Alexander Graham Bell

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Alexander Graham Bell
(photo from c. 1914-1919)

Alexander Graham Bell (born March 3, 1847 in Edinburgh , Scotland , † August 2, 1922 in Baddeck , Canada ) was a British , later American, audiologist , inventor and major entrepreneur . He is considered to be the first person to capitalize on the invention of the telephone by developing the ideas of his predecessors to make them marketable . In his honor, the dimensionless unit of measurement ( pseudo- measure ) for logarithmic ratio values , with which sound levels are also measured, was named Bel , which is mainly known as decibel.


Bell, who, like his two brothers, was initially taught by his deaf mother, attended a private school in Edinburgh from the age of 10 and a school in London from the age of 14 . He studied Latin and Greek in Edinburgh . Already the grandfather Alexander and his father Alexander Melville Bell dealt with elocution, the latter and a professor of speech and elocution, the first universal phonetic system of writing phonetic spelling or phonetic alphabet developed, he Visible Speech called because so that the sounds would be mapped .

Son Alexander, who took the surname Graham as a child in admiration for a friend of the family , became a teacher at the Weston House Academy of Speech Technique and Music in Elgin , Scotland , at the age of 17 . During this time he began his first independent research in the field of acoustics. He also got to know the German physicist and physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz , who had a major influence on the young Bell with his work “Theory of Sound Sensations as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music”, published in 1863.

Eventually he followed his father to London, where he taught speech technology at University College and hired his son as an assistant. Bell studied the anatomy and physiology of the human voice until 1870.

Melville Farm in Brantford , Bell's first residence on the American continent

After Alexander's brothers Edward (1868) and Melville (1870) both died of tuberculosis, Alexander and his parents moved to Canada in 1870 , where their father hoped for a better climate and started teaching.

Bell had the most lasting impact historically in 1876 with the development and introduction of the telephone into a usable system. As a result, the Bell Telephone Company was created , which later developed into the world's largest telecommunications group AT&T .

In 1876 he married the deaf daughter Mabel of his business partner Hubbard, whom he met as a deaf teacher (then "deaf and dumb teacher") at the Clarke School. With her he had two daughters, Elsie May and Marian (Daisy) Bell, and sons Edward and Robert, both of whom died in childhood.

In 1882 Bell became a US citizen . Until his death in 1922, Bell was mainly concerned with further developments and inventions in numerous technical fields as well as with studies on the eugenics of deafness.

In 1890 he helped found the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf (AAPTSD) (now the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing ), of which he became the first president.

In 1897, after the death of Gardiner Greene Hubbard , Bell was elected second president of the National Geographic Society .

Bell as a speech therapist and deaf teacher

Bell's mother, Eliza Symonds Bell, was very hard of hearing, but Bell was able to speak to her in a particularly deep voice. She could also feel the vibrations of his piano music. This, as well as the family-related professional career, evidently prompted Bell to become one of the most committed advocates of the spoken language-oriented educational principle for the deaf as opposed to sign-language- oriented methods.

In 1868 Bell gave speech lessons to deaf children at Susanna Hull's school in London. 1871 Bell went as a deaf teacher at the Northampton established later "Clarke School" in Northampton (Massachusetts) . A balloon that each of these children held to their ear could pick up the vibrations in their voice. Bell then remained a member of the school's board of directors for the rest of his life and became its chairman for the last five years. At this school he also met Mabel, his future wife. At the same time, he taught alongside Edward Miner Gallaudet at the American Asylum for the Deaf in Hartford (Connecticut) .

From 1873 to 1877 he was professor of speech technology and voice physiology at Boston University .

Bell is said to have seen himself primarily as a deaf teacher and less as an inventor. An irony of history is that Bell, who always intended to promote deaf people, used the telephone to distribute a system that became the standard tool in work, business and everyday life, but which the deaf had not been able to use for almost a century.

Alexander G. Bell and Antonio Meucci's Telephone

As early as the 1830s, the Italian scientist (studied chemistry and mechanics), inventor and founder Antonio Meucci made the discovery that sound can be transmitted through electrical vibrations in copper wire. After he moved to the USA in 1850, he developed a telephone with which he connected his wife's hospital room to his workshop. In the next 10 years he perfected his arrangement, presented it publicly from 1860 and reported in the Italian-language press. However, it was not mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon media. In 1871 Meucci finally filed a patent application for his "Telettrofono", which was not granted for over two years and therefore expired. It was later spread that he did not have the necessary funds for the grant. This representation is, however, doubted by critics, since he was granted four other patents during the same period (1872–1876).

