The Life Of Alexander Graham Bell: The Man Who Changed The World As We Know It

Scientist, inventor, and pioneer, Alexander Graham Bell is best known for inventing and patenting the first working telephone and establishing the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. With his father and grandfather both working as elocutionists and his mother and wife being deaf, Bell dedicated his life to the study of speech and hearing, as well as working with the deaf. Yet, his accomplishments in life far surpass the invention of the telephone. See the other numerous groundbreaking projects he was involved with, his controversial personal beliefs, and his effect on society as a whole.

He Wanted To Help Deaf People

Photograph of old Alexander Graham Bell
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

One of Alexander Graham Bell’s primary focuses was helping deaf people communicate. Bell’s grandfather was an elocutionist, and his father invented what was called Visible Speech, a written system designed to help the deaf while speaking.

Alexander Graham Bell’s mother and wife were deaf, which he notes as the inspiration for his work. In 1872, when he was just 25-years-old, he opened a “School for Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech” in Boston to help those in need.

He Possibly Invented The Telephone For His Wife

Bell and his wife
Library of Congress/Getty Images
Library of Congress/Getty Images

Starting as a student of Bell, Mabel Hubbard was the daughter of a wealthy Massachusetts family. Bell fell in love with her. However, Mabel’s father, who was the first president of the National Geographic Society, was opposed to Bell marrying his daughter due to Bell’s low finances.

Just a few days after opening the Bell Telephone Company, Bell married Mabel and, as a wedding present, gave her all but ten of his 1507 shares of the company. On his desk, Bell kept a photograph of the two, which he wrote on the back, “the girl for whom the telephone was invented.”

He Also Invented The First Wireless Telephone

Alexander Bell experimenting
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

In 1880, France paid Alexander Graham Bell 50,000 francs for his invention of the telephone. With the money, he established the Volata Laboratory, which was dedicated to the “increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the deaf.”

The 18 patents that Bell has to his name include the photophone, which was a precursor to cell phones. The photophone was a wireless telephone that transmitted sounds by beams of light. Bell described this invention as the “greatest invention I have ever made, greater than the telephone.”

He Engineered The World’s Fastest Speed Boat

Bell in a chair
Library of Congress/Getty Images
Library of Congress/Getty Images

At one point, Bell became interested in hydroplanes, which resulted in him sketching what would become known as a hydrofoil boat. Alongside aviation pioneer Frederick “Casey” Baldwin, Bell started building and testing what they were calling the HD-4 in a laboratory in Baddeck.

Put to the test at Bras d’Or lake outside Bell’s home; the boat ended up setting the world speed record, reaching 70.86 MPH on September 9, 1919. The boat can currently be found at the Alexander Graham Bell Historic Site and Museum in Baddeck.

He Invented A Metal Detector To Save A President’s Life

Bell using a metal detector
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

President James Garfield was shot at the Baltimore & Potomac Railway station in July 1881 by Charles J. Guiteau. The bullet had become lodged in the president’s back, and the doctors assisting Garfield were unable to find it.

After visiting the wounded president, Bell got to work and developed a metal detector to find the lost bullet. Unfortunately, the metal springs in the mattress confused the metal detector, according to Bell, which resulted in Garfield dying from an infection that September.

He Was Close With Hellen Keller

Keller and Bell
PhotoQuest/Getty Images
PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Although he isn’t always given credit, Bell is one of the main reasons that Helen Keller ever learned how to talk. As a young girl, Keller’s parents took her to see Bell, who had a reputation as one of the best teachers in the deaf community.

Upon meeting him, Keller proclaimed that Bell would be “the door through which I should pass from darkness into light.” Bell also put Keller into contact with the Perkins Institute, who sent the teacher Anne Sullivan to be her mentor. The two kept in touch throughout Bell’s life, with Keller dedicating her autobiography to him.

There Was A Continent-Wide Moment Of Silence After His Death

Bell and his phone
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Alexander Graham Bell passed away at his home in Nova Scotia on August 2, 1922, with his wife Mabel at his side. At times, when people of importance pass away, it’s customary to hold a moment of silence of reflection and respect to honor their memory.

This is precisely what happened after Bell’s funeral, except on a much larger scale. Every phone in North America was silenced for a minute in “honor of the man who had given to mankind the means for direct communication at a distance.”

He Was An Immigrant

Photograph of young Bell
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Alexander Graham Bell was born on March 3, 1847, in Edinburgh, Scotland. He went on to attend school in Scotland before immigrating to Canada in 1870. At 23-years-old, he moved there to be with his parents.

Then in 1871, Bell moved to the United States, where he began work at the Boston School for the Deaf. It wasn’t until he became famous for inventing the telephone that he became a naturalized United States citizen in 1882.

He Was Involved In Countless Lawsuits Over His Telephone Patent

Bell applying for patent
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo12/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Bell’s application for his telephone patent was filed on February 14, 1876, just mere hours before rival inventor Elisha Gray submitted his own application for a similar idea. The 29-year-old Bell was awarded the first US patent for the telephone on March 7, 1876, and three days later, the first successful telephone transmission occurred.

Of course, it didn’t take long for hundreds of people to begin challenging Bell’s patent, convinced they had come up with the idea first. Five of them even made it to the Supreme Court, which upheld Bell’s claims.

He Was Interested In Eugenics

Bell playing the French horn
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Strangely, although Bell had dedicated his life to helping the deaf, he didn’t believe that two of them should marry or procreate. In his lecture “Memoir upon the formation of a deaf variety of the human race”, he claimed that two deaf parents were more likely to produce deaf children, and therefore suggested that couples in which both were deaf should not marry.

