Alexander Graham Bell

Bell, a prolific inventor and philanthropist, is best known as the inventor of the telephone. He founded Bell Telephone, which would eventually become the communications giant American Telephone and Telegraph.

Alexander Graham Bell was a distinguished Boston University professor and instructor of the deaf with a long history of interest in acoustics when he began experimenting during the mid-1870’s with the Telegraph industrytelegraph, a system of communication then nearly thirty years old. Bell, whose mother and wife were both deaf, had pioneered in the controversial field of teaching deaf children to speak rather than signing. The telegraph had significant limitations as a communication device. Telegraph messages, sent in Morse code, could go only one way at a time. Moreover, employees of telegraph companies had to act as intermediaries to relay those messages to their intended recipients.Bell, Alexander Graham

Bell envisioned a telegraph system capable of conveying multiple messages (he used the model of a chord in music) and capable of being directed into individual homes. He sought to redesign and improve telegraphic communication equipment, assisted by another scientist interested in new electrical theories, Thomas A. Watson, Thomas A.Watson.

Alexander Graham Bell.

(Library of Congress)

After months of frustrating experimentation on his so-called harmonic telegraph, on June 2, 1875, Bell, working near a receiver in a separate room from Watson, happened to hear by chance the sound of Watson working on a clock device. Hearing that sound across nearly sixty feet of wire inspired Bell radically to alter his concept of telegraph improvement. He turned rather to the idea of transmitting speech across wires, sending the actual voice rather than just a message. Over the next several months, Bell and Watson worked furiously to perfect a working transmitter and receiver in order to secure the first patent, competing against a number of other scientific groups that were also closing in on the technology necessary to transmit speech. TelephonesBell was first: On March 7, 1876, he secured patent number 174,465, among the most lucrative single patents ever issued by the U.S. government.

Even as Bell undertook a whirlwind promotional tour for his new machine (including historic demonstrations at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition), he had to withstand an assault of nearly seven hundred separate lawsuits from inventors claiming they had perfected the technology first. Given the fierce competition in Gilded Age America among inventors and given the exorbitant sums of money that stood to be earned from a successful patent, Bell defended himself with integrity. His greatest challenge came from the Western Union telegraph company, whose communication monopoly was suddenly challenged by the telephone. Bell had offered Western Union the opportunity to buy his telephone patent outright for $100,000. The company declined the offer, instead pursuing alternative telephone patents using some of the most familiar scientists of the day, most notably Thomas Alva Edison.

Bell’s patent survived all lawsuits, largely because Bell had kept copious laboratory notes that clearly established the time line of his invention, as well as his methodology. Bell’s invention made him famous and wealthy when he was only in his forties. He did not personally direct the day-to-day workings of Bell Telephone. Rather, he spent the better part of the next five decades working on a variety of other scientific interests, among them perfecting early models of air-conditioning, metal detectors, hydroplanes, fiber optics, and the iron lung. In addition, PhilanthropyBell used his resources to found the National Geographic Society and to introduce the groundbreaking mass-market magazine Science.

Further Reading

  • Bruce, Robert V. Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1990.
  • Gray, Charlotte. Reluctant Genius: Alexander Graham Bell and the Passion for Invention. New York: Arcade, 2006.
  • Shulman, Seth. The Telephone Gambit. New York: Norton, 2008.

Bell Labs

Thomas Alva Edison

Electronics industry

Gilded Age

American Industrial Revolution


Patent law

Telecommunications industry

Western Union