Alexander Graham Bell By Vicki Introduction

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Alexander Graham Bell

By Vicki


This man was an innovator, a scientist and an engineer. Alexander Bell was born on March 3, 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland. When he was eleven years old he persuaded his father to give him a middle name like his brothers, Melville James Bell and Edward Charles Bell. In the end, Graham was added to Alexander’s name after Alexander Graham, a Canadian patient his father treated. Alexander Bell was also the man who was very interested in helping the deaf. Let’s go on and find out more about this Great Canadian.

Alexander’s First Invention

As a child, Alexander collected botanical specimens and had been experimenting. That is what lead him to his first invention. Alexander’s first invention was a device for a flour mill, not something that would really change the world for the deaf. It was supposed to make cleaning wheat for flour easier and it worked alright. Alexander’s best friend, Ben Herdman, had a father who had to work in that field so “Alek,” as he was called by friends and family, was able to put together a machine that combined rotating paddles with sets of nail brushes. This invention proved that even at the young age of twelve, Alek could help people. After that invention, Ben’s father let the boys “invent” in a little work shop.

More About Alek & Family

From his early years, Alek showed a talent for art, poetry and music that was encouraged by his mother. With no real training, he became a master on the piano and became the family's pianist. Even though he was normally quiet, he entertained the family guests with "voice tricks" and ventriloquism during their occasional visits. Alek was hurt by his mother's gradual deafness, (when she was twelve she started to lose her hearing)so, he learned a manual finger language. He could then sit at her side and tap out silently the conversations he had heard earlier.  He also had a technique of speaking in clear tones directly into his mother's forehead wherein she would hear him pretty well. Alek’s obsession with his mother's deafness led him to study acoustics.

Alek’s family was very associated with the teaching of speech. His grandfather, his uncle in Dublin, and his father, in Edinburgh, were all elocutionists or speech therapists. His father published a lot of articles and books on the subject, several of which are still recognized, especially his The Standard Elocutionist (1860).It was out in Edinburgh in 1868. The Standard Elocutionist was shown in 168 British editions and sold over a quarter of a million copies in the United States. In this piece, Alek’s father explains how to instruct deaf mutes (as they were called back then) to read other people's lips to figure out the meaning of things. Alek's father taught him and his brothers not only to write visible speech but to identify any symbol. Alek became so good that he became a part of his father's public demonstrations.

Experimenting with Sound

Alek’s father encouraged Alek's interest in speech and, in 1863, took his sons to see an automaton, made by Sir Charles Wheatstone based on earlier work by Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen. The "mechanical man" had a human voice. Alek was amazed by the machine and after he got his hands on a copy of von Kempelen's book, published in German, and had translated it, he and his older brother Melville built their own automaton head. Their father, really interested in their project, offered to pay for any supplies and excited the boys with a promise of a "big prize" if they were successful. While his brother constructed made the throat and larynx, Alek got the more difficult jobs of making a realistic skull. His effort was rewarded with lifelike head that could "speak“ a few words. The boys would adjust the "lips" and when air was forced through the windpipe, a voice would say mama. The delighted neighbours who came to see the invention got quite a show!

Amazed by the results of the automaton, Alek continued to experiment but, with a live creature this time. The family's Skye Terrier, "Trouve“. After he taught the terrier to growl continuously, Alek would reach into it’s mouth and play with the dog's lips and vocal cords to make a "Ow ah oo ga ma ma." sound. Visitors believed his dog could say "How are you grandma?".


As a young child, Alek, like his brothers, got his early education at home from his father. At an young age, however, he was placed at the Royal High School in Edinburgh, Scotland, which he left at only age 15. His interest was in the sciences especially biology. All the other subjects though, were a weakness for Alek, to the disappointment of his father. Alek was known to be absent very often and he did not have very good grades. When he dropped out of school, he moved to London to stay with his grandfather. During the year he spent with his grandfather, Alek learned to love learning, with long hours spent in serious study. Due to this event, at age 16, Alek held tightly onto a position as a "pupil teacher "of elocution and music in Weston House Academy in Scotland. Although he was placed as a student in Latin and Greek, he taught classes himself with the condition that he is provided board and £10 per session. The next year, Alek attended the University of Edinburgh; joining his older brother Melville who had been there the year before. In 1868, not long before he went to Canada with his family, Alek completed his exams and was accepted to go to the University of London.