Meucci submitted his paperwork and equipment to Edward B. Grant, Vice President of the American District Telegraph Co., to have his invention tested on their telegraph cables, but was put off for over two years. In the meantime, Bell, who now worked in the former Meucci workshops of the American District Telegraph Co., used Meucci's materials and documents to patent “his” telephone. When Meucci reclaimed these equipment and documents from Grant in 1874, he was informed that they had been lost. Meucci did not speak English and hired a lawyer to protest Bell's actions, which never happened. Despite decades of disputes, Antonio Meucci failed to obtain the patent or at least financial compensation from Bell. He died an impoverished man. On June 11, 2002, the House of Representatives of the United States Congress in recognition of Antonio Meucci's invention and his work in introducing the telephone.

From 1858 to 1863, Johann Philipp Reis had also developed a functioning device for the transmission of sounds via electrical lines and named his invention the "telephone". On October 26, 1861, he demonstrated the telephone to numerous members of the Physikalischer Verein in Frankfurt. Reis took the Morse telegraph as a model, which works with an interruption in the electrical circuit. This enabled him to send music notes to a recipient, the device was not (yet) suitable for speech. After that, Reis improved the device significantly until 1863 and sold it in large quantities as a scientific demonstration object. This is how specimens came abroad.

Bell got to know an early model of the Reis telephone set in Edinburgh in 1862 . His father promised him and his brothers a price if they would develop this speaking machine further. In 1865 the British-American inventor David Edward Hughes was able to achieve good results in England with the German "telephone". From 1868 the German invention was used in the USA. When Bell experimented with Reis' telephone set at the Smithsonian Institution in March 1875 , the invention was already well known among experts and Reis had died more than a year. But Bell was able to benefit from the basic research on German that was important to him.

Around 1873 Bell tried to develop a "harmonic telegraph" that was supposed to be able to send several messages simultaneously by using several isolated musical pitches, but did so with little commitment. In 1874 Bell carried out acoustic experiments to record sound waves. He used it to construct the " phonautograph ", a device that recorded the vibrations of sound on a sooty cylinder.

The prominent Boston attorney and at the same time director of the "Clarke School for the Deaf" Gardiner Greene Hubbard and the wealthy businessman Thomas Sanders from Salem learned of Bell's experiments and persuaded him to advance the development of the Harmonic Telegraph. The three signed an agreement under which Bell received financial support in exchange for Hubbard and Sanders' eventual stake in the proceeds. Hubbard's deaf daughter Mabel was used as leverage. Bell was not allowed to marry her until 1877, after he had completed his invention.

Bell (played by an actor) speaks on a phone

Although Bell is said to have discovered by chance during his experiments that instead of the expected telegraph impulses, tone sequences could also be transmitted, he did not succeed in repeating this discovery. Nevertheless, he thought he could describe the principle for the transmission of sounds for a patent application. He benefited from the fact that a few years earlier the patent office had dropped the requirement to submit a working model with the patent application. On February 14, 1876, Bell's attorney, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, filed the patent application just two hours before the teacher, inventor, and entrepreneur, Elisha Gray , could do the same. The main difference between the two telephones was that Bell's invention, unlike Gray's, didn't work. While Bell was vague with his application, Gray described his phone in a detailed script. Bell's hurry was not unfounded, as he knew of several inventors who also worked on telephones.

The motion filed by Hubbard sparked the biggest patent litigation in history. Bell used in the later practical implementation of his telephone u. a. an adjustable resistor. This was designed as a wire that was immersed in a sulfur solution. Bell is said to have never tried this resistance before. In addition, this resistance was not listed in his patent specification. Elisha Gray's motion, however, contained such resistance. Especially after Bell's patent was granted on March 7, 1876, the voices grew louder that saw an illegal link between Bell and the patent office. An officer accused himself of bribery, but his fickle testimony has been questioned in the international trade press.

