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Alexander Graham Bell made the first telephone call

Posted in America, Communications, Famous Inventors, Technology on Monday, 17 December 2012

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This edited article about Alexander Graham Bell originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 799 published on 7th May 1977.

Early telephone, picture, image, illustration

An early telephone by Peter Jackson

“Mr. Watson, come here: I want you.” These were the first words spoken by the human voice to be heard over a wire.

In these days of jet planes, television and communication satellites, it is not easy to recapture the wonder of that moment when the voice of Alexander Graham Bell was heard by his assistant at the other end of a wire on the night of March 10, 1876.

The telegraph had been in use for about forty years, and though a marvel of its day, was easily explained. Intermittent currents sent along a wire were used to spell out the letters of the alphabet. Even when, in 1858, the “wire” – an undersea electric cable – spanned the Atlantic Ocean, enabling Queen Victoria and the American President to exchange messages of greeting before the flood of business telegrams began, it was only an extension of the same idea.

That the human voice could ever be sent by the same means was such a fantastic thought that few people ever regarded it as being within the bounds of possibility. And those who did had not the faintest idea how it could be achieved.

Why, then, was Alexander Graham Bell the first man to break that sound barrier? Because he had the finest beginning that any man could have in that particular realm. He was the son of a man who had been closely concerned with human speech. His father wrote a book called Visible Speech, instructing deaf mutes in lip reading.

Young Bell, born in Edinburgh in 1847, showed signs of inventive genius, and one day his father said to him and his young brother. “Make a machine that speaks.”

They fitted up bits and pieces inside a human skull, imitating the human tongue and throat, and using bellows for lungs. Did it speak? It squawked “Mamma” well enough for the woman in the flat below to call up the stairs. “Why can’t you keep that baby quiet?” but young Bell was not deceived about his success.

Their “little man,” as they called the robot, “has no muscles and he can’t open and close his throat, or touch his teeth or the roof of his mouth with his tongue, or puff out his cheeks or press his lips together.” Oh yes, Graham Bell knew enough about the wonder of the human voice to realize how far he failed to imitate it.

Yet he could not escape from the subject. At the age of twenty-one he came to London, and read a translation of a book by a German named Hemholz describing how scientists had made tuning forks vibrate by electro magnets and imitate the human voice. Was this the way?

Then tragedy touched the Bell family. Two of his brothers died of that dread disease, consumption, and young Bell himself was weak chested. The foggy atmosphere of London was like a threat to his life, and he was taken to Canada, From there he went to America and became a professor at Boston University.

But his thoughts were still on that tantalizing problem of imitating the human voice. His heart was touched by the attempts of children who were deaf to imitate human speech. They could, by copying mouth movements, form words. But the dead, expressionless way in which they spoke was painful to his ear. Being deaf, how could they learn about inflection, expression, light and shade – all those things which made human speech a warm and emotional thing?

Could he invent a machine to show them the difference, as heard by the human ear? Could he make an ear? He put his problems to a doctor friend, who said calmly. “Why don’t you use a real ear? I can get it for you from the hospital mortuary.”

So one day young Bell went home with his grisly acquisition, and studied its marvels, noting the way in which the eardrum itself, so small and fragile, was nevertheless capable of vibrating when sound waves struck it, and conveying those vibrations to the bones of the head so that the sounds could be heard.

His idea of using the ear as part of an apparatus to show deaf children, by markings on a smoked glass, the rise and fall of the human voice, came to nought. But something far, far bigger was to be the outcome – an electrical “copy” of the human ear.

In place of the eardrum he had a metal disc. The disc fitted close to an electro-magnet. The sound waves of the human voices, striking the disc, caused it to vibrate, and these vibrations, taking place within the magnetic field of the magnet, caused changes in the flow of the magnetic current. This changing current flowed along a wire. At the other end it was connected to another electro-magnet, close to another metal disc. The disc, under the influence of the changing electro-magnetic current, vibrated. Those vibrations were an exact “copy” of the vibrations of the original disc.

The second vibrating disc set up waves in the air which, striking the drum of a human ear, had exactly the same effect as the sound waves of a human voice.

Thus the telephone was born, through hours of failure and frustration until the night when Graham Bell and his assistant, Watson, were in separate rooms in Bell’s house with the newly-completed instruments connected by a wire.

Bell was making a final adjustment before the test transmission began when he accidentally upset a bottle of acid, which threatened to damage his clothes. In agitation he cried out: “Mr. Watson, come here; I want you.”

The first sentence heard over the telephone was actually a cry for help!

You probably know enough about the lives of famous inventors to understand that success was not the end of their troubles, but the beginning.

Otherwise you would imagine that the whole world would be stunned with amazement at the triumph of sending a human voice over a wire, and that wealthy tycoons would queue up on Graham Bell’s doorstep offering him untold gold for the privilege of taking over the patent rights.

Nobody queued. When an improved model of Bell’s telephone was offered to the Western Union Telegraph Company for £20,000 they hardly listened, little realizing that the time would come when they were prepared to offer many millions of pounds for it, only to find that the Graham Bell telephone was not to be bought!

The first real money which came to Bell was through his lectures about his telephone, not for the instrument itself.

Bell and his wife came to Britain and then, day of days, he received a summons to demonstrate the instrument to Queen Victoria herself at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

Soberly she listened as Bell explained the technicalities, then came the demonstration. She herself spoke to her daughter, Princess Beatrice, who was in a cottage nearby, then listened to songs and speeches relayed over the wire.

Nothing could stop the telephone now. Bell had his rivals, he had patent battles to fight, but the instrument passed from the realm of a scientific toy to that of a practical achievement.

In Britain in 1879, the Bell Company opened its first telephone exchange at Coleman Street in the City of London. There were eight subscribers! But the number soon increased and other exchanges were opened. A rival company using an instrument designed by Thomas Edison began operations.

The Law decided that the Telegraph Act of 1869, giving the Post Office the right to send telegrams, also included telephones – even though at that time the instrument had not been invented!

The American companies were allowed to carry on, providing the Post Office took ten per cent of the profits. Not until the year 1912 did telephones in Britain, with few exceptions, come under Post Office control.

Today we can talk to the world by telephone, and in one newspaper office in London where the telephones hardly stop ringing, they do sometimes remember that it was this particular newspaper which, in the early days of Graham Bell’s invention called it “another example of America humbug”!

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