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Alexander Graham Bell (March 3, 1847 - August 2, 1922) was a scientist, engineer, inventor, and innovator who is credited with inventing the first practical telephone. As such, he can be regarded as someone who has made a signification contribution to the history of the cell / mobile phone.

Alexander Graham Bell was born into, and then also married into, a world where sound and speech were more significant than for most people. His father, grandfather, and brother had all been associated with work on elocution and speech, and both his mother and wife were deaf. This all had a huge influence on Bell's life and work. The research on hearing and speech he carried out 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.

Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell Circa. 1916

Bell achieved many inventions during his long and illustrious career, including groundbreaking work in optical telecommunications, hydrofoils and aeronautics, but it is for his work on the first telephone that he is famous, and has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history.

Bell's Early Life

Alexander Bell was born on March 3, 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland. The family home was at 16 South Charlotte Street. Today there is a stone inscription, marking it as the birthplace of the great man. Bell had two brothers: Melville James Bell (1845-70) and Edward Charles Bell (1848-67). Both died of tuberculosis. Bell's father was Professor Alexander Melville Bell, and his mother was Eliza Grace (nêe Symonds). Although he was born "Alexander Bell", at age 10 he asked his father if, like his two brothers, he could have a middle name. For his 11th birthday, his father allowed him to adopt the middle name "Graham", after a patient and family friend, Alexander Graham.

Bell's First invention

As a young child, Alexander displayed a natural curiosity with regard to the world around him. The family of his friend and neighbor, Ben Herdman, operated a flour mill. 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 over a number of years. In return, John Herdman gave both boys the run of a small workshop within which to "invent".

From an early age Bell showed a sensitive nature and a talent for art, music and poetry, all of which were encouraged by his mother. Bell did not receive any formal training, but he still managed to master the piano and became the family's resident pianist. Despite being a quiet and unassuming individual, he reveled in mimicry and "voice tricks" akin to ventriloquism that continually entertained family guests during their occasional visits.

When Bell was 12 his mother started to lose her hearing. This had a major impact on Bell and he 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 which enabled her to hear him with reasonable clarity. It was this preoccupation with his mother's deafness that led Bell to study acoustics.

His family had for a long time been 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 in fact 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. Bell's father taught him and his brothers not only to write Visible Speech but to identify any symbol and its accompanying sound. Bell 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.

Bell's father encouraged his 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. Bell 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, Bell 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 invention.

At the age of 19, Bell wrote a report on this and other 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 Bell a copy of Hermann von Helmholtz's work, The Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music.

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, Bell 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!"

Tragedy in the Bell Family

In 1865, when the Bell family moved to London, Bell returned to Weston House as an assistant master and, in his spare time, continued experimenting on sound using a small amount 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 never recovered. 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 studying.

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.

The Bell Family Move to Canada

In 1870, at the age of 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 environment 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.

Invention of the Telephone

By 1874, initial work that Bell had carried out on the harmonic telegraph had entered a formative stage. 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 ideas.

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 at the time was director of the Smithsonian Institution. They asked Joseph Henry's advice on the electrical multi-reed apparatus that Bell hoped would be able to 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, who was an experienced electrical designer and mechanic at the electrical machine shop of Charles Williams, changed everything.

With financial support from Sanders and Hubbard, Bell was able to hire Thomas Watson as his assistant. The two of them experimented with acoustic telegraphy, and 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, 1876.

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 for that matter, 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.

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) away. Guests at the house 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 dismissed the offer outright, commenting 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 dollars.

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.

Bell's Death

Bell died of complications arising from diabetes on August 2, 1922, at his private estate, Beinn Bhreagh, Nova Scotia, at the age of 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 pased away.

Dr. Alexander Graham Bell was buried on top of Beinn Bhreagh mountain, on his estate where he had resided increasingly during 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.

You can find out more about the life and work of Alexander Graham Bell here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Graham_Bell.


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