The first working phone, built by Bell's knowledgeable mechanic Thomas A. Watson , reportedly looked odd. The acid-filled metal can controversial in the patent litigation was covered with a disk that held a wire that was dipped in the acid. There was another wire on the outside of the metal can that led to the receiving phone. The roar into a funnel placed vertically above made the disc and wire vibrate. These vibrations changed the distance and thus also the current flow through the wire and acid to the receiving telephone. There the fluctuations in the current were converted into similar membrane vibrations, which then produced sounds. On March 10, 1876, the first clearly transmitted sentence is said to have been transmitted: “Watson, come here. I need you. ”(Watson come here, I need you). Bell is said to have accidentally poured acid on his clothes and called for Watson.

This telephone was not particularly useful, but Bell improved it because, in contrast to Reis' sound transmission method, which was based on the vibration of a membrane, he now used electromagnetic induction, which the English physicist and chemist Michael Faraday (1791–1867) had discovered. Bell now used electromagnetic coils, permanent magnets and the aforementioned resistor for both the loudspeaker and the microphone. In 1877 a new type of sound transducer was installed, which used the pressure-dependent contact resistance between the membrane and a piece of carbon to generate signals. Both the British-American designer and inventor David Edward Hughes , who experimented with an imported German telephone in 1865, and the German-American inventor Emil Berliner during 1877 are considered to be the inventors of this carbon microphone, which is based on the contact microphone invented by Philipp Reis his work at Bell Labs. Nevertheless, it was not until 1881 that the Bell telephone was practically operational.

Bell as a major entrepreneur

Bell made the first long-distance call from New York to Chicago in 1892

In July 1877 Bell founded the Bell Telephone Company together with Thomas Sanders and Gardiner Greene Hubbard , including his assistant Thomas Watson . Two days later he married the deaf daughter Mabel of his business partner Hubbard, whom he had previously trained in lip reading and speaking.

Unsurprisingly, the need for telephones was initially low and Bell and its partners initially had sales difficulties. It got to the point that they offered their patents to the powerful Western Union Telegraph Company - Elisha Gray's employers - for $ 100,000. The Western Union refused, which soon turned out to be a big mistake.

Still, America's telegraph companies anticipated that Bell's phone would pose a threat to their business and tried to counteract it. The Western Union Company had Thomas Alva Edison develop their own telephone with different technology. Bell then sued Western Union for infringing its patent rights. She tried to argue that Elisha Gray actually invented the telephone, but lost this and numerous other lawsuits. Even Emil Berliner had trouble with the Patent Office and Thomas Edison, for the phonograph he had submitted completely new ideas. Berliner had also developed a microphone, which he sold to the Bell Telephone Company in 1877 for $ 50,000. He moved to Boston and worked for Bell Telephone until 1883.

In March 1879 the Bell Telephone Company merged with the New England Telephone Company to form the National Bell Telephone Company , of which William H. Forbes, son-in-law of Ralph Waldo Emerson , was president . In April 1880 there was another merger with the American Speaking Telephone Company to form the American Bell Telephone Company .

In 1885, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) was founded in New York as a subsidiary of Graham Bell to conquer long-distance lines across the USA for the Bell system. Theodore Vail became the company's first president.

In 1889 all business activities of the American Bell Telephone Company were transferred to the American Telephone and Telegraph Company because laws in Massachusetts prevented aggressive growth. This marks the beginning of today's AT&T company .

In 1925, the Bell Telephone Laboratories were set up to combine the research laboratories of AT&T and the Western Electric Company .

More inventions

Sound recording by Alexander Graham Bell in the Volta Laboratory, April 15, 1885.

In 1880, France awarded Bell the Volta Prize worth 50,000 francs for his invention . With this money he founded the Volta Laboratory in Washington DC, where in the same year he developed the photophone with his assistant, Charles Sumner Tainter and his first cousin Chichester Alexander Bell , which used light as a means of projecting information while the phone was on Electricity was dependent. In 1881 they were able to successfully send a message over the photophone 200 meters from one building to another. Bell saw the photophone as "the greatest invention I have ever made".

