Notable Scots: Innovation & Discovery
Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922):
Invented the first practical telephone
Bell would explain the restless motivations he experienced in arriving at such inventions in a speech to a patent congress in Washington in 1891:
"The inventor is a man who looks around upon the world and is not contented with things as they are. He wants to improve whatever he sees, he wants to benefit the world; he is haunted by an idea. The spirit of invention possesses him, seeking materialization."
~ Alexander Graham Bell
Alexander Bell, grandfather of Alexander Graham Bell, abandoned his family's long family of shoemaking and left Fifeshire to pursue the newly emerging science of elocution, the study of formal speaking. An early love of acting had inspired him to develop his speech skills, which prompted his 1826 move to Dundee to teach elocution full-time. After he discovered that his wife was having an extra-marital affair in 1834, he moved to London with their youngest son, Melville, where he published The Practical Elocutionist. The textbook was an authoritative study of elocution that used comma-like symbols to indicate word groupings and emphasis to form a system with which to visualize speech. This book set foundations that would consume the vocations of three generations of Bell men.
Bell and his new wife sent Melville to live with a family friend in St. John's, Newfoundland in 1838 to improve his faltering health. Melville, who had worked in London as a draper's assistant, found new work in Canada as a clerk in a shipping house. Having inherited his father's interest in acting, he taught acting classes, which soon evolved into elocution classes. His successful treatment of stammering, achieved by using his father's methods as proscribed in The Practical Elocutionist, won public acclamation.
Melville rejoined his father in 1842 in London, where the two undertook a study into the physiology of vocal organs. Two years later he met Eliza Symonds in Edinburgh, a cultivated painter whose partial deafness drew a particularly heightened sympathy from Melville. The pair married in 1844 and settled in Edinburgh, where Melville published The Art of Reading and began delivering elocution lectures. Soon regarded as an authority on physiological phonetics, Melville prospered both professionally and financially. His first son, Alexander Graham Bell, was born in the spacious flat at 16 South Charlotte Street in 1847.
Alexander's parents encouraged his early passions in biology and music. As a young child, he developed a keen faculty to play piano by ear, an ability he claimed to have lost when he learned to read music. Although he lost his early ambition to become a professional pianist, Alexander declared that his "early passion for music had a good deal to do in preparing me for the scientific study of sound." 1 Acutely sensitive to his mother's worsening deafness, he learned a manual finger language so that he could sit by her side and tap out the surrounding conversations. Eliza could furthermore hear her son with reasonable clarity when he employed his technique of speaking in clear, modulated tones directly into her forehead.
In school, Alexander lacked ambition and performed poorly, spending much of his class time in daydreams. However, his academic drive jump-started the year he was sent to London to spend some time with his recently widowed grandfather. Alexander the elder made the fifteen-year-old ashamed of his ignorance, and aroused an "ambition to remedy my defects of education by personal study," particularly the study of acoustics. 2 Grandfather Bell also impressed upon young Alexander the singular importance of speech, which he deemed to be the key characteristic of humankind. Alexander and his brother even built their own automaton talking head after Bell took his grandsons to see Charles Wheatstone's model of Wolfgang von Kempelen's 18th-century "speaking machine." Alexander later reflected on this achievement, "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." 3 When a bellows forced air through the machine's windpipe, a very recognizable "Mama" emerged from the carefully adjusted "lips."
Intrigued by the results of the automaton, Alexander continued his speech experiments on a live subject back home in Edinburgh, Europe's Mecca of science and academics. After teaching his Skye terrier, Trouve, to growl continuously, Alexander could reach into the dog's mouth and manually manipulated its lips and vocal cords to produce crude sounds. Family guests delighted when they heard the "talking dog" ask "Ow ah oo ga ma ma," which, with a little imagination, sounded much like "How are you grandmama?"
At the age of sixteen, Alexander secured a position as a student-teacher of music and elocution at an academy in Elgin. During his four years of study and teaching, he continued with experiments in speech physiology, about which his father encouraged him to write. Impressed with the youngster's report in March 1866 on the transmission of sound, the Philological Society in London invited him to join its ranks.
