Alexander Graham Bell: 5 Facts on the Father of the Telephone

Alexander Graham Bell probably wouldn't know what to make of a selfie, but he kicked off the communication revolution with his telephone back in the 1870s. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first transcontinental phone call, let's learn more about the man and his amazing machines.
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Wendy Mead
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Alexander Graham Bell probably wouldn't know what to make of a selfie, but he kicked off the communication revolution with his telephone back in the 1870s. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the first transcontinental phone call, let's learn more about the man and his amazing machines.
Alexander Graham Bell Photo

Inventor Alexander Graham Bell made the first transcontinental telephone call from New York to his assistant Thomas Watson in San Francisco on January 25, 1915. (Photo: Stock Montage/Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Alexander Graham Bell was the middle child of Alexander Melville and Eliza Symonds Bell. He started coming up with inventions early on. One of his first projects was a contraption that separated wheat from their husks. But he was really more fascinated by sound and speech as the son of a professor of elocution. With his father's encouragement, he even worked with his older brother Melville on creating a talking machine. 

Bell, of course, went on to invent a talking machine that revolutionized how we communicate. Today, on the 100th anniversary of the first transcontinental phone call, let's learn more about the man and his ingenious inventions.

1. Bell picked out his middle name himself. 

Around the time of his 11th birthday, he decided to become Alexander Graham Bell instead of just Alexander Bell. Perhaps he was tired of being the third Alexander in the family, sharing this first name with his father and grandfather. Whatever reason for the addition, Bell drew inspiration from one of his father's former students, Alexander Graham, to add "Graham" to the mix. Bell may have liked the ring of his new moniker, but he was still known to his family as simply "Alec" or "Aleck."

2. Bell was not only a talented inventor, but a gifted teacher. 

He started out as an instructor at a boys' boarding school when he was only 16. His father had developed "Visible Speech," a system of phonetic symbols. These symbols showed how to physically make the sounds needed to say any word. Bell was able to use this system with deaf students to help them learn to talk and improve their diction. Bell also had some of his own methods, too. His mother had suffered severe hearing loss after an illness as a child, and Bell had used different ways to communicate with her.

While working in Boston, Bell became a well-regarded teacher of the deaf. He worked at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes and saw private students as well. Later Bell worked at the Clark Institution for Deaf Mutes and received a professorship at Boston University's School of Oratory. One of his students, Mabel Hubbard, eventually became his wife. Her father, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, became one of Bell's benefactors and supported his work on inventions. For another student, Bell developed special gloves with the letters of the alphabet on them, which allowed them to communicate through spelling words.

Bell remained to committed to supporting education for the deaf throughout his life. He met with Helen Keller in 1893 and helped the young deaf mute girl with locating a good teacher. That same year, Bell also established the Association for the Promotion of Teaching Speech to the Deaf. 

Helen Keller: Alexander Graham Bell spent the 1870s working on hearing devices for the deaf.  Helen Keller’s parents reached out to him when Helen was a child, and he in turn contacted the Perkins Institute. The Perkins Institute then sent Anne Sullivan to work with Helen.

Helen Keller and Alexander Graham Bell. Keller’s parents reached out to Bell when Helen was a child, and he in turn contacted the Perkins Institute, which sent teacher Anne Sullivan to work with Helen. (Photo: PhotoQuest/Getty Images)

3. Bell won his patent for the telephone by filing his claim hours ahead of Elisha Gray. 

Yes, the early bird does catch the worm, or the patent, in this case. Bell filed his patent for his version of the telephone on February 14, 1876. Later that same day, a lawyer working for Elisha Gray submitted a caveat, a type of announcement of an invention, for the telephone on his behalf. As he wrote to his parents in 1874, Bell had been aware of his competitor's efforts and felt enormous pressure to finish his own design. "It is a neck and neck race between Mr. Gray and myself who shall complete our apparatus first," he observed, according to Charlotte Gray's Reluctant Genius: Alexander Graham Bell and the Passion for Invention.

In March 1876, Bell received the telephone patent. He founded the Bell Telephone Company with his father-in-law Gardiner Greene Hubbard, his assistant Thomas Watson and Thomas Sanders the following year. Competitor Western Union hired other inventors, including Elisha Gray, to develop their own phone system, which led to a legal fight between the two businesses. Over the years, Bell vigorously defended his telephone patent in a number of other lawsuits. 

4. After the telephone, Bell went on to develop an array of interesting inventions. 

Bell created the photophone, which used light to transmit sound. Bell considered it to be one of his greatest inventions. He also used his gift for inventing to solve problems. After the death of his infant son in 1881, Bell made a metal vacuum jacket to help with breathing. This idea influenced the design of the iron lung device used to aid polio patients in the 1950s. When an assassin shot President James Garfield in 1881, Bell was asked to help the ailing leader. He came up with an electromagnetic machine to detect where the bullet was lodged in Garfield's body. It failed at this task (Garfield later died), but the device was a precursor to the modern metal detector.   

Alexander Graham Bell Photo

Alexander Graham Bell with his wife Mabel Gardiner Hubbard and their children Elsie May Bell (far left) and Marian Hubbard Bell, circa 1885. (Photo: US Library of Congress [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

5. In his later years, Bell was fascinated by flight and motion. 

He started out experimenting with kites in the 1890s and even had a special building on his estate, Beinn Bhreagh, to work on these projects. After a lot of experimentation, Bell created an innovative kite design based on tetrahedrons. In 1907, he formed the Aerial Experiment Association with Glenn Curtiss, Thomas Selfridge, Casey Baldwin and J.A.D. McCurdy. The association developed flying machines, the most famous of which was the Silver Dart. On February 23, 1909, the Silver Dart became the first plane to make a powered flight in Canada. Bell later worked on hydrofoils with Casey Baldwin. One of their designs, known as HD-4, set a speed record in 1919. Their accomplishment stayed on the record books until the 1960s.