The twisted trail that led to the telephone
THE LIFE OF ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL
At 26 Bell patented a since-forgotten device called the multiple telegraph. Cable companies weren't interested. Then, one afternoon in 1875, Bell and a fellow worker became the first human beings to hear the tones and overtones of a sound transmitted by electricity
Second of four parts
THOMAS B. COSTAIN
BY THE TIME SPRING CAME in 1871 Alexander Graham Bell was a new man. He had filled out and the color in his cheeks reflected good health rather than the flush that so often accompanies tuberculosis. His parents said to themselves that God and the air of Brantford had brought recovery to their sole surviving son. The chance they had taken in coming to Canada after their eldest and youngest sons died of the disease in London had worked.
Bell seems to have shown an almost immediate improvement from the day the family settled at Tutelo Heights, on the outskirts of Brantford, in August 1870.
His father had gone to Boston in the autumn of 1870 to fulfill lecture engagements there and had been so successful that there was immediate discussion of a return engagement. This he was compelled to decline because of arrangements already made in Canada, but consideration was promised to his suggestion that his son take his place.
Graham Bell was notified early in 1871 that the Boston School Board had voted five hundred dollars as remuneration for lectures he was to deliver at the Boston School for the Deaf and at the Clarke Institute for Deaf-Mutes in Northampton. He left in April to begin, his duties.
During the eight months he had spent with his parents at Tutelo Heights he had not been idle. Swinging in his hammock between the two beech trees, he had kept his mind continuously on his problems. In the workroom, which lay in the angle of the drawing room and the conservatory, he had gone back to studying tuning forks. At the piano he was more likely to experiment with single notes than to play music. For long stretches of time he would sit and ponder and listen.
What Graham Bell was striving to accomplish at this time was an improvement on the telegraph. The telephone was something for the future, a great objective which would never come to anything unless he discovered a new scientific approach. On the other hand, he had a definite idea for an improvement in the telegraph, which was being employed all over the civilized world but was still limited to the sending of one message over a wire at one time. The Bell plan was to make use of the law of sympathetic vibration and send any number of messages in the Morse code on a single wire. This, he was convinced, could be done without any interference or confusion. He called it the harmonic or multiple telegraph. This was something many others were striving to achieve.
Graham Bell completed his device within the next two years and was granted a patent. It was never taken over by the telegraph companies, perhaps because they thought it had a flaw which made practical use difficult. But out of the work he was doing on the harmonic telegraph came a hint, a flash, and finally a blinding light.
During the five years which followed his first trip to Boston to lecture in his father's stead, young Bell lived a life of intense activity and concentration. Most of his time was spent in Boston, lecturing at the Horace Mann School, conducting private classes of his own, and at all times going on with his experiments. As soon as the school closed, he would return to Brantford, to catch up on sleep, to have regular meals again, and to lie out in the sun on the edge of the high bluff over the Grand; and. of course, to continue his ceaseless search for the secrets which evaded him.
A great deal is known about his long visits to Boston, which alternated with the periods he spent in Brantford, through the long letters he wrote home. He told, for instance, about his good fortune in meeting two friendly men, both of whom were citizens of considerable means and who would in time take over the financing of his scientific endeavors. This came about because each of them had a child whose hearing was impaired and who grasped eagerly at any opportunity to speak properly in spite of this handicap. One was Thomas Sanders of Haverhill, whose son George had been born deaf. The other was a Boston lawyer and industrialist named Gardiner Greene Hubbard. He went to Graham Bell and talked to him about one of his daughters, Mabel, who had lost her hearing through an attack of scarlet fever when she was four. The child had been sent to Germany for a course of many years but there had been little result except that she had learned lip reading. Bell was engaged to instruct her teacher in his methods and particularly in Visible Speech. Mabel Hubbard,
who was growing up into a very lovely girl, was destined to play a highly important and lasting part in the life of Alexander Graham Bell.
Bell never wavered in his loyalty to the two men who backed him so generously, yet the formation of the partnership might have had the effect of delaying the invention of the telephone. Both of the partners were convinced that his chance for success lay in completing his work on the multiple telegraph. The telephone. in their minds, was a secondary consideration, and a highly speculative one. They were so strongly of this opinion that the agreement signed between them made no mention of the telephone. "The said Bell has invented certain new and useful methods and apparatus for telegraphing” was the way the document read.
It was not a desire for quick financial returns which actuated Hubbard in urging the young Scot to devote himself to his telegraphic experiments. Rather it was an expression of his belief that Bell's improvements in the operation of the telegraph were successes and that it was a matter of common sense to complete them first. 1 he telephone could come later. It seems certain that Sanders shared these views. He continued to pour money into the company with a free hand. Ultimately his investment reached $110.000 before he received any returns.
Even alter the successful tests of the telephone conducted in Brantford removed all doubts as to CONTINUED ON PAGE 38
CONTINUEI) ON I'AGE 38
A Bell family invention: Visible Speech
Symbols pointing at the telephone’s inventor signify BELL in Visible Speech. His father's sign language (a sample below) helped leach the deaf to speak.
