinkerings. When the old woman saw Bell weary-eyed from working late into the night she cut his candles shorter, forcing him to go to bed earlier.
One day while Bell was having a piece of apparatus made in a Boston machine shop he met Thomas Watson, a twenty-year-old machinist who became his assistant. At that time, 1874, Bell was trying to perfect a device to show the “shape” of spoken words to deaf mutes whose vocal organs were intact and who were unable to speak only because they couldn’t hear sounds to imitate.
When he left Boston to spend the summer in Brantford Bell took along a human eart borrowed from Harvard Medical School. He moistened it with glycerine and attached a wisp of straw to the membrane. Then he spent the summer talking into the ear. He found (hat vowel sounds made the straw vibrate, tracing on a piece of smoked glass a different pattern for each sound.
At the same time Bell was trying to telegraph musical signals via an electrical current. He believed he could succeed, too, “if I could make a current of electricity vary in intensity precisely as the air varies in density during the production of sound.”
Other men, authorities on electricity, had tried to send sounds over the intermittent current of a telegraph wire. They said it was impossible. And it was. What Bell was searching for was a continuous current that would carry the complex vibrations of the human voice as the air carries them.
Bell knew that human hearing was activated by vibrations of the ear
membrane acting upon specialized bones in the ear. He conceived the idea of substituting a synthetic diaphragm for the tissue membrane and a piece of magnetized steel for the ear bones. In that conception the theory of the telephone was born.
When Bell left Brantford for Boston that fall his father noted in his diary: “Aleck in tantrums. Full of new schemes.”
By gaslight Bell and Watson experimented with the multiple telegraph. Bell had heard that an inventor named Elisha Gray was working on the same thing in Chicago. He was so afraid that other inventors would steal his ideas that he traveled all over Boston to buy parts in widely separated stores. By February 1875 the multiple telegraph was close to completion. Bell I went to Washington to apply for a j patent. While there he called on Joseph Henry, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, a renowned old scientist who had made many experiments in telegraphy.
With a rush of words and quick gestures Bell blurted out his theory of the telephone. “What shall I do?” lie asked. “Publish it and let others work it out or try to solve it myself?” Henry advised: “Work at it.” Bell admitted he didn’t have the electrical knowledge to overcome his problems. Henry told him bluntly: “Get it!” Back in Boston, Bell was notified that his application for a multi-telegraph patent interfered with another submitted by Elisha Gray. At length it was approved, but to Bell’s dismay none of the telegraph companies rushed to buy it. It still had many kinks.
Bell’s Yelp of Triumph
On June 2, 1875, it happened - the freak of chance that whispered the telephone’s secret to Bell. On that hot afternoon he and Watson were working on the multiple telegraph, hoping to win the million-dollar prize. Bell had attached several small steel springs^ like the reeds of a parlor organ, to telegraph keys at one end of a wire. At the other end, in another attic room sixty feet away, was a second set of reeds. The two men were trying to tune the reeds to the same pitch so that the corresponding reed would vibrate when its twin at the opposite end of the wire was set in motion. Watson noticed that one of the reeds had stuck to an electromagnet in the transmitter. He flicked it with his finger to start it vibrating again. Still it stuck. He plucked it again.
Suddenly Bell burst into Watson’s room. “Don’t touch anything,” he shouted. “What did you do then?” Matter-of-factly, Watson showed him. What had happened was that when Watson flicked the stuck reed it generated not a make-and-break current but an unbroken pulsation exactly like that of the air waves set in motion by the twanging reed.
Bell’s receiver picked up the current and turned it into a faint twang, a replica of the sound from Watson’s room. In that split second Bell, unlike other experimenters who had heard the same sound before him, recognized what it meant. A mechanism that could transmit the complex vibrations of one sound could do the same for any sound — even speech. Overcome with joy, Bell and Watson went into a Mohawk war dance and yelped in triumph.
That night Bell explained to Watson how to build the first telephone. Next day a bug-eyed Watson heard Bell’s voice whispering from his strange machine. Bell hurriedly notified Hubbard, his backer. Hubbard was unimpressed. He told Bef! sternly to forget the
telephone and work on the multiple telegraph. Hubbard felt the telephone had fewer commercial possibilities than a square wheel.
