This week sees the centenary of the death of the man who has a fair claim to be remembered as Scotland’s greatest inventor.
Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone and much else besides, died at Beinn Breagh, Cape Breton Island, in Nova Scotia, Canada, on August 2, 1922. He was then aged 75, and had been officially credited with the invention of the telephone back in 1876.
Several other countries claim that the invention of the telephone was made by their citizens, with Italy’s Innocenzo Manzetti and Italian-American Antonio Meucci both being described as pioneers of the telephone. Germany claims that Johann Philipp Reis invented a telephone of sorts in 1861, and a stamp was issued a century later to mark that feat. Cyrille Duquet of Quebec, Canada, definitely invented a telephone handset and was granted a patent for it on February 1, 1878. Elisha Gray of Illinois, USA, came closest to being accredited as the inventor of the telephone, and many Americans still think he was robbed of the distinction.
The trouble for all the other claimants is that there is no doubt that Bell became the first inventor to file and be granted a patent for an “apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically”. It was US patent 174465, dated March 7, 1876, and despite being challenged in in the courts by Gray in particular, that patent has always stood, making Bell the inventor of the telephone.
He had also demonstrated his apparatus, and like John Logie Baird and his television, that is enough for most sensible people to accept that he was the inventor.
On March 10, 1876, Bell made the first successful bi-directional transmission of speech over his device. He spoke to his assistant, Thomas Watson, who was in another room, saying: “Mr Watson come here, I want to see you.” The patent allowed Bell to improve his apparatus and in time it made Bell a very wealthy man.
The truth is that Bell’s invention came after much development work by others, but it was certainly Bell who first made the necessary equipment to successfully transmit sounds. He did so while working at his parents’ home in Brantford, Ontario in Canada – there is a magnificent memorial to his feat in Brantford – and at Boston in Massachusetts. Bell soon went on to make long distance calls and in January, 1878 he even demonstrated his telephone’s effectiveness to Queen Victoria.
It is not often realised that a Scottish academic, the Belfast-born William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, then the professor of natural philosophy at Glasgow University, was one of the first scientists to commend Bell’s invention and his declaration that my “own ears heard spoken to me with unmistakable distinctness” was enough to convince many in Britain and Europe that Bell had achieved a remarkable breakthrough.
Canada and the USA both claim Bell as their own, but though a dual citizen, it was here in Scotland that Bell was born and raised, and I believe it was his early work that led him to the invention.
He was born Alexander Bell at South Charlotte Street in central Edinburgh on March 3, 1847 – there is an inscription on the wall marking his birthplace. His father, Alexander Melville Bell, was a teacher who was noted for his work on elocution and who is credited with creating Visible Speech for deaf people. Bell’s grandfather, also Alexander, was noted for his work on speech disorders and phonetics, and his uncle David Charles Bell was a professor of elocution.
Bell’s mother, Eliza Grace née Symonds, would become profoundly deaf in Bell’s teens, and this dictated the path of Bell’s life. Always known to his family as Alec, Bell asked for a middle name like his brothers and on his 11th birthday his name was officially changed to include Graham, a tribute to a family friend from Canada.
He attended the Royal High School of Edinburgh but seems not to have been a diligent pupil. Bell made friends with a neighbour, Ben Herdman, whose father John ran a flour mill. At the age of just 12, Bell devised a successful dehusking machine that John Herdman used in his mill for years. In return he gave his son and Bell a small workshop.
Bell was encouraged by his mother to study music and poetry, and in turn he doted on her, learning a simple finger language so that she could participate in family chat as she began to become deaf. Bell taught himself the basics of acoustics, and he became an expert in the use of Visible Speech, so much so that his father employed him in demonstrations of his teaching system.
Bell also became an expert ventriloquist, and would entertain family and friends with clever tricks and his fine piano playing – he was self-taught on the instrument, but listeners often said he must have been at a music school.
On leaving the Royal High School, Bell moved to London to live with his grandfather and it was under his tutelage that Bell became a serious scholar, learning elocution and public speaking which his grandfather felt he would need for a future career.
At 16, Bell moved to Elgin where became a pupil teacher, studying Latin and Greek while presiding over lessons in music and elocution.
Bell knew that to become a teacher, lecturer or professor, he would require a university qualification and so he enrolled at Edinburgh University, going there a year after his elder brother Melville. Both Melville and Alec had already been experimenting with acoustics, and particularly a “talking head”, an automaton that made recognisably human sounds.
Now ill-health and tragedy struck, with both his younger brother Edward and Melville dying of tuberculosis. His father was also frequently ill as was Bell himself. It was time to move west, but the foundations of Bell’s spectacular career had been set in Scotland.
Next week I will deal with several controversies that surround Bell, and it will not make pleasant reading for those who revere him.
The write-up is picked from Scottish portal The National.