Trouble in the Family

Throughout late 1867, Alek’s health was not good at all. His younger brother, Edward was also sick from something similar, suffering from tuberculosis. While Alek got better and spent the next year as an instructor at Somerset Collage, Bath, England, his brother's condition took a turn for the worst. Edward would never get better. After his brother's death, Alek returned home in 1867. His older brother had married and moved out. With goals to have a degree at the University Collage London, Alek considered his next years as preparation for the degree exams, devoting his spare time at his family's place to studying. While his older brother seemed to be successful on many angles including opening his own elocution school, applying for a patent on an invention, and starting a family, Alek became just a teacher. However, in May 1870, Melville died from complications to tuberculosis, causing a family crisis.


Alek’s father was invited by Sarah Fuller, principal of the Horace Man School for the Deaf  in Boston, to present the Visible Speech System by training her instructors, but he refused the offer, in courtesy of his son. Traveling to Boston in April 1871, Alek showed successful in training the school's instructors. He was asked to do the program at the American Asylum for Deaf Mutes in Hartford and the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton.

Returning home to Brantford after six months elsewhere, Alek worked his experiments with his "harmonic telegraph". Not sure of his future, he returned to London to complete his studies, but decided to go to Boston to be a teacher again. Alek’s father tried to help him set up his practice by talking to Gardiner Greene Hubbard who was the president of the Clarke School. He wanted Hubbard’s recommendation as it was very valuable. Teaching his father's system, in October 1872 Alek opened his "School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech" in Boston, which attracted a huge number of deaf students for his first class had thirty students. While Alek was working as a private tutor, one of his most famous students was Helen Keller, who came to him as a young child who couldn’t see, hear, or speak. Alek taught visible speech to students like Helen by drawing and he taught students to speak by seeing sound. Alek would make them feel sound vibrations and he, with his father, helped create sign language.

Alek’s Invention

Alek was part of a group of scientists who were trying to make the telegraph a better device. Suddenly, Alek had a breakthrough in 1874 and by 1876 he figured at a way for the human voice to be sent over a wire. A few months later, he figured out how to transmit the human voice overseas. We call this device today the telephone. So it worked like this; when you spoke into the telephone, your voice would move through thin medal disks that could change the electric current. Alek was best known for this invention, but he invented plenty more. Alek had an assistant named Thomas Waston at the time he invented the telephone. The telephone was first named the “electronic speech device” by Alek.


On July 11, 1877, a few days after the Bell Telephone Company was made, Alek married Mabel Hubbard at the Hubbard estate in Cambridge. The newlyweds went on a year-long honeymoon in Europe shortly after their wedding. During that trip, Alek took a handmade model of his telephone with him, making it a "working holiday". Their relationship had begun years earlier; however Alek waited until he had more money before marrying.  One unusual request by his fiancée was that he uses "Alec" rather than the family's earlier familiar name of "Alek." From 1876, Alec would sign his name "Alec Bell." They had four children: Elsie May Bell, who married Gilbert Grosvenor of National Geographic fame and Marian Hubbard Bell who was nicknamed "Daisy. Alek and Mabel also had two sons who died when they were infants.


Flying Continued…


First known as the phonograph, the gramophone was made in the goal of recording and reproducing sound. This was first done by Thomas Edison in 1877, and in 1879 Alek and his apprentice, Charles Sumner Tainter, began making changes or improvements on Edison's invention. Alek first became interested in the phonograph because it could have helped teach the deaf. He found, however, that the records used by Edison to record sound deteriorated after many uses. Alek and Tainter set out to find out why this happened, and to make a solution for the problem.

The idea behind both the phonograph and the gramophone was to record speech vibrations onto a disk. Charles Tainter used a lighter substance than Edison for the disk, finding that a wax record cut with a chisel-shaped stylus was able to reproduce sounds better than Edison's tinfoil record. Tainter cut the wax, making a zigzag pattern that controlled the vibration of the needle that was used to play the record. This was preferred more than the up-and-down motion of Edison's needle. In the end, Tainter and Alek were not successful in producing a completely functional gramophone, and Tainter thought that their trys at cutting had failed because the zigzag grooves were too large.