Bell and Watson worked so hard on the embryo telephone that Bell’s health broke down. He had to return to Brantford to rest and recuperate. But he continued to experiment with the talking wires. Bell finally decided he needed a new backer. He must have money not only to carry on the work of which Hubbard disapproved but for a new personal reason: he had fallen
in love with his deaf seventeen-yearold pupil, Mabel Hubbard, and he did noG want to admit to her father that he was virtually a pauper.
[n Brantford the Bells had a notable neighbor, Hon. George Brown, leader of the Liberal Party in Upper Canada and editor of the Toronto Globe. Brown ani his brother made one of history’s most lopsided bargains with Bell. They consented to pay him fifty dollars a month—for no longer than six months —on exchange for a half-interest in all the Bell patents outside the United States.
Bell agreed to delay his application foi American patents on the telephone principle until Brown, who was sailing shortly for England, had filed them in London. (Britain wouldn’t accept applications that were made first in a foieign country.) But meanwhile Hubbard ordered Bell to write out his patent specifications at once and send them to his Washington lawyers. The night before they were to be mailed Bell was working late at the Hubbard home, trying to make sure there were no holes in his patent specifications. At midnight Mabel Hubbard, by then his fiancee, called to him to go to bed. He ran up the stairs to her so she could read his lips and pleaded playfully to be allowed to stay up a little longer. Bell always insisted that he would have left the patent application as it was if she had said no.
But Mabel said yes. Bell went back to his papers and found that he had forgotten to mention his experiments and findings on the electrical principle which caused the telephone diaphragm to vibrate and thus transmit human speech—in other words he had forgotten to claim discovery of the very heart of the principle of telephony. He inserted it, then went to bed. That single vital clause, nearly omitted, was to withstand twenty years of courtroom attacks. “That night,” Bell later would declaim dramatically, “a girl held in her hand the future of the telephone.”
At last Brown sailed. Two weeks passed without word from him. Then Hubbard took matters in his own hands. Unknown to Bell he had his lawyers file the patent specifications on Feb. 14. Two hours later Elisha Gray marched into the Patent Office with a caveat (a description of his ideas)
on the electrical transmission of speech.
Bell never forgave Brown. When he reached London, Brown had begun to fear that he would be laughed at for backing such a madcap invention. He left the patent papers in the bottom of his trunk. For fifty dollars—the only payment they made—the Brown brothers might have reaped millions. Four years later George Brown was murdered by a disgruntled printer.
On March 3, 1876—his twenty-ninth birthday—Bell’s patent was allowed. His formal agreement with Sanders and Hubbard provided for equal sharing of
profits from his telegraphic inventions. Neither of the patrons thought the telephone was included in it. But Bell, with typical honesty, insisted it was.
Bell rented new rooms in Boston’s Exeter Place and prepared the telephone for commercial use. He developed an improved instrument with a galvanic battery. The night it was to be tested—March 10 - Watson went into Bell’s bedroom and waited. Suddenly a voice came from his receiver: “Watson, come here, 1 want you.”
Watson ran into Bell’s primitive laboratory. The two men gaped at one
another. For the first time the telephone had spoken a complete and intelligible sentence.
That summer Bell went home to a more tolerant Brantford and made the world's first long-distance call, to Paris, Ont., six miles away. Watson gave up his three-dollar-a-day job for a tenth interest in the Bell patents. That fall the telephone passed its first big public test, a two-mile call from Boston to Cambridgeport, with Bell shouting “Ahoy, ahoy, Watson! Are you there?”
Bell offered his telephone patents to the Western Union Telegraph Com-
pany for one hundred thousand dollars and was quickly shown the door. In February 1877 the telephone earned its first revenue—eighty-five dollars from a lecture Bell gave on his invention. He spent it on a silver model of the telephone for Mabel Hubbard, whom he married in July. His wedding gift to his bride was all his interests in the telephone.
