Alexander Graham Bell was an inventor who lived from 1847–1922. He invented a lot of things, but is best known for inventing the telephone.
The story of the telephone begins with Alexander Graham Bell’s terrier.
In 1863, Bell was 20 years old. His father and grandfather were prominent elocutionists in England, working with the deaf population, which included Bell’s mother. Sound — or lack of it — was the family business.
One day Bell’s father encouraged him to make a speaking machine. Bell turned to his dog Trouve for help, plying him, Charlotte Gray wrote in her biography “Reluctant Genius,” with “a judicious mix of treats.”
And then, by manipulating Trouve’s jaw as he growled for treats, Bell made the dog talk.
“How are you Grandmama?” Trouve says. (Or something close to it.)
The moment — one of several bizarre episodes in the development of the telephone — was transformative for Bell and ultimately society, which is still watching his invention evolve. Around the world on Friday, scores of lined up for Apple’s new iPhone, which Steve Jobs originally dreamed up with slightly more features than Bell’s original.
When Bell made Trouve talk, it showed Bell’s “determination to follow the profession of his grandfather and father,” as John Brooks wrote in “Telephone: The First Hundred Years.” And it sowed in Bell the crucial curiosity and creative instincts he would need to bring the phone to fruition.
Although Bell invented the telephone, he was not an inventor.
When he joined the faculty of Boston University in 1874, Bell’s title was “professor of the mechanism of speech.” He taught in the School of Oratory. He wasn’t good with numbers or calculations. Bell’s specialty was “Visible Speech,” his father’s invention of using written symbols to imitate sounds.
“To ask the value of speech,” he said, “is like asking the value of life.”
That way of thinking drew scorn from the deaf community, which chafed at his view that being deaf was a handicap and curse. Bell married a deaf woman and was driven to find, as he saw it, ways to help the deaf integrate better in society.
After arriving in Boston, Bell began experimenting with cadaver ears, trying to take advantage of an invention — and a mistake (of sorts) — made some two decades earlier by a French printer named Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. Steven Johnson, the modern bard of explaining innovation, recounted the moment colorfully in his 2014 book “How We Got to Now.”
“By the time of the Enlightenment,” Johnson wrote, “detailed books of anatomy had mapped the basic structure of the human ear, documenting the way sound waves were funneled through the auditory canal, triggering vibrations in the eardrum.”
Scott stumbled on one of these books and, apparently having nothing better to do, began studying the physics of sound. In addition to sound, Scott was obsessed with shorthand. (Reader: All of this really does lead Bell to the phone. Stand by.)
Scott had an idea!
“Instead of a human writing down words, a machine could write sound waves,” Johnson writes, continuing the story:
Scott’s contraption funneled sound waves through a hornlike apparatus that ended with a membrane of parchment. Sound waves would trigger vibrations in the parchment, which would then be transmitted to a stylus made of pig’s bristle. The stylus would etch out the waves on a page darkened by the carbon of lampblack. He called his invention the “phonautograph”: the self-writing of sound.
Then comes the mistake (of sorts).
“Scott’s invention was hamstrung by one crucial — even comical — limitation,” Johnston writes. “He had invented the first sound recording device in history. But he forgot to include playback.”
It’s hard to blame the guy, though. Back then, people thought sound traveled through the air via magic.
“The idea that machines could convey sound waves that had originated elsewhere,” Johnson writes, “was not at all an intuitive one.”
To Bell, it was.
In the mid-1870s, Bell wanted to build a phonautograph, but he wanted it to approximate a human ear to test whether the sound waves could transform into recognizable symbols. The idea was that the device would help the deaf “see” the sound of words.
Bell asked around Boston for help, eventually turning to his ear doctor buddy Clarence Blake, who asked him “why he was trying to reinvent the wheel,” Gray wrote in “Reluctant Genius.” “Why didn’t he just use a human ear?”
One arrived in the mail a few days later.
Bell set it up with a transcription contraption and began shouting into it. The ear worked, but not well. Bell struggled to see how replicating the device on a wider scale could help the deaf in the way he imagined. Bell did, however, have another idea, Gray writes:
Now he understood how sound was received in the human ear. The next step would be to reproduce the action of the ear membrane and design an instrument to translate the vibrations into sounds. Suddenly the idea struck him that it might be possible to create an undulating electric current that could carry sound along a telegraph wire in the same way that air carried sound waves from the speaker to the hearer. The telephone receiver, pressed to a human ear, could act like an electrical mouth. Current flowing through an electromagnet would cause the receivers membrane to vibrate. The vibrations . . . would then hit the listeners eardrum, making it vibrate too. The listener’s ear would interpret these vibrations as the sounds spoken by the person at the other end of the wire.
On March 10, 1876, in his Boston workshop, Bell set up receivers in separate rooms connected by a wire and powered by batteries. His assistant Thomas Watson helped. It was late afternoon. They were both tired. Bell went to one room, Watson to the other. And then it happened, almost like magic. Bell spoke. On his receiver, Watson heard this: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want you.”
Bell was so excited he spilled battery acid on himself. That night, he worked late with Watson, taking turns talking seemingly through the air. They read books to each other. Watson sang. Eventually, Bell signed off, belting out, “God save the queen.”
A year later, the nation’s largest cities began installing telephone service. By 1907, there were more than 6 million phones in use, according to “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” by Robert J. Gordon. The telephone would quickly transform the world in so many ways. Bell seemed to know it. After that first phone call, he wrote a letter to his father.
“I have constructed a new apparatus operated by the human voice,” Bell wrote. “I feel that I have at last struck the solution of a great problem — and the day is coming when telegraph wires will be laid on to houses just like water or gas — and friends converse with each other without leaving home.”