Podcast # 55: Alexander Graham Bell and The invention of The Telephone

Alexander Graham Bell, who was known by his family as Alec, was born Alexander Bell. He added the Graham on his own at the age of 11. The telephone wasn’t his first invention, as a child, he and his brothers made a number of inventions. He was born in Scotland. He was the middle child and his older and younger brother both died of Tuberculosis; his younger brother died a few years before his older brother. He was educated by his father at home and attended school briefly but only until about the age of 15. For Alexander Graham Bell, he grew up with a love of speech and a love of sound. His father taught elocution and created what was known as visible speech in order to teach the hearing impaired to speak. Alexander Graham Bell’s mother was practically deaf. Visible Speech is a written language that uses a series of phonetic symbols. The symbols are in the shape that a person’s tongue, throat and lips need to be in order to produce the desired sound. In fact, when he was younger, he taught his dog to speak by using his father’s visible speech method. He was able to move the dog’s mouth and tongue so that certain words could come out. Alexander Graham Bell got involved in the family business. He and his parents and his older brother’s widow moved to Canada after he too became sick with Tuberculosis. The thought was that the weather and clean air there would help to heal him. His stay in Canada was brief. He grabbed an opportunity to go and teach at schools for the deaf in Boston, Massachusetts. Education for the deaf was coming into its own at this time. Earlier on in history, individuals who were deaf, were sometimes put in asylums. You have asylums that are institutions for what at the time were referred to “For the Deaf and Dumb”. You have Thomas Gallaudet and his son Edward and they taught manualism or sign language to their deaf students. They established a school which is now known as Gallaudet University. Prior to that school, he established The American School for the Deaf which also still exists today. The School which was known then as the Hartford School for Deaf Mutes. In 1872, Edward Gallaudet invited Alexander Graham Bell to come to his school and to teach some of the students there so he could see Visible Speech in action. Alexander Graham Bell was incredibly well known in the Deaf Community. So much so that when a young girl who had become both blind and deaf from an illness, it was Alexander Graham Bell that her parents took her to go and see. That woman is, of course, Hellen Keller. While she didn’t become one of his students, her parents brought her to school where she would meet the famed Anne Sullivan who did become her teacher.

I do want to take a minute or two and speak of one of his students, Mabel Hubbard who like Helen Keller lost her hearing at a young age due to an illness. She studied with Alexander Graham Bell and he worked with her to improve her speech. Eventually falling in love with the student who was years younger than he. He wouldn’t act on those feelings immediately; he was after all busy working on his inventions.

In addition to teaching, Alexander Graham Bell is also working hard at night on his inventions. He is hoping to create a telegraph that can send multiple messages at the same time. He has to work on his invention in total secrecy because he can’t afford a patent and there are other people more famous and connected than he is and by more famous I’m talking people like Thomas Edison and Elisha Gray who are trying to invent the same thing. The telegraph used morse code which is a dot and dash system. Only one message could be sent at a time. If a telegraph line broke, the whole system went down. This was how you sent a message somewhere far. A letter would take too long. Telegrams were very popular. So Bell and others are trying to invent a multiple telegraph to improve upon the system that is already in place. He can’t afford a patent to protect his ideas so he works in secrecy. As fate would have it, that student I mentioned earlier, Mabel? Her father was a patent lawyer and was looking to break into the telegraph business. He helped to finance Bell’s work and was instrumental in getting him his assistant Mr. Watson, who helped him to build the pieces for his invention. Much to his soon to be Father in law’s disappointment, he was spending more time on his invention that would transmit sound. He called it the harmonic telegraph. It would be a trip to the nation’s capital that would give Bell the push to divert his attention away from the telegraph and towards his other idea, the talking telegraph. By the summer of 1875, he had designed a prototype that he felt would work. “The first telephone was a simple mechanism consisting of a wooden frame on which was mounted one of Alec’s harmonic receivers – a tightly stretched parchment drumhead to the center of which was fastened the free end of the receiver reed.” – Charlotte Gray

After tweaks and adjustments here and there, the telephone could transmit sound clearly. In 1876, to mark the Centennial of the United States, a World Exposition in Philadelphia was planned. As fate would have it, (again) Alexander Graham Bell’s soon to be father in law was in charge of helping to set up some exhibits for the state of Massachusetts. He naturally had a spot for Bell and his inventions. Bell’s work won not one but two awards at the exhibition. His telephone beat out the work of both Elisha Gray and Thomas Edison.

