Why Alexander Graham Bell Invented the Telephone

Alexander (Alec) Graham Bell invented and promoted the telephone due to the love of, and influence of, a deaf woman named Mabel Hubbard.  Wait, why would a deaf woman influence the invention of the telephone, an object she could never use? 

Well, I’ll tell you this surprising love story and along the way I will talk about, a crying baby machine, a useful mistranslation of German, vibrating reeds, a dead man’s ear, influential and pushy fathers and why we call Alexander Graham Bell by his full name. 

Table of Contents

Alex Graham Bell’s Early Life

How Alexander Graham Bell Met Mabel Hubbard

How The Telephone Was Invented by Alex

Alex Graham Bell’s Early Life

It all started when Alex was 15 years old and he saw a “speaking automaton” machine that was “disappointingly crude” so Alex’s father challenged him and his brother to build a better machine, which they did.  Their device ended up sounding like “a baby in great distress” shouting “mama” pathetically. 

As they were teenagers they promptly used it to prank their neighbors so that, according to Bell strangers came to the “baby’s” aid, saying “what is the matter with that baby?” According to Bell, the crying “baby” project started him, “along the path that led to the telephone.” 

Three years after the “crying” baby Alex had an argument with his father about the nature of vowels, which inspired him to create his own linguistics theory.   Bell was disappointed to hear that a German scientist named Helmholtz had already proved his theory.  He was excited, however, to learn that Helmholtz had conducted his experiment by vibrating tuning forks with electricity. 

Bell thought that Helmholtz had actually transmitted vowel sounds, leading Bell to think that he could transmit consonants and whole speech. Bell began to study electricity and attempted to “recreate” Helmholtz’s experiment and invent the telephone.  However, it turns out that is not at all what Helmholtz had done but as his book was in German, and Bell did not read German, Bell didn’t know about that error until well after he had invented the telephone.

Meanwhile, Alex’s father who was a famous linguist had created a way to write any sound, called Visual Speech.  Alex and his father would give demonstrations where Alex would reproduce sounds from the visual clues without having heard them first. 

One time, Alex reproduced a sound in Sanskrit by reading his father’s symbols and a local teacher said was that it was difficult for his students to recreate that word even when they could hear him!  This inspired Bell’s father to try to use this method to teach deaf people to speak.  Neither Alex nor his father knew it, but being a teacher of the deaf was instrumental to Alex’s invention of the telephone. 

This brings us to Mabel Hubbard.  Mabel was 5 when she went deaf from scarlet fever.  Her father refused to have her institutionalized and instead hired private tutors.  She was so accomplished that when she was only nine years old her father asked her to speak to the Massachusetts legislature so that they would start a school to teach others to communicate with the hearing world, which they did.

How Alexander Graham Bell Met Mabel Hubbard

Four years later, Alex Bell was employed to teach deaf students to speak at this same school using his father’s visual language system. Despite all of his future achievements, from this moment on he defined himself first and foremost as a “teacher of the deaf.” 

Bell was then regularly invited to Mabel’s house where he regaled the Hubbard’s with his crazy ideas.  Alex Bell actually had two ideas at the time: one was to make tuning forks vibrate with electricity to send human speech (the telephone), and one was to send multiple telegraph messages at the same time by sending messages at different frequencies (musical telegraph).  

Mabel’s father thought the telephone was “nonsense” but the telegraph was big business and Hubbard thought that the musical telegraph could make him a millionaire and decided to fund Bell’s research.

With funding from Hubbard and others, Bell hired a local machinist, 20-year-old Thomas Watson, to help him with his investigation into the musical telegraph.  Bell knew that electricity creates a magnetic force so he placed metal reeds (basically flat tuning forks) near magnets and pulsed current through them trying to find the trick to only make certain notes ring and not others. 

While working on this experiment Bell thought one reed was stuck on its magnet and asked Watson to free it.  When Watson freed the reed, it vibrated, and to Bell’s shock a separate reed vibrated in sympathy! They experimented over and over again, according to Bell, “We did not do anything all day but pluck reeds.”

What was happening? Moving coils or reeds near a magnet creates (or induces) current.  Therefore, when Watson plucked a reed it vibrated near a magnet creating an oscillating current in the wires.  That electricity went to the second reed and since electricity near a magnet creates an oscillating force the second reed vibrated too.

Bell instantly thought of adding a cone (or a membrane) to the reed and seeing if it could transmit whole words.  According to Bell, he had this thought because of his teaching experiences.  See, his students used a device called a photo autograph where you talked into a cone and it made a needle vibrate on the other side, so Bell knew that cones and membranes could convert sound into oscillating physical motion. 

Also, in 1874, Bell wanted to create a photo autograph with a model of a human ear.  He went to a local ear doctor and the doctor ghoulishly gave him a dismembered human ear instead.  “As I was holding the human ear in my hand, it struck me,” Bell said later, “that the bones of that human ear were very massive compared to the membrane.  If such a small membrane as that would move bones so massive in comparison, why would not a larger membrane move a magnet?” 