In 1886, Bell and his associates at the Volta Laboratory invented the first phonograph drum that could record sound waves on wax. This innovation went hand in hand with the further development of the phonograph invented by Thomas Alva Edison to the graphophone . During the same period, the three members of the Volta Laboratory Association experimented with a flat wax disc in a vertical position, thus anticipating the idea of ​​a record . The functionality used was similar to the horizontal arrangement of the sound carriers used later by Emil Berliner in his gramophone . After the founding of the Volta Graphophone Company , whose task was to market the patents of the members of the Volta Laboratory Association, it was sold to the American Gramophone Company by merging the two companies.

In addition to communication, Bell pursued a wide variety of scientific experiments in which kites, airplanes, tetrahedral structures, multiple births in sheep farming, artificial ventilation, as well as desalination and distillation of seawater played a role. The assassination attempt on President Garfield in 1881 gave Bell the idea of ​​induction scales (localization of metal objects in the human body). In 1881 Bell's newborn son, Edward, died of respiratory disease. Bell responded to this tragedy by inventing a metal vacuum jacket that was supposed to make breathing easier. This device was a forerunner of the iron lung that was used in the 1950s. Again and again he dealt with deafness and developed the audiometer to measure hearing performance

In 1907 - four years after the Wright brothers' first flight in Kitty Hawk - Bell founded the Aerial Experiment Association with Glenn Curtiss , William "Casey" Baldwin , Thomas Selfridge , and JAD McCurdy . These young engineers had the goal of also building a flying machine. By 1909 they had built four hydrofoil aircraft, of which the best, "Silver Dart", made its first successful flight on February 23 in Canada. It was launched from a frozen lake in Baddeck , Nova Scotia, where Bell owned a house.


AG Bell researched the accumulation of deafness on the island of Martha's Vineyard near Boston between 1882 and 1892 , correctly suspecting hereditary factors. He could not prove the connections, however, because he was irritated that not every child of apparently hereditary parents became deaf. He lacked the knowledge that Gregor Mendel had already formulated in 1865, but which remained largely unknown to the public until 1900. Nevertheless, in the monograph Memoir upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race , he recommended a ban on marriage among the deaf and dumb, warned against boarding schools at the “deaf and dumb” schools as possible breeding grounds for a deaf human race, and recommended eugenic control of US immigrants . Later work by racial hygienists was based on Bell's information until well into the 20th century. As a result, numerous pigeons were sterilized without their knowledge and without their consent . Bell is said to have known the methodological weaknesses of his investigations.

In 1921 Bell was honorary president of the second international eugenics congress under the auspices of the American Museum of Natural History in New York . He worked with the organizations to put in place laws to prevent the expansion of "defective races ".

In 1907, George Veditz , president of the National Association of the Deaf , called Bell "the enemy deaf Americans fear most." Alexander Graham Bell has the reputation of having massively disrupted the development of the deaf community and sign language, with effects that can still be felt in many countries today.


Prizes and awards


  • Memoir upon the formation of a deaf variety of the human race. New Haven, CT: National Academy of Sciences. 1883 (Notes on the Formation of a Deaf Variation of the Human Race)
  • Utility of signs, 1894 (usefulness of signs)
  • The question of sign language, 1898 (The question of sign language)
  • Marriage of the deaf, 1917 (marriages among pigeons)
  • Publications by Alexander Graham Bell


  • Catherine Mackenzie: Alexander Graham Bell. Overcomer the distance (Original title: Alexander Graham Bell ). German by JN Lorenz. Rohrer, Wiesbaden 1951
  • Jon Balchin: Quantum leaps, 100 great scientists and their ideas . German by Hans w. Kothe, Gondrom 2005, page 132
  • Karl K. Darrow: Bell: The telephone , Leprince-Ringuet, Louis (ed.), The famous inventors. Physicists and engineers, [Les inventeurs celebres], Geneva: Mazenod, 1951, pp. 208-210.
  • Wilhelm Berdrow: Book of inventions , Düsseldorf: VDI-Verlag GmbH, ²1985.
  • CH Hylander: American Inventors , Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1947.
  • John Brooks (Ed.): Telephone. The First Hundred Years . New York: Harper and Row, 1976, pp. 43-56
  • K. Jäger, F. Heilbronner (ed.): Lexikon der Elektrotechniker , VDE Verlag, 2nd edition from 2010, Berlin / Offenbach, ISBN 978-3-8007-2903-6 , pp. 45–46
  • Bernard S. Finn: Bell, Alexander Graham . In: Charles Coulston Gillispie (Ed.): Dictionary of Scientific Biography . tape 1 : Pierre Abailard - LS Berg . Charles Scribner's Sons, New York 1970, p. 582-583 .