He had this great invention that worked but still wasn’t ready to be sold and used by the masses yet. He goes on these speaking tours to make money and it also helps to build up excitement for the telephone that will eventually be ready for purchase. At this point in history speaking engagements are a form of entertainment. What could be more exciting than being able to speak to someone miles away. Today we take that for granted, but in 1876, that made the audience ohh and ahh.

Once the patent had been awarded to Bell, The Bell Telephone Company was created by Gardiner Hubbard. It was a joint stock company originally created to hold Bell’s patents. They then created the International Bell Company which sold telephones and switchboards throughout Europe. They then wanted to create a network of long distance lines. The American Telephone and Telegraph Long Lines was created. That company then became known as American Telephone and Telegraph Company. You may know of it by its more common name AT&T. Success and money didn’t come easily or quickly. It would take years for Bell to earn his money and he had lawsuits to fight with Western Union and attacks on his patents by people like Elisha Gray and Thomas Edison. He wins that lawsuit against Western Union, and the worth of his company increases dramatically.

How did the first telephones work?

Alexander Graham Bell’s original telephone, patented in 1876, worked by converting sound into an electrical signal via a ‘liquid transmitter’. This process centered around directing sound through a receiver and onto a thin membrane stretched over a drum.

After 30 minutes of use, the device had to be re-charged for around 10 hours. Six years later, the first commercial phone became available to the public.

By the 1880s more and more people were getting telephones. In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes had a telephone installed in the White House. Alexander Graham Bell installed it himself and the phone number was 1. By 1892, someone in New York could call Chicago, by 1905 you start seeing phone booths and pay phones and by 1915, one could make a phone call across the Atlantic.

When you talk about how many telephones there were in the United States, In 1900, you had 600,000 telephones, in 1905, 2.2 Million and by 1910, you had almost 6 million. That’s incredible!

Bell’s Monopoly

As his company acquired more companies, Bell’s company steadily built a monopoly over the industry using the process of vertical integration. The Bell Company, later known as AT&T became known as Ma Bell. In the early 1900s, the Federal Government began investigating the company. The Federal Government took legal action against AT&T 12 times. After AT&T acquired significant interests in Western Union and their refusal to connect independent companies to their long distance lines, it made it difficult for other companies to compete, especially if they couldn’t offer long distance service. The Federal Government begins to look into the company and before they can really go after them, the VP of the company at the time, a man by the name of Nathan Kingsbury, sends a letter after months of negotiations between the company and the Federal Government. The VP agrees to divest the company of Western Union. Agrees to provide long distance service to some companies and that if the ICC objected, they wouldn’t acquire additional companies if they saw a problem. In return, the US government wouldn’t sue them. In the following decades, AT &T continued to grow and from time to time the federal government would go after them but by the mid-1970s the beginning of the end was coming for AT&T. It wouldn’t be broken apart by the Justice Dept until 1984 and by that time it had grown into one of the largest companies in the world.

Now for the youth of today, the concept of long distance must sound strange. I remember it being a big deal to be on a long distance call and it was much more expensive than a local call. Today, you pick up your phone and you can call just about anywhere at any time. A time not so long ago, I remember having to wait until after 7 pm to call someone on my cell phone for it to be free. At one point you had a plan with minutes you could use each month. Nights and weekends free… What a thrill! The concept of needing a calling card if you were traveling in order to call home. Communication today has become seamless. You can use a variety of apps and call anywhere. At one time, communication wasn’t so seamless.

What were the first phone calls like? Switchboard operators? Hello girls?