Bell wrote to his parents, “I have scarce been able to breathe to anybody for fear of being thought insane.  Please keep this paper as a record of the conception of the idea in case anyone else should at a future time discover that the vibrations of a permanent magnet will induce a vibrating current of electricity.” 

However, Bell worried that the current produced would be too small to create any effect.  Now, with the reeds, he had proof that it would work.  Therefore, he attached membranes to the reeds and tried it out.  Watson said, “Why, Mr. Bell, I heard your voice very distinctly, and could almost understand what you said.”

Meanwhile, Alex had realized he was hopelessly in love with Mabel.  At first his advances were coolly received because Mabel’s cousin opposed the match.  However, when Mabel almost drowned in the ocean she realized that she did care for Bell and rushed home to tell him.  Quickly, they became a couple.   

Mabel’s father, Gardiner was lukewarm on the match as well.  He felt that Mabel was very young (she was 17) and Alex was too old (28) and unstructured.  He tried to get Alex to give up on the telephone and his father’s visual language system and just focus on his idea of a musical telegraph. 

Gardiner attempted to strong-arm Alex into this by implying that if Alex refused, he would never earn his daughter’s hand.  Alex refused to give anything up.  He wrote, “should Mabel love me as devotedly and truly as I love her – she will not object to any work I may be engaged in. 

If she does not love me well enough to accept me then I do not want her at all.  I do not want a half-love.”  Mabel’s father’s plan backfired, as two days later, on Mabel’s 18thbirthday; Mabel agreed to become engaged to Alex.  

How The Telephone Was Invented by Alex

Alex went back to working on his telephone system.  Mabel’s father decided that as long as Alex was dedicated to the telephone idea they might as well patent it, and soon.  Alex was reluctant (partially because they still hadn’t managed to get decipherable speech through the machine yet).  

So, on February 14th, 1876, Gardiner Hubbard filed for a patent for Alex’s design without telling him. Now Alex really needed a working system.  In desperation, he tried using a liquid microphone that was designed by another person.  On March 10th, 1876, Bell accidentally spilled acid on his pants and shouted, “Mr. Watson come here! I want to see you” and was astonished when Watson ran into the room and told Bell that he heard him clearly through the telephone! 

This was the first instance of using a telephone to transmit understandable speech!  Now that they could transmit understandable sounds, they quickly learned how to improve their speaker by replacing the membrane with a solid metal backing.  With a better speaker their original microphone worked and after some tweaking, it worked decently at long distances.  They were ready to show it off.

In July, Mabel’s father was in charge of the educational exhibit at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and wanted Bell to demonstrate his device, but Bell did not want to go.  He said he was busy with teaching but he was probably scared or worried that Mabel’s father was up to his old tricks of derailing his teaching. 

Anyway, Mabel talked Bell into going to the train station with her and then basically cried until he acquiesced, “Who can bear to see a young girl weep?  I just jumped on that train.  I did not have baggage or anything else.  So, growling like a bear, I went to Philadelphia.”  In Philadelphia, the emperor of Brazil, Don Pedro, stopped to talk to Bell as he was interested in teaching deaf students. 

Don Pedro put his ear to Bell’s machine and then yelled excitedly, “hey, it talks!”  A famous scientist named William Thompson was visiting from England tried it out, “It does speak.  It is the most wonderful thing I have seen in America.”  Bell recounted the events as follows: “I went to bed the night before, an unknown man, and awoke to find myself famous.  I owe it to Sir William Thompson, back of him to Don Pedro, and back of him to the deaf students of Boston.”

After that success, Mabel suggested that he start a series of “telephone demonstrations” to drum up support for the telephone.  She also insisted that he should stop calling himself A. Graham Bell and instead present it under his full name: Alexander Graham Bell saying, “No A. for me,” which is why he is known by his full name even today. 

This was a romantic time for the couple.  When they got together they would stay out late and Mabel wrote her mother a pleading note: “Mamma dear, please don’t scold us.  We really couldn’t help it.  We were talking, so we had to stop under every lamppost so that I could see what Alec had to say!”

In July of 1877, Bell and Hubbard founded the Bell Telephone Company (which is now AT&T).  and Alex and Mabel got married two days later. Alec and Mabel were happily married for 55 years.  At his deathbed, she whispered, “don’t leave me” to which he signed “no” but fell into unconsciousness and died soon after.   Mabel was devastated, her daughter said that, “you never forget for a moment that the heart of everything had gone out of life for her forever.”  Mabel died the next year. 

In the 1860s and 1870s only select wealthy individuals had the money to use the telephone.  What really changed things, what started our electrical revolution, was electric light, and electrifying whole cities to provide that light.  How Thomas Edison willed a light bulb empire into existence is next time on the secret history of electricity.

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