The American inventor Alexander Graham Bell, famous for his pioneering work on the development of the telephone, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1847. Inventing was in Bell’s blood: as a child, he invented a machine to clean wheat and a type of speaking robot.

Life-Saving Move

In 1870, Bell’s family emigrated to Canada after the deaths of his two brothers from tuberculosis. His parents hoped the move would save their last child. A year later, Bell moved to Boston, US, to work as a teacher of the deaf. On a visit to see his mother, herself almost deaf, he conceived of the idea of electronic speech4 and started working on the development of an “electrical speech machine”, as he called the first telephone.

Transmitting Speech

Bell was fascinated with the idea of transmitting speech. By 1875 he had come up with a simple receiver that could turn electricity into sound. Others were working along the same lines, including the Italian engineer Antonio Meucci. However it was Bell who in 1876 was granted a patent for an apparatus designed for “transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically… causing electrical undulations”: the telephone.

Controversial Patent

Controversy surrounded Bell’s patent. He had filed for it describing his method on 14 February 1876, just hours before a fellow inventor, Elisha Gray, filed a caveat (notice of an impending patent) on a similar method. Some people suggest that Bell paid a Patent Office staff member to give him information on Gray’s device. It seems that Bell later felt “deeply ashamed”, but he never admitted to the act.

Valuable Patent

History credits Bell with being the inventor of the telephone and the father of modern communications, and Bell’s patent is considered one of the most valuable in history. It would be one month, however, before his phone actually produced intelligible speech. On 10 March 1876, Bell summoned his assistant with the words, “Mr. Watson, come here. I need you.” Watson duly came. The Bell Telephone Company was created in 1877, with Bell owning 30 per cent of the shares, making him a rich man. Five years later, he became a naturalised American.

A Lifetime Inventing

Bell carried on inventing until his death in 1922. Among his inventions were an early version of air conditioning, an iron lung, and a portable device for distilling sea water. During his lifetime he was considered one of the greatest scientific minds of all time. He even tried to improve on Thomas Edison’s phonograph, an early form of gramophone. He designed a removable cardboard cylinder, coated with mineral wax, and then recorded himself. However, for technical reasons, it was only possible to recover his recording a few years ago. If you want to hear his voice, coming to us down the years, just google his name and the phrase “Hear my voice”.