To Canada and Improvements in Telegraphy
The next year, Melville Bell published his landmark treatise, Visible Speech: The Science of Universal Alphabetics, which sold a quarter million copies in the United States alone. The book explained Bell's methods of instructing dead-mutes to articulate words and read lips, and also outlined his "visible speech" alphabet. While Melville was on tour in North America promoting his new system of phonetics, he fell in love with the Ontarian countryside. Alexander, his parents, and his widowed-sister-in-law landed at Quebec City on 1 August 1870 aboard the SS Nestorian, and settled on a ten-acre farm at Tutelo Heights on the Grand River near Brantford, Ontario. Alexander immediately found his favourite spot on the farm: "It was my custom in the summer time to take a rug, a pillow, and an interesting book to this cozy little nook," he later reflected, "and dream away the afternoon in luxurious idleness." 4
In 1871, Bell left his parents' home to teach at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Boston. Within a few weeks he was able to teach children more than 400 visible speech syllables, overturning the previous notions that deaf people could neither be taught nor fill useful roles in society. Bell's practices, based on the theory that the deaf could be taught to speak without the use of sign language, garnered so much attention and became so in-demand that he opened his own school in 1872. Until his death he considered his work with the deaf to be his greatest contribution to humanity, although his legacy seldom recognizes these efforts. Through his whole life he dedicated himself to the penetration of "that inhuman silence which separates and estranges." 5 By the turn of the century, forty percent of deaf students were being taught by oral techniques without sign language, including a young Helen Keller, whom Bell taught in 1887. The oralist school fell out of favour, however, as modern medicine conquered many of the infections that stripped children of their hearing after their language skills had already developed, and the proportion of congenial deafness increased.
Bell's own wife, Mabel Hubbard, had lost her hearing to scarlet fever as a five-year-old. He was immediately smitten with his fifteen-year-old student, the daughter of a prominent patent attorney, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the president of Clarke School for the Deaf who was fascinated by all electrical inventions, particularly anything to do with the telegraph. Hubbard was struck by Bell's extraordinary idea for a telegraph that would send numerous messages simultaneously along a single wire and agreed to finance his experiments. Although Bell was neither the first nor the only person to experiment with tonal telegraphy, he was the first person to solve the problem of turning sound into an electrical impulse at a transmitter, then converting the impulse back to audible speech through a receiver.
Bell wrote that the solution to this problem was inspired at his "dreaming place" on his parents' farm in Tutelo Heights, Ontario, on 26 July 1874. Drawing from his work on the phonautograph, experiments on electrical induction, sound-activated piano wires, and the ideas of French scientists on vibrating plates and currents, he deduced that "it would be possible to transmit sounds of any sort if we could only occasion a variation in the intensity of the current exactly like that occurring in the density of air while a given sound is made." 6
Back in Boston, he made quick progress on the telephone, reporting his findings to the great scientist Joseph Henry, head of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Bell hoped the telegraph might be able to transmit the human voice through an electrical multi-reed apparatus, and was encouraged by Henry to develop a prototype invention. Bell, however, lacked the equipment and craftsmanship to fashion his device. Backed by Hubbard's financial support, Bell was able to hire Thomas A. Watson, an experienced electrical designer and mechanic, and the two of them spent the spring of 1875 experimenting with acoustics. On June 2, while the two men were in different rooms tuning the reeds of three sets of transmitters and receivers for an experiment with the multiple telegraph, they made a break-through discovery. Watson had screwed one of his reeds too tightly, and it stuck to its electromagnet. When he plucked it to free it, Bell heard the twang of the vibrating reed through his receiver. Using residual magnetism, the plucked reed had induced an undulating current that activated the electromagnets on the receiver, causing the receiving reeds to reciprocally vibrate. Within days, Watson was able to produce a primitive telephone set.
Birth of the Telephone
Bell improved the invention over the summer at his parents' home. By the end of September he was working on patent specifications while Watson continued to fine-tune the device. The key to its future success lay in obtaining a British patent, which could not be granted if an American patent was pending; so Hubbard held off on applying for a U.S. patent while Bell returned to Brantford with the idea of offering the rights of his invention to Sir Hugh Allan, the powerful financier of the Montreal Telegraph Company. But when Bell asked his parents' neighbour, Toronto Globe owner George Brown, for an introduction to Allan, Brown made his own offer for the rights. Promising to file for a British patent during his upcoming trip to London in February, Brown set sail from New York City the day after Bell delivered his final specifications.
Brown, however, knew little about telegraphy and changed his mind about the new invention after an associate in London advised him that it would be unpractical. Although Brown filed Bell's application on 16 February 1876, he decided to drop his involvement in the project without notifying the inventor. Fortunately, Hubbard had grown impatient waiting for Brown's confirmation of the British filing and had submitted his own patent application two days earlier. On 7 March 1876, the U.S. patent office issued Bell patent number 174,465 for "Improvements in Telegraphy," the single most lucrative - and most widely contested - patent ever awarded in the history of invention.
Three days after the patent was issued, Bell transmitted the telephone's famous first intelligible sentence: "Mr. Watson - Come here - I want to see you." Mabel Hubbard, now Bell's fiancée, urged him demonstrate a working version of his invention at the Philadelphia Centennial International Exhibition. After winning a favorable reception at the fair, Bell returned to Tutelo Heights, where he made the world's first long-distance telephone call. Using a line of the Dominion Telegraph Company, Bell connected his father's house to Wallace Ellis's general store, four miles away. His tests culminated in an eight-mile trial transmission between the Bell house and Robert White's shoe store in Paris, Ontario.