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" t 3 I 02 I Ö 00 f
Scotchi 4' 8a 2,1 7b 4l 3* ob
1 3 I 03 l G 00 I
f 4' 8d 2h 8a 4I 3¡ ob
t 3 I 02 í G 00 1
2b 4C 8a ob 3e 3b
Q D Í I O O
2b 4e 8a 3c 3b
n D Í ö O
2b 4c 5f 8a ob 3e 3b
Q D > I tOÜ
Tin; ENGLISH ALPHABET.
The mysteries of sound were the chief interest of three generations of the Bell family. Alexander Graham Bell carried the family interest into the electric age with his development of the telephone, but it was his father. Melville, whose name is remembered best in the field of phonetics. Melville Bell worked out a system of symbols called Visible Speech, or the Universal Alphabet. Each symbol represents a move-
ment of lips and tongue. Knowing the symbols and movements, a deaf man can learn to speak any language with, conceivably, an impeccable accent. The lines above show how English words (in this case the words Visible Speech) can be transliterated. The small figures in the upper lines refer to a chart prepared by Melville Bell for an elocution text published in the middle of the last century.
The life of Alexander Graham Bell
Continued from page 25
His backers felt they had no right to share in his invention; Bell had to insist that they had
th» possibilities of the new instrument, the two partners were not of the opinion that they had a share in it. There was never the faintest trace of friction among the three men and the disclaimer on the part of Hubbard and Sanders was an evidence of their generous attitude. They did not want to assert a right which they honestly considered doubtful.
It was Graham Bell himself who insisted that they were entitled to a share in the telephone. He is on record to this effect:
“My understanding always was that the speaking telephone was included in the inventions that belonged to the Messrs. Hubbard and Sanders from the autumn of 1874 but 1 found at a later period that they had not this idea, which might account for the little encouragement I received to spend time on experiments relating to it. Even as late as 1876, when the telephone was an assured success, Mr. Hubbard generously offered to relinquish to me all right and title to that invention, as he was inclined to think it was outside our original understanding.”
The clue to great inventions often comes like a ray of light cutting suddenly and unexpectedly through the gloom. Sometimes the inventor sees the truth hidden behind some casually accepted detail of everyday life, as in the examples of Newton and the apple and Watt and the lid of the kettle. More frequently the final result is arrived at by a logical development. The telephone seems to fall into the second as well as the boltin-the-blue classification.
Through all the discord which has arisen over the story of the telephone, one fact seems to be generally accepted: the key to its inception was found in Brantford during the vacation that Graham Bell spent at Tutelo Heights in 1874. He had come home very tired. Sleepless nights and irregular meals, together with incessant labor, had taken their toll. It was clear to his anxious parents that he had lost much of the ground gained during the first years in Canada.
For a brief period he allowed his mind to lie fallow. And then it came to him. the idea he had been seeking so long, the brilliant solution which scientists in all parts of civilization had been pursuing with equal intensity.
He had been studying the phonautograph in connection with his efforts to complete his multiple telegraph. A phonautograph. was a sound writer, a hollow cylinder with a membrane stretched over one end. A stylus was attached to the same end and, when words were spoken into the tube at the other end, the stylus would move in sympathy with the vibrations of the membrane. The result was a series of lines inscribed on smoked glass which conveyed the meaning of the words. The thought which suddenly flooded Bell's mind was that the human ear was the most perfect instrument in all nature for detecting and recording sound. What if a membrane receiver could be modeled closely after the ear? Was it possible that sounds sent over a steel wire would register in the form of speech?
One version is that Graham Bell was
lying in his hammock when this inspiration came to him. He sat straight upright but for several moments made no further move. Then he got slowly to his feet, retrieved a book which had fallen to the ground, and turned toward the garden. For the first few steps he went slowly. Then he raced for the house.
Another version is that he was seated at the piano. His parents paid no attention when the music ceased abruptly. There was nothing new in that. He would often stop and sit for a time in perfect silence before beginning to strike single notes at intervals as though testing the exact sounds.
In either case. Bell's next step, clearly, would be to examine the composition of the ear and the way it operated. But where could the necessary specimen be obtained in Brantford? There would not be a real hospital in the town for another ten years, and certainly no youthful layman would be allowed to take a human ear from a deceased patient, to be used for experiments.
I have heard from several sources that Bell conducted experiments with a hog's ear. There is also on record a story that it was a dog’s ear. The truth seems to be that Dr. Clarence J. Blake, of Boston, gave Bell a human ear in 1874. and that the young inventor took the specimen to Brantford that summer, to be used in a phonautograph. It is quite possible that he kept this a secret and gave it out that he was using the car of an animal, to prevent gossip.
Graham Bell returned to Boston after his 1874 vacation in Brantford convinced him that the membrane telephone, based on the structure of the ear. was the key to the problem. But he was still weighed down with serious problems. His two good friends in Boston. Sanders and Hubbard, who were making it possible for him to continue his experiments, showed an interest in the great idea which had come to him at Tutelo Heights but their chief concern was still the multiple telegraph.
