Alexander Graham Bell


Alexander Graham Bell : biography

March 3, 1847 – August 2, 1922

Continuing experimentation

In the following year, Bell became professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at the Boston University School of Oratory. During this period, he alternated between Boston and Brantford, spending summers in his Canadian home. At Boston University, Bell was "swept up" by the excitement engendered by the many scientists and inventors residing in the city. He continued his research in sound and endeavored to find a way to transmit musical notes and articulate speech, but although absorbed by his experiments, he found it difficult to devote enough time to experimentation. While days and evenings were occupied by his teaching and private classes, Bell began to stay awake late into the night, running experiment after experiment in rented facilities at his boarding house. Keeping up "night owl" hours, he worried that his work would be discovered and took great pains to lock up his notebooks and laboratory equipment. Bell had a specially made table where he could place his notes and equipment inside a locking cover.Town 1988, p. 15. Worse still, his health deteriorated as he suffered severe headaches.Groundwater 2005, p. 39. Returning to Boston in fall 1873, Bell made a fateful decision to concentrate on his experiments in sound.

Deciding to give up his lucrative private Boston practice, Bell only retained two students, six-year old "Georgie" Sanders, deaf from birth and 15-year old Mabel Hubbard. Each pupil would serve to play an important role in the next developments. George’s father, Thomas Sanders, a wealthy businessman, offered Bell a place to stay at nearby Salem with Georgie’s grandmother, complete with a room to "experiment". Although the offer was made by George’s mother and followed the year-long arrangement in 1872 where her son and his nurse had moved to quarters next to Bell’s boarding house, it was clear that Mr. Sanders was backing the proposal. The arrangement was for teacher and student to continue their work together with free room and board thrown in.Town 1988, p. 16. Mabel was a bright, attractive girl who was ten years his junior but became the object of Bell’s affection. Losing her hearing after a near-fatal bout of scarlet fever close to her fifth birthday,Toward 1984, p. 1.Eber 1991, p. 43. she had learned to read lips but her father, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, Bell’s benefactor and personal friend, wanted her to work directly with her teacher.Dunn 1990, p. 20.


By 1874, Bell’s initial work on the harmonic telegraph had entered a formative stage with progress it made both at his new Boston "laboratory" (a rented facility) as well as at his family home in Canada a big success. While working that summer in Brantford, Bell experimented with a "phonautograph", a pen-like machine that could draw shapes of sound waves on smoked glass by tracing their vibrations. Bell thought it might be possible to generate undulating electrical currents that corresponded to sound waves.Matthews 1999, pp. 19–21. Bell also thought that multiple metal reeds tuned to different frequencies like a harp would be able to convert the undulating currents back into sound. But he had no working model to demonstrate the feasibility of these ideas.Matthews 1999, p. 21.

In 1874, telegraph message traffic was rapidly expanding and in the words of Western Union President William Orton, had become "the nervous system of commerce". Orton had contracted with inventors Thomas Edison and Elisha Gray to find a way to send multiple telegraph messages on each telegraph line to avoid the great cost of constructing new lines. Retrieved: December 29, 2009. When Bell mentioned to Gardiner Hubbard and Thomas Sanders that he was working on a method of sending multiple tones on a telegraph wire using a multi-reed device, the two wealthy patrons began to financially support Bell’s experiments.Town 1988, p. 17. Patent matters would be handled by Hubbard’s patent attorney, Anthony Pollok.Evenson 2000, pp. 18–25.