(born , March 3, 1847, Edinburgh—died Aug. 2, 1922, Beinn Bhreagh, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Can.) Scottish-born American audiologist best known as the inventor of the telephone (1876). For two generations his family had been recognized as leading authorities in elocution and speech correction, with Alexander Melville Bell’s Standard Elocutionist passing through nearly 200 editions in English. Young Bell and his two brothers were trained to continue the family profession. His early achievements on behalf of the deaf and his invention of the telephone before his 30th birthday bear testimony to the thoroughness of his training.
Alexander (“Graham” was not added until he was 11) was the second of the three sons of Alexander Melville Bell and Eliza Grace Symonds Bell. Apart from one year at a private school, two years at Edinburgh’s Royal High School (from which he was graduated at 14), and attendance at a few lectures at Edinburgh University and at University College in London, Bell was largely family trained and self-taught. His first professional post was at Mr. Skinner’s school in Elgin, County Moray, where he instructed the children in both music and elocution. In 1864 he became a resident master in Elgin’s Weston House Academy, where he conducted his first studies in sound. Appropriately, Bell had begun professionally as he would continue through life—as a teacher-scientist.
In 1868 he became his father’s assistant in London and assumed full charge while the senior Bell lectured in America. The shock of the sudden death of his older brother from tuberculosis, which had also struck down his younger brother, and the strain of his professional duties soon took their toll on young Bell. Concern for their only surviving son prompted the family’s move to Canada in August 1870, where, after settling near Brantford, Ont., Bell’s health rapidly improved.
In 1871 Bell spent several weeks in Boston, lecturing and demonstrating the system of his father’s Visible Speech, published in 1866, as a means of teaching speech to the deaf. Each phonetic symbol indicated a definite position of the organs of speech such as lips, tongue, and soft palate and could be used by the deaf to imitate the sounds of speech in the usual way. Young A. Graham Bell, as he now preferred to be known, showed, using his father’s system, that speech could be taught to the deaf. His astounding results soon led to further invitations to lecture.
Even while vacationing at his parents’ home Bell continued his experiments with sound. In 1872 he opened his own school in Boston for training teachers of the deaf, edited his pamphlet Visible Speech Pioneer, and continued to study and tutor; in 1873 he became professor of vocal physiology at Boston University.
Never adept with his hands, Bell had the good fortune to discover and inspire Thomas Watson, a young repair mechanic and model maker, who assisted him enthusiastically in devising an apparatus for transmitting sound by electricity. Their long nightly sessions began to produce tangible results. The fathers of George Sanders and Mabel Hubbard, two deaf students whom he helped, were sufficiently impressed with the young teacher to assist him financially in his scientific pursuits. Nevertheless, during normal working hours Bell and Watson were still obliged to fulfill a busy schedule of professional demands. It is scarcely surprising that Bell’s health again suffered. On April 6, 1875, he was granted the patent for his multiple telegraph; but after another exhausting six months of long nightly sessions in the workshop, while maintaining his daily professional schedule, Bell had to return to his parents’ home in Canada to recuperate. In September 1875 he began to write the specifications for the telephone. On March 7, 1876, the United States Patent Office granted to Bell Patent Number 174,465 covering “The method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically . . . by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sounds.”
Within a year followed the commercial application and, a few months later, the first of hundreds of legal suits. Ironically, the telephone—until then all too often regarded as a joke and its creator-prophet as, at best, an eccentric—was the subject of the most involved patent litigation in history. The most noteworthy contemporaries of Bell were Antonio Meucci, who filed a caveat (rather than a full patent) in 1871 and let it lapse through lack of funds, and Elisha Gray, who filed a caveat on February 14, 1876, just a few hours after Bell submitted a patent claim. In recognition of Meucci’s earlier work, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution on June 11, 2002, honouring his work. The two most celebrated of the early actions were the Dowd and Drawbaugh cases wherein the fledgling Bell Telephone Company successfully challenged two subsidiaries of the giant Western Union Telegraph Company for patent infringement. The charges and accusations were especially painful to Bell’s Scottish integrity, but the outcome of all the litigation, which persisted throughout the life of his patents, was that Bell’s claims were upheld as the first to conceive and apply the undulatory current. In 1877 Bell married Mabel Hubbard, 10 years his junior.