Alexander Graham Bell

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Alexander Graham Bell : biography

March 3, 1847 – August 2, 1922

The question of priority for the variable resistance feature of the telephone was raised by the Examiner before he approved Bell’s patent application. He told Bell that his claim for the variable resistance feature was also described in Gray’s caveat. Bell pointed to a variable resistance device in Bell’s previous application in which Bell described a cup of mercury, not water. Bell had filed the mercury application at the patent office a year earlier on February 25, 1875, long before Elisha Gray described the water device. In addition, Gray abandoned his caveat, and because Gray did not contest Bell’s priority, the Examiner approved Bell’s patent on March 3, 1876. Gray had reinvented the variable resistance telephone, but Bell was the first to write down the idea and the first to test it in a telephone.Evenson 2000, pp. 81–82.

The patent examiner, Zenas Fisk Wilber, later stated in a sworn affidavit that he was an alcoholic who was much in debt to Bell’s lawyer, Marcellus Bailey, with whom he had served in the Civil War. He claimed he showed Gray’s patent caveat to Bailey. Wilber also claimed (after Bell arrived in Washington D.C. from Boston) that he showed Gray’s caveat to Bell and that Bell paid him $100. Bell claimed they discussed the patent only in general terms, although in a letter to Gray, Bell admitted that he learned some of the technical details. Bell denied in a sworn affidavit that he ever gave Wilber any money."Mr. Wilbur confesses." The Washington Post, May 22, 1886, p. 1.

Later developments

Continuing his experiments in Brantford, Bell brought home a working model of his telephone. On August 3, 1876, from the telegraph office in Mount Pleasant five miles (8 km) away from Brantford, Bell sent a tentative telegram indicating that he was ready. With curious onlookers packed into the office as witnesses, faint voices were heard replying. The following night, he amazed guests as well as his family when a message was received at the Bell home from Brantford, four miles (six km) distant along an improvised wire strung up along telegraph lines and fences, and laid through a tunnel. This time, guests at the household distinctly heard people in Brantford reading and singing. These experiments clearly proved that the telephone could work over long distances.MacLeod 1999, p. 14. Bell and his partners, Hubbard and Sanders, offered to sell the patent outright to Western Union for $100,000. The president of Western Union balked, countering that the telephone was nothing but a toy. Two years later, he told colleagues that if he could get the patent for $25 million he would consider it a bargain. By then, the Bell company no longer wanted to sell the patent.Fenster, Julie M. AmericanHeritage.com, American Heritage, 2006. Bell’s investors would become millionaires while he fared well from residuals and at one point had assets of nearly one million dollars.Winfield 1987, p. 21.

Bell began a series of public demonstrations and lectures to introduce the new invention to the scientific community as well as the general public. A short time later, his demonstration of an early telephone prototype at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia brought the telephone to international attention.Webb 1991, p. 15. Influential visitors to the exhibition included Emperor Pedro II of Brazil. Later Bell had the opportunity to demonstrate the invention personally to Sir William Thomson (later, Lord Kelvin), a renowned Scottish scientist, as well as to Queen Victoria who had requested a private audience at Osborne House, her Isle of Wight home. She called the demonstration "most extraordinary". The enthusiasm surrounding Bell’s public displays laid the groundwork for universal acceptance of the revolutionary device.Ross 1995, pp. 21–22.

The Bell Telephone Company was created in 1877, and by 1886, more than 150,000 people in the U.S. owned telephones. Bell company engineers made numerous other improvements to the telephone, which emerged as one of the most successful products ever. In 1879, the Bell company acquired Edison’s patents for the carbon microphone from Western Union. This made the telephone practical for longer distances and it was no longer necessary to shout to be heard at the receiving telephone.