He was also deeply involved in a variety of eugenics groups, and even advocated the passing of a law that would establish the compulsory sterilization of people deemed “defective variety of the human race.” These ideals would go on to heavily influence the Nazi Party in Germany.

He Helped Revitalize National Geographic Magazine

National Geographic Society members
George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images
George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

Although the National Geographic Society’s first president was Bell’s father-in-law, the prestigious club in Washington, D.C. was struggling. Membership was just under one thousand when Bell was voted in as the society’s second president. To help revitalize the club, Bell focused on the journal, which is now National Geographic magazine.

Regarding the journal, he commented that it was something “everyone out on his shelf, and few people read.” He eventually relaunched the journal with the slogan “The World And All That Is In It,” with an emphasis on photography.

He Helped Build Canada’s First Plane

Working on a airplane
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In February 1909, the AEA Silver Dart, one of the world’s earliest aircraft, made the first powered flight in Canadian history. As of 1892, Alexander Graham Bell had been working on developing a motor-powered plane, although he had been heavily experimenting with tetrahedron kites.

With the help of Bell, co-designer John McCurdy was able to fly the Silver Dart over half a mile in Nova Scotia. After spending more time in Bell’s workshop, they successfully flew the aircraft an impressive 22 miles. That same year, the Silver Dart carried the first passenger in Canadian airspace.

Mark Twain Had His Own Thoughts On The Telephone

Twain in a chair
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Although Mark Twain had nothing against new technology, he turned down an opportunity to buy stock in the telephone, joking that he “didn’t want anything more to do with wildcat speculation.” Yet, he was still one of the first Americans to have a telephone installed in his home, but began having second thoughts after just a few months.

He commented that “The human voice carries entirely too far as it is. Here we have been hollering ‘shut up’ to our neighbors for centuries, and now you fellows come along and seek to complicate matters”.

He Received A Middle Name As A Birthday Present

Young Alexander Graham Bell
Library of Congress/Getty Images
Library of Congress/Getty Images

Born and baptized as Alexander Bell, the future inventor had always wanted a middle name. One possible reason for this was most likely to have some individuality, as his father and his grandfather were both named Alexander Bell.

So, on his 11th birthday, Bell’s father allowed him to adopt the middle name of Graham. This was to honor Alexander Graham, a former student who had once lived with the family. Ironically, today, most people include Bell’s middle name when referring to him!

He Wanted To Irradicate Sign Language

Bell with device
Library of Congress/Getty Images
Library of Congress/Getty Images

One of Bell’s goals when working with the deaf was to help include them in society during a time when they were completely excluded. He felt that sign language was detrimental to the deaf community, and that it further separated them from being integrated into society.

Bell believed that there were other ways to teach deaf people to speak without the use of sign language, proclaiming that it should be banned altogether. Although he thought what he was doing was for the good of the deaf, today, Bell is often viewed negatively by many deaf individuals.

Decibels Are Named After Him

A youthful Alexander Graham Bell
Apic/Getty Images
Apic/Getty Images

Because of the many inventions that Bell came up with throughout his life, his name has been immortalized in the scientific community. To honor Bell’s numerous contributions to science, especially those dealing with acoustics, the standard unit for the intensity of sound waves was named “bel” in the 1920s.

The decibel, one-tenth of a bel, is the most commonly used metric for measuring sound waves. The decibel is commonly used in engineering, acoustics, electronics, and control theory.

He Had Little Formal Education

Alexander Graham Bell making a speech
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Before enrolling in the University of Edinburgh, Bell only had about one year of formal education under his belt. With his father and mother being an elocutionist and pianist, respectively, he was also homeschooled at a young age.

However, once entering the University of Edinburgh, he failed to complete his lessons or excel as a student. It is also noted that Bell struggled using tools at times and required help completing many of the inventions that he is given most of the credit for.

He Improved The Phonograph

Tyomas Edison and his phonograph
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Commonly known as a record player today, the phonograph is an instrument that Thomas Edison was given credit for inventing in 1877. During that time, Edison’s phonograph consisted of a cylinder wrapped in tinfoil, before he moved on to other projects.

With Edison working on other things, by 1885, Bell and a few of his other colleagues designed a phonograph that could be eligible for commercial use with a removable cardboard cylinder that was coated with mineral wax. This, on top of a more flexible stylus, boosted the quality of the sound.

His Laboratory Gave Birth To Numerous Companies

Columbia advertisement
Stock Montage/Getty Images
Stock Montage/Getty Images

Located in Washington D.C., Bell’s laboratory was near Scott’s Circle, which he and his colleagues referred to as the Volta Laboratory Association. There, they produced hundreds of sound recordings while tinkering and experimenting with a variety of different mediums.

However, Bell’s Volta Laboratory also gave birth to Columbia Records for entertainment purposes and Dictaphone Corporation for businesses. Although there were numerous other big companies to develop from Bell’s laboratory, these are few of the most notable.

He Was Awarded The Title Of Honorary Chief

Portrait of Bell
Oscar White/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
Oscar White/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images

Upon moving to Canada to be with his family, Bell was already incredibly frail and sickly but found that the climate significantly helped him recover from his ailments. Following his interests in the study of the human voice, Bell came across the Six Nations Reserve across the river at the Onondaga village.

There, he learned the Mohawk language, translating its unwritten vocabulary into Visible Speech symbols. For his accomplishment, Bell was named Honorary Chief and participated in a ceremony in which he wore a Mohawk headdress and performed traditional dances.