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Alexander Graham Bell (1847 – 1922)

Scientist, engineer, inventor of modern telephone

Alexander Graham Bell was born in Scotland on the 3rd of March 1847. He had two brothers, one elder and one younger, and both of them died of tuberculosis. His father was a professor.

Alexander had a naturally curious mind and started collecting little bits and pieces from the garden with which he experiment as a little boy.

When he was 12 years old, Alexander built a wheat de-husking machine for his best friend’s farm. This was his very first invention.

Alexander became interested in poetry, art and music because his mother loved them. He was able to play the piano without any piano lessons, could perform voice tricks, and used to be the family entertainer.

He was very close to his mother, and became quite upset over the years because she started going deaf. At 12 years, he also learned a finger language to communicate with his mother.

He soon realized that he spoke in clear tones directly at his mother’s forehead she could hear well. This encouraged him to study the science of acoustics or sound.

Similarly, the influence Alexander’s father had on him was astounding. His father, an expert in speech and languages, and taught his sons how to write Visible Speech.

Visible Speech is a type of writing system that shows the position and the movement of the throat, tongue, and lips when they produce sounds of any language, which is especially useful when working with people who cannot hear.

Alexander became an expert at Visible Speech and was able to reproduce the sounds of English, Latin, Scottish Gaelic and even Sanskrit.

He was home schooled for the first few years by his father, but did not do very well when he attended school.

He was only interested in the science subjects, especially biology. This really disappointed his father.

After leaving school, he lived with his grandfather in London and became a “pupil-teacher” of elocution and music.

Alexander’s first experiment with sound was with his older brother Melville where they rebuilt their own version of a mechanical system with a faked human voice, similar to what they had seen in an experiment.

Their father supported them and soon this very human like head was able to “speak” a few words through its adjustable “lips”. “Mama” was one of those words and the Bell brothers became famous in their neighbourhood.

Soon after this, he started experimenting with the broadcast of sound by working with tuning forks. He wanted to study the concept of tone.

He continued with his experiments in sound even though he met a few disappointments on the way. During this time, he even installed an electrical telegraph wire from his college room to his friend’s.

Tragedy struck in 1867 when Bell was 20 years old. His brother Edward who was suffering from a lung infection died. Bell’s health was also quite poor because he was always tired.

He helped and worked with his father at the Visible Speech demonstrations and worked with two “deaf mute” pupils to gain experience for college.

Bell lost his elder brother (Melville) to the same illness he lost his other brother to, just 3 years afterwards. The Bell family left England for Canada after this event.

Influenced by the work of German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz, Bell continued to work with electricity and sound from his very own “dreaming place” workshop in Canada.

Back in America in the 1870s Bell works with hearing impaired students, and teachers elocution. He conducted a few experiments on sound with an ear specialist Clarence Blake.

In 1874, the same year he started work with Blake he comes up with the idea of the telephone. He worked with a young electrician Thomas Watson who was also his assistant later on.

A year later, Bell received financial support for his inventions and other scientists encouraged his idea.

At the age of 29, Alexander Graham Bell finally owned the legal licence for his invention the telephone. The first words spoken over it were to his assistant, Watson, where he said, “Mr Watson. Come here. I want to see you.”

The next year Bell forms the Bell Telephone Company, and in 1890 he forms the American Association to Promote teaching Speech to the Deaf.

Bell made his first transcontinental call to his assistant on the 25th of January 1915, 39 years after he spoke for the first time over the telephone.

He is also the inventor of the metal detector, a metal jacket to help breathing and an instrument called the ‘audiometer’, which can identify hearing problems.

Bell was quite a sickly man throughout his life, and he died on the 2nd of August 1922 through complications from diabetes. He was 75 years old.

As a sign of respect after his funeral, every telephone in North America was silenced for a few minutes.

Even though there were a few who claimed they invented the telephone before Bell, the contribution Alexander Graham Bell made to the world is immeasurable.