Alek and Tainter were under a time crunch to make changes on the gramophone and file patents to take credit for those changes before Thomas Edison could do the same. Unfortunately, their work was put aside in 1881 when President Garfield was shot and they worked with other scientists to make an instrument to locate and take out the bullet. In order to prevent Edison from finding out about their work and filing a patent for it, Tainter and Alek packed all their work on the gramophone into a tin box, dated and sealed the box, and put it in a vault.

Metal Detector

Alek is also remembered to some as the inventor of the metal detector, created in 1881. The invention was quickly put together in an try to find the bullet in the body of US President James Garfield who had been assassinated. The metal detector worked perfectly in tests but did not find the assassin's bullet, partly because the president was lying on a metal spring mattress. The president's surgeons, who were in doubt of the device, ignored Alek's request to move the president to a bed without metal springs. Alek’s metal detector worked for many other people later on, even though it didn’t work for President James Garfield.


In 1880, the French Government awarded Alek the Volta Prize of 50,000 francs (worth about $10,000 at the time) to recognize his invention of the telephone. Alek used this money very well, setting up the Volta Laboratory in Washington. This workspace would later be the place that two important inventions: the photophone and the gramophone were made in. The photophone let the transmission of sound on a beam of light and Alek felt like this device was his best invention. He used the photophone to send the first wireless telephone message on June 3, 1880.

Alek's photophone used the property of a crystal that made its ability to conduct electricity dependent on the amount of light it gets. The light rays shone on a motion-sensitive mirror which picked up and reacted to vibrations. Motion of the mirror created twisted, unoriginal movements in the light beam it reflected towards a parabolic mirror and this mirror focused the distorted light on the detector at its center. The detector reacted by creating interrupted electrical signals. These signals were sent to the magnet of the telephone and turned back to sound.

The device failed to protect transmissions from outside problems such as clouds. These outside interferences block the beams of light need for transmission.

Alec’s Death

Alec died because of complications from diabetes on August 2, 1922. He was 75 years old and he died at his estate. Alec had also been sick with anemia. Anemia is when your blood has less red blood cells than normal. A fact I should mention is that Mabel Hubbard died one year after Alec. I am sad that Alec died from diabetes but he would still have died around that same time because of old age.


Alek received numerous awards for his work. They included an award from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences which made Alek a Fellow, the award of the James Watt silver medal for the telephone from the Royal Corn Wall Polytechnic Society and the Third Paris World’s Fair, called the Exposition Universelle, awarded Alek (along with Elisha Gray and Thomas Edison) a Grand Prize for the invention of the telephone. Alek also got awards from several different universities and organizations that I can’t possibly list them all.

How did Alek influence Canada’s Identity?

Alek made it easier for the deaf to communicate and to me, that made the world a better place for everyone. Alek’s invention made it really easy to treat deaf people with equality now that they could communicate with others and this was an influence because Canada today is more respectful of deaf people and this is something to be proud of. Not every country can say what Canada can say when it comes to the deaf. Alek was also always trying to improve his invention. This shows that he really wanted deaf people to be able to communicate and that even when he succeeded he wasn’t satisfied because his invention wasn’t the best it could be. I don’t think there was anything that could stop Alek from inventing and that’s something I really admire.

Things I Admire about Alek and my Opinions

I admire Alek because sound and speech were always on his mind. I also admire Alek because he devoted a huge amount of his work to deaf people. Even though Alek found out that doing is harder than knowing, he stuck to his plans and never gave up. Something I really admire about Alek is that he was considered only second to Thomas Alva Edison among 19th to 20th century inventors. None one else was considered better than Alek except Thomas Edison. This is a titanic accomplishment because it takes really hard and exceptional work to be considered second best when you are an inventor. As for my opinions on Alek’s accomplishments, I think that Alek couldn’t have done any better than he did and I am so glad I chose him as my great canadian because he is the greatest canadian out of all the competitors out there!!!

Thanks for watching!! Remember: Alexander Graham Bell is the Greatest Canadian

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