  • Thomas Ammann: Milestones in early communication. DVD. Script: Susanne Päch. Camera: Johannes Kirchlechner. Series: PM Knowledge Edition. Milestones , 3rd no year (2007), 60 min

Web links

Commons : Alexander Graham Bell  - Album with Pictures, Videos and Audio Files

Individual evidence

  1. biography at (English)
  2. a b c Alexander Graham Bell and the invention of the telephone., archived from the original on August 10, 2007 ; Retrieved September 16, 2010 .
  3. a b c Alexander Graham Bell Laboratory Notebook, 1875–1876. In: World Digital Library . 1876, Retrieved July 22, 2013 .
  4. ^ Thomas Görne: Tontechnik , Hanser Verlag, 2008, ISBN 3-446-41591-2 , p. 201
  5. Resolution of the American Congress of June 11, 2002., June 11, 2002, accessed January 21, 2013 .
  6. ^ A b Silvanus P. Thompson: "Philipp Reis: Inventor of the telephone" , E. & FN Spon, London 1883
  7. Werner Rammert: Technology from a sociological perspective , Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen, 1993, ISBN 3-531-12421-8 , p. 249
  8. ^ A b Horst Kant: "A mighty stimulating circle" - the beginnings of the Physical Society in Berlin , Preprint 2002, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin 2002
  9. ^ Ferdinand Rosenberger: The history of physics , Verlag Georg Olms, Frankfurt am Main 1882, p. 792
  10. ^ Hermann Julius Meyer: Meyers Konversationslexikon , Bibliographisches Institut, Leipzig, 1894, p. 314
  11. ^ Werner Rammert: Technology from a sociological perspective , Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen, 1993, ISBN 3-531-12421-8 , p. 234
  12. a b c Joachim Beckh: Blitz und Anker, Volume 1: Information technology - history and backgrounds , Books on Demand, 2005, ISBN 3-8334-2996-8 , p. 223
  13. a b E.CS: Calendar of Scientific Pioneers , Nature 106, January 13, 1921 S. 650F.
  14. ^ Rudolf Vierhaus (ed.): German biographical encyclopedia , 2nd revised edition, KG Saur Verlag, Munich a. Leipzig 2007, ISBN 978-3-598-25030-9 , p. 303
  15. Jörg Becker: Fern-Sprechen: Internationale Fernmeldegeschichte, -sociology and -politik , Verlag Vistas, 1994, ISBN 3-89158-094-0 , p. 52
  16. Bernd Fleßner: Ingenious thinkers and clever inventors 20 pioneering inventions of mankind , Beltz & Gelberg publishing house, 2007, ISBN 3-407-75329-2 , p. 74
  17. ^ Elektrotechnischer Verein (Ed.): Elektrotechnische Zeitschrift , 9th year, Julius Springer publishing house, 1888, p. 231
  18. Christoph Meinel, Harald Sack: WWW , Springer Verlag, 2003, ISBN 3-540-44276-6 , p. 70
  19. ^ Website Emil Berliner Studios in Berlin - A Chronicle by Peter K. Burkowitz
  20. ^ Volta Laboratory and Bureau building
  21. The Tetrahedron Principle in Dragon Structures (Article in National Geographic Magazine Vol. XIV, No.6, June 1903)
  22. ^ Flight of the Silver Dart
  23. Bell, Alexander Graham. "Memoir upon the formation of a deaf variety of the human race." (PDF; 40 MB) Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf , 1883.
  24. ^ PJ Capelotti: EB Baldwin and the American-Norwegian discovery and exploration of Graham Bell Island, 1899 . In: Polar Research . Volume 25, No. 2, 2006, pp. 155-171. doi : 10.3402 / polar.v25i2.6245
  25. ^ Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature
  26. Member History: Alexander G. Bell. American Philosophical Society, accessed April 27, 2018 .
  27. Member entry of Alexander Graham Bell at the German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina , accessed on April 17, 2017.
  28. Introduces four pioneers in communication and storage technologies. In addition to Bell and the telephone, there are Guglielmo Marconi and radio technology, Louis Daguerre and photography, as well as Thomas A. Edison and sound recording