Now that Bell's financial future was secured, he could marry Mabel with confidence. Two days before the July 1877 wedding, Bell, Watson, Hubbard, and Thomas Sanders had the Bell Telephone Company of Boston incorporated as a trusteeship. Bell gave seventy-five percent of his Canadian rights to his father, who licensed Hugh Baker, a Hamilton railway promoter, to lease telephones in Ontario. Baker organized the first public demonstration of a telephone in Canada on 29 August; the first telephone lease, signed 18 October, connected his home to those of two colleagues. In November, Baker installed a pair of telephones in Ottawa, linking the office of the Prime Minister, Alexander Mackenzie, with the residence of the Governor General.
Bell foresaw a grand future for the telephone: he wrote in a prospectus for British financiers on 5 March 1878, "It is conceivable that cables of Telephonic wires could be laid under-ground or suspended overhead communicating by branch wires with private dwellings, counting houses, shops, manufactories, etc... establishing direct communication between any two places in the City.... I believe that in the future wires will unite the head offices of Telephone Companies in different cities and a man in one part of the Country may communicate by word of mouth with another in a distant place." 7
Later Work and Family Life
The profits drawn from the Bell Telephone Company allowed Bell the freedom to experiment with his more fanciful ideas. He used the fifty thousand francs awarded by France's 1880 Volta Prize to establish a laboratory in Washington, D.C., the new home of the Bell family, to promote research for the benefit of the deaf. After the sudden death of his infant son, he delved into medical research with the vacuum jacket, a precursor to the iron lung. He then made headlines with the metal detector, which used sound waves to detect a bullet in a body, in a bid to save President James Garfield.
Although Bell naturalized to the United States in 1882, he and Mabel fell in love with Baddeck, on the Bras d'Or lakes of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia during a summer vacation in 1885. The area reminded him of Scotland. Bell and Mabel spent the next summer in a cottage there, and they began to purchase land on Red Head on Baddeck Bay. In 1893 workers completed construction on a thirteen-bedroom mansion named Beinn Bhreagh, Gaelic for "beautiful mountain". For the rest of his life, the Bells split their time between Washington, D.C. and Nova Scotia, developing an intimate connection with the Cape Breton community. Surrounded by the serene landscape, Bell continued to develop his ideas and conduct experiments at Beinn Bhreagh for the rest of his life.
When Gardiner Hubbard co-founded the National Geographic Society in Washington in 1888, he named Bell its first president, and remained in that office until 1903. A lover of photography, Bell launched the society's mass-market journal, National Geographic Magazine, and defined its broad role to cover "the world and all that is in it". His son-in-law, Gilbert Grosvenor, served as the magazine's first editor.
Bell's interest in photography led him to dabble in a novel form of medical photography, the X-ray. Four months after Wilhelm Rontgen discovered the X-ray in November 1895, Bell produced his own X-ray apparatus at Beinn Bhreagh using a Crookes' tube. Over the next several years, he took a number of clinical X-rays and envisioned using stereoscopic radiographs to produce three-dimensional X-rays of the skeleton. He was also the first to suggest the use of a radioactive substance in vivo to treat deep-seated cancerous masses.
Amid all of these pursuits, nothing captured Bell's imagination as much as the prospect of flight. In 1877, after watching a seagull in flight over a beach in Scotland, Bell had been inspired to draw a flying machine. The sketch bore striking resemblance to those created by Leonardo da Vinci; however, Bell was no more successful with this experiment than the Renaissance artist had been. Although he foresaw the commercial and military importance of flight, none of the 1,200 flight-related experiments performed at Baddeck over a span of thirty years came to much fruition. Initially setting out to prove that tetrahedral designs could be used as strong, lightweight structures for flying machines, Bell eventually had to recruit engineers to craft his enormous kites. Mabel suggested that the team of five men, which included a young lieutenant who was an authority on aviation, form a formal organization to finance their work. The Aerial Experiment Association was thus founded in Halifax in 1907.
Bell removed himself from aeronautics in 1912 and turned instead to the development of hydrofoils that would travel over water. This venture churned his last major achievement in 1919, when the HD-4 set a world marine speed of 70.86 miles per hour. Bell watched from the wharf at Beinn Bhreagh as Mabel stood at the helm of the craft during its speed trial.
Bell died in August 1922 of complications resulting from advanced diabetes at his Nova Scotia home, and was buried on a hilltop overlooking Baddeck Bay. The scope of his visionary insights guaranteed his place in history; a practical dreamer until the end, Bell discussed his thought process in 1918: "We are all too much inclined, I think, to walk through life with our eyes closed," he mused. Continuing, Bell offered future generations this timeless advice: "We should not keep forever on the public road, going only where others have gone; we should leave the beaten track occasionally and enter the woods. Every time you do that you will be certain to find something that you have never seen before." 8
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