Phones were marketed in pairs. The equipment was leased in pairs to someone for example one for the home and the other for the office or store. The phones would have to be connected by a wire. Think of it as an intercom of sorts.

With one invention, there needed to be additional inventions by other people. For example, how would one know that there was someone trying to communicate with you on the telephone? The addition of a bell that would ring to alert you was needed. Next, how do you get one phone to ring as opposed to all of the phones connected to the line let’s say in a town? Another Little House on the Prairie reference, but does anyone remember the episode of when Mrs. Olsen got a telephone in the Mercantile and handled the switchboard? Which leads us to the next important invention and addition to the telephone. The Strowger switch.

Interestingly Strowger was an undertaker who felt he was losing business to another undertaker in town because his wife controlled the calls coming into town. “What someone died? How terrible, let me connect you to my husband…” So out of necessity comes this invention.

With the Strowger switch, you would tap out the digits of the number you were trying to reach and this would operate a contact arm at the exchange which could move into any one of a hundred different positions. It automated the telephone. Prior to this it had to be done manually by an operator. You would tell them who you were trying to reach and they would connect you.

Phone sets were assigned numbers you would then give that number to the switchboard operator or Hello Girl. Switchboard operators were mostly women and were given the name hello girls because when you called someone you were first greeted by the operator saying hello. Sometimes you would need to give the name of the city you were calling along with the number. This lasted for a while. As the number of telephones increased, we saw the need for area codes or regional dialing. Fun fact, more densely populated cities were given easier to dial area codes. NYC is 212, LA is 213, want to call someone in Arizona, sorry 480 ( good Luck dialing that on a rotary phone…) Not as easy!

Cordless phones , getting caught up in the wire, even the hand gesture people use for telephone is different today from what it was growing up. I showed my young children a picture of the type of telephone we had in our house growing up and they eventually guessed it was a phone. It would be incredible to take our smart phones and bring them back in time to Alexander Graham Bell or Elisha Gray or Thomas Edison and show them what the inventions they created would eventually become.

I do want to talk about Alexander Graham Bell a little more. Bell didn’t stop at the telephone. He also invented something called the Photophone. He considered it his greatest invention. This allowed for the transmission of sound over a beam of light. This was wireless. Mirrors and lights would be used instead of wires and electricity. That technology allowed for the eventual creation of things like fiber optics and what allows information to be sent over the internet.

Over the course of his life, Alexander Graham Bell made a number of inventions. The photophone, the spectrophone but neither caused the same impact as the Telephone. News of an assassination attempt of US President James Garfield, and the difficulty doctors were having in locating the bullet, gave Alexander Graham Bell an idea. What if he could invent a machine that could locate the bullet and save the President’s life? The instrument he invented used electric current to locate the bullet and a receiver that would be able to detect the sound of the electrical current hitting the bullet. He called it the Induction balance bullet detector. Bell was unable to precisely determine the location of the bullet. While it appeared the President would still be able to survive, he did eventually succumb to his wounds. That wouldn’t be the only potentially life saving invention Bell would make. After the Premature birth and death of his child, it inspired him to build a medical device that would help someone breathe. The vacuum jacket as it was called used a suction pump to force air in and out of the lungs. It is considered the precursor to the iron lung. As a mother of a child born prematurely, I can tell you first-hand how many incredible life saving machines there are today for premature babies. I am profoundly grateful that these things exist because had my child been born decades earlier, I very well may have suffered the same fate as the Bell’s did. They lost two sons who were born prematurely. President Kennedy’s son was born prematurely, almost what would be considered full term in the 1960s and they weren’t able to save the life of the child of the President of the United States. So imagine how little was out there in the early 1900s.

Alexander Graham Bell once said “The day will come when the man speaking on the telephone will be able to see the person he is speaking with”. That day has already come. Consider the impact that this one invention had on society? Consider what the devotion to work, to science, to progress can do if one has the strength and courage to make their ideas a reality. Next time you pick up your phone to call someone, think of all the people it took to make that a reality.

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