To complicate matters still further. Bell and Mabel Hubbard were very much in love. There is nothing in the record to indicate that Hubbard opposed the match at the start but, because the young inventor was likely to become his son-in-law, a new note was introduced into their relationship. Hubbard was a sound man of business and he was not likely to favor giving his daughter in marriage to a man who seemed inclined to be visionary and lacking in stability, even though he might be the natural genius of the age. Graham Bell realized this so completely that he regretted the need to depend on his backers. Although he was in serious financial straits, he could not bring himself to go back to Hubbard and say that he needed more money.
It has been said that Hubbard finally told the young inventor he would never give his consent to Bell's marriage with Mabel unless he gave up “all this nonsense" about hearing speech over wires. The source of this story is not given and its authenticity may be doubted. There can be no doubt at all. however, that the diffident suitor feared it might come to that. Fortunately Mabel was as much in love with him as he was with her, and she had no intention of allowing ¿myth i ng. even a paternal veto, to come between them.
Bell had one reservation about the use of equipment fashioned on the human ear. Would it be possible for the voice to create electrical impulses strong enough to travel for long distances over wire?
I he answer to that was found soon after his return to Boston and it came through an accident in the course of his experiments on the telegraph.
Back in Boston he made an important acquaintance. He was having all his apparatus prepared at the electrical plant of Charles Williams and on one occasion had to take back a piece of mechanism he had found imperfect. It had been the work of a young electrical worker named Thomas A. Watson. Disregarding office rules. Bell went straight to Watson's bench to explain what was wrong.
In later years Watson, who was to have his share in the glory and the wealth, wrote a volume of reminiscences. Exploring Life. In it he gave his first impression of Alexander Graham Bell, as he saw him that day. "A tall, slender, quickmotioned man with a pale face, black side - whiskers and drooping mustache, big nose and a high, sloping forehead crowned with bushy black hair . . . The tone of his voice seemed vividly to color his words. His clear, crisp articulation delighted me and made other men’s speech seem uncouth.”
Young Watson was so helpful to Bell that finally he was assigned to give all his time to the young Scot. They worked on the multiple telegraph by day and by night. The obstacles in the way of perfection could not. seemingly, be overcome. The multiple messages dispatched simultaneously over one wire steppeil on each other's toes, as it were. As Watson had no keenness of sound perception. Bell had to assume all the labor of tuning and changing and retuning. It was a continuous process of tightening and loosening screws to get the transmitting
and receiving ends of the apparatus into harmony.
One evening, when all the delicate adjustments had once again gone awry, Bell shook his head in despair. “Watson,” he said, "I want to tell you of another idea which I think will surprise you.”
Watson was so impressed by what he was told that he always remembered the exact words. In the course of time he set them down in his autobiography.
"If I could make a current of electricity vary in intensity,” explained Alexander Graham Bell, "precisely as air varies in density during the production of sound, I would be able to transmit speech electrically.”
Watson has told the story of the great moment in full detail. It was on the afternoon of June 2, 1875. a distressingly sultry day. I he two young men were hard at it. Bell in one room and Watson in another, sixty feet away. Bell was engaged in his continuous labor of tuning one transmitter after another. Suddenly, under Watson's intent eye. one of the transmitting springs ceased to vibrate. He was sure it had become stuck and so he plucked at it to get it free again. Most unexpectedly he heard Bell calling to him from the other room, in an excited voice.
“What did you do?"
A moment later the young Scot appeared in the doorway. His eyes were shining as. perhaps, they had never shone before. He repeated: "What did you do then? Don’t change a thing! Let me see!"
Watson's story proceeds as follows: "I showed him that it was very simple. The make-and-break points of the transmitting spring I was trying to start had become welded together, so that when I snapped the spring the circuit had remained unbroken while that strip of magnetized steel was generating that marvelous conception of Bell’s—a current of electricity that varied in intensity precisely as the air was varying in density within hearing distance of the spring."
That was all that Bell needed to know. Something new in electricity had been brought about, a current to which he later gave the descriptive name of undulatory. He knew at once that this undulatory . current would accomplish what the interrupted current had failed to do.
Neither of the zealous pair had any dolibt of the importance of the discovery. Watson wrote in his memoirs. "Bell was hearing for the first time in human history the tones and overtones of a sound transmitted by electricity.”
Fearing that the new current might be an accidental effect, the pair devoted the rest of the day. far on into the hours of darkness, to repeating the process. They used every tuning spring in the shop, one after another. The result was always the same. They continued to hear the same voice-shaped electrical undulations. It was as though they were listening to the faraway voice of the spheres.
Some years later, in speaking of this. Professor Bell said: "Orders were given at once to construct the membrane telephone that was conceived in Brantford in 1874.”
Sleep was out of the question for Bell after Watson had departed to catch the last train for his home in the suburbs. Finally he sat down and wrote a letter to Hubbard, thinking, no doubt, how much better and easier it would be if he could speak into a transmitter and hear his backer’s voice respond from the other end. He began by saying. "I have accidentally made a discovery of the very greatest importance.” ★