With money from a lecture tour Bell and his wife went to England on their honeymoon. They stayed there for eighteen months while Britain toasted him. Bell demonstrated his talking
telegraph to Queen Victoria and one newspaper which had referred earlier to “the latest American humbug” headlined it “A Great Invention.” Back on this continent Bell found trouble awaiting him. Western Union concluded that the telephone was here to stay. Instead of buying Bell’s patents, however, the company obtained Gray’s telegraphic rights and commissioned Thomas Edison, Gray and Prof. A. E. Dolbear, another telephone claimant, to produce a better one. In December 1877 the American Speaking Telephone Company was
formed. Western Union, then the largest corporate body in the world (capital forty million dollars), held the controlling shares and blocked Bell at every turn by its ownership of exclusive rights-of-way over housetops and along highways, its monopoly of hotel lobbies and railroad offices.
Others were cutting themselves in. Fred Gower, an American press agent who had managed a lecture tour for Bell, went to London, made a minor change in the telephone and sold it as the Gower-Bell phone. He made a fortune.
In they summer of 1878 the hapless Bell/Pelephone Company, without enough money to pay the salaries of its officers, filed suit against Western Union. While Bell was in England it was discovered that notes on his experiments, needed to prove his claims, had been thrown away. Many of them luckily turned up in an unemptied wastebasket in his Exeter Place rooms. But Bell was disgusted with the controversy, declared he was through with the telephone and went home to Brantford. Watson hurried to Canada and persuaded Bell to fight for his rights.
After the case had lingered in the court for a full year, Western Union’s lawyers advised a settlement. The patent rights of both companies were pooled, with Bell getting an eightypercent interest. Though it had not yet paid one cent in dividends almost overnight Bell stock shot up to $995.
Bell’s patent troubles continued for twenty years in British and American courts. Of the six hundred cases in which he was involved five went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. Bell won them all.
But honors as well as trouble started to come Bell’s way. In 1880 Bell was called to France to receive his greatest honor, the fifty-thousand-franc Volta Prix. He was thirty-three, and fortysqven thousand telephones were in use in the U. S. alone. In 1881 U. S. President Garfield was shot in Washington. While the world watched, a group of doctors tried vainly to locate the bullet in his body. Bell thought an induction balance (acting on the same principle as a modern mine detector) might find it. He made frequent trips to the White House to set up his bulky apparatus. Once the telephone rang, signaling that a metal object had been found. It turned out to be the bed springs. Newspapers kept Bell’s search for the bullet in the headlines for days. When Garfield finally died, Bell was ridiculed, even though the bullet was found lodged too deep in bone to be detected.
With the Volta Prix money Bell set up the Volta Laboratory Association which gave much to science and the world. Thomas Edison’s phonograph, for instance, was a commercial dud until Bell took it in hand, improved the recorder and invented the wax disc records used today, a vast advance over Edison’s scratchy tinfoil cylinders.
Bell’s chief interest was always the deaf. Investigating hereditary deafness, he decided that deaf mutes, who often marry each other because of their common disability and interests, might eventually produce a “deaf variety of the human race.” In 1883 he published a pamphlet urging that day schools be set up for the deaf, that they be taught to speak and read lips, and marry normal people. Sign-language adherents protested vigorously. A newspaper reporter wrote a sensational story that Bell was lobbying to prevent the deaf from marrying. Many deaf people turned against their benefactor. But in England, after hearing Bell, a royal commission recommended that deaf children be taught to talk and allowed to live with normal people.
From 1886 until he died the Bells and their two daughters spent the summer months at Baddeck, Nova Scotia. They built a turreted home overlooking Cape Breton’s breath-taking Bras d’Or Lake. In winter they lived in Washington. At his Baddeck estate, Beinn Bhreagh (Gaelic for beautiful mountain), Bell’s eccentric habits became the talk of the village. He seldom went to bed before three a.m. and when he did he wrapped his face in a towel because the morning sun hurt his eyes.
Summer and winter he walked about
with a heavy rug draped around him on the theory that it kept out heat as well as cold. When people bored him he lay down and went to sleep. Once when Simon Newcomb and S. P. Langley, two of the most distinguished scientists of their day, came to visit him. the three men spent hours dropping a cat from a porch onto a pillow to learn why it always landed on its feet.
His local reputation as an eccentric was enhanced by the fact that he flew kites. Bell said that from boyhood he liad believed man could fly. He began by building small box kites and progressed to a giant, with cells as large as a room, that was earth-bound even in a hurricane. With dark memories of his telephone-patent suits, Bell made voluminous notes and photographs of everything he did. Every picture showed a four-foot plank dated with
Continued on page 40
large white letters. He even put out a small newspaper, the Recorder, outlining every step in his work.
By 1907 he had huilt a fortytwo-foot aerial monster he called the Cygnet. Needing a good light motor he brought Glenn H. Curtiss, who was making motorcycles at Hammondsport, N.Y., to Baddeck. They were joined there by J. A. D. McCurdy, a son of Bell’s secretary, and F. W. (Casey) Baldwin, a University of Toronto athlete whose engineering dean I had refused to let him write his thesis on aerodynamics on the grounds that it ranked with yoga.
Lieut. Thomas Selfridge, an official observer from the U. S. Army, came to watch Bell’s experiments in flight. At Mabel BeU’s suggestion and expense (twenty thousand dollars a year) they formed the Aerial Experiment Association. Object: “To get into the air.”
At this time the world was scoffing at reports of the Wright brothers’ flights. When Bell told newsmen he believed them, the laughing lessened.
That winter at Hammondsport they built their first plane, Drome No. 1, Selfridge’s Red Wing. Baldwin flew it three hundred and eighteen feet —the first public flight in America (the Wrights had flown only secretly). Five days later he cracked it up. Two months later Drome No. 2, Baldwin’s White Wing, lifted her motorcycle wheels off a race track and flew one thousand and seventeen feet. McCurdy later crashed it. That winter McCurdy made his famous flights over the ice at Baddeck, the first in the British Empire.
Baldwin later had a brief career in politics and died in 1948. McCurdy, a former lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia, now lives in Toronto and stiU summers in Baddeck. Curtiss became one of the great names in American aviation. To Selfridge went one fateful distinction. He was killed in 1909 on a flight with Orville Wright—the world’s first victim of an air crash. During World War I Bell and Baldwin built an antisubmarine speedboat that skimmed along at a record seventy miles an hour.
1 n his late years a story was circulated that the inventor hated the telephone so much he refused to have one in his home. The fact was he had several—but he used to roar with rage whenever the phone rang at mealtime.
Bell and Watson staged a reunion in 1915 to open America’s first coastto-coast telephone system. Handed the script of a prepared conversation befitting the event, Bell threw it aside and shouted. “Hoy, hoy, Mr. Watson
. . . Are you there? Do you hear me?” Two years later, a year after Boston proclaimed Bell’s Exeter Place rooms as the home of the telephone, the people of Brantford unveiled a huge memorial and dubbed their town “the Telephone City.”
Standing in front of his own memorial in Brantford Bell fiut them at ease. “I cannot claim to be the inventor of the modern telephone,” he said. “That is the product of many minds. But 1 did initiate the transmission of speech by telegraphy and I initiated it here.” But Boston stuck to its claim. For, six years earlier, addressing a Boston audience, Bell had said, “Boston is par excellence the home of the telephone.”
In the fall of 1920 Alexander Graham Bell went home to Edinburgh for the last time and was given the freedom of the city. He spent the winter of 1921-22 in Florida and the West Indies, then went back to the hills of Baddeck. His health was failing and his illness was diagnosed as pernicious anaemia.
Fatally ill, Bell continued to work furiously. He dictated notes on the many subjects that crowded his fertile mind. One which survives is an outline of “auto-education”—his theory that children should be made to find out everything for themselves. On the
night of August 2 he gave his last dictation to his secretary. “Don’t
hurry,” she told him. “I have to,” he replied. That night he died.
Dressed in an old homespun work suit, lying in a coffin of pine boards, Graham Bell was buried on a hill-top at Beinn Bhreagh in a tomb cut out of rock. While a piper skirled a Highland lament over the lakes, every telephone in America was silent for two minutes. ★