Friday 30 January 2015

Men of Yore: Alexander Bell

This is another in a series of posts about men from history who have either achieved great things in one form or another by pushing boundaries: either in themselves or in society or science or exploration of some form. Boundary pushing and growth is what men do, it's their nature: to grow and push outwards. We, as men, are the frontiers men, the first to discover/uncover new territory, in a metaphysical sense (i.e. including both material and the immaterial) that is later colonised and 'civilised' by the rest of humanity.

Alexander Bell

Early Life

Alexander Graham Bell was born on March 3, 1847, in Edinburgh, Scotland. The second son of Alexander Melville Bell and Eliza Grace Symonds Bell, he was named for his paternal grandfather. The middle name “Graham” was added when he was 10 years old. He had two brothers, Melville James Bell and Edward Charles Bell, both of whom died from tuberculosis.

During his youth, Alexander Graham Bell experienced strong influences that had a profound effect on his later life. Bell’s hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland, was known as the “Athens of the North,” for its rich culture of arts and science. His grandfather and father were experts on the mechanics of voice and elocution. Alexander’s mother, who was nearly deaf, became an accomplished pianist and inspired him to undertake big challenges.

Eliza home schooled Alexander and instilled an infinite curiosity of the world around him. He received one year of formal education in a private school and two years at Edinburgh’s Royal High School. Though a mediocre student, he displayed an uncommon ability to solve problems. At age 12, while playing with a friend in a grain mill, he noticed the slow process of husking the wheat grain. He went home and built a devise with rotating paddles and nail brushes that easily removed the husks from the grain.

Early Attempts to Follow His Passion

Young Alexander was groomed early to carry on in the family business, but his headstrong nature conflicted with his father’s overbearing manner. Seeking a way out, Alexander volunteered to care for his grandfather when he fell ill in 1862. The elder Bell encouraged young Alexander and instilled an appreciation for learning and intellectual pursuits. By age 16, Alexander had joined his father in his work with the deaf and soon assumed full charge of his father’s London operations.

On one of his trips to America, Alexander’s father discovered its healthier environment and decided to move the family there. At first, Alexander resisted, for he was establishing himself in London, but eventually relented after both his brothers had succumbed to tuberculosis. In July, 1870, the family settled in Brantford, Ontario, Canada. There, Alexander set up a workshop to continue his study of the human voice.

Passion for Shaping the Future

In 1871, Alexander Graham Bell moved to Boston and began work on a device that would allow for the telegraph transmission of several messages set to different frequencies. He found financial backing through local investors Thomas Sanders and Gardiner Hubbard. Between 1873 and 1874, Bell spent long days and nights trying to perfect the harmonic telegraph. During his experiments, he became interested in another idea, transmitting the human voice over wires. The diversion frustrated Bell’s benefactors and Thomas Watson, a skilled electrician, was hired to refocus Bell on the harmonic telegraph. But Watson soon became enamored with Bell’s idea of voice transmission and the two created a great partnership with Bell being the idea man and Watson having the expertise to bring Bell’s ideas to reality.

Through 1874 and 1875, Bell and Watson labored on both the harmonic telegraph and a voice transmitting device. Though at first frustrated by the diversion, Bell’s investors soon saw the value of voice transmission and filed a patent on the idea. For now the concept was protected, but the device still had to be developed. On March 10, 1876, Bell and Watson were successful. Legend has it that Bell knocked over a container of transmitting fluid and shouted, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you!” The more likely explanation was Bell heard a noise over the wire and called to Watson. In any case, Watson heard Bell’s voice through the wire and thus, he received the first telephone call.

With this success, Alexander Graham Bell began to promote the telephone in a series of public demonstrations. At the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, in 1876, Bell demonstrated the telephone to the Emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro, who exclaimed, “My God, it talks!” Other demonstrations followed, each at a greater distance than the last. The Bell Telephone Company was organized on July 9, 1877. With each new success, Alexander Graham Bell was moving out of the shadow of his father.

On July 11, 1877, Alexander Graham Bell married Mable Hubbard, a former student and the daughter of Gardiner Hubbard, his initial financial backer. Over the course of the next year, Alexander and Mable traveled to Europe demonstrating the telephone. Upon their return to the United States, Bell was summoned to Washington D.C. to defend his telephone patent from law suits by others claiming they had invented the telephone or had conceived of the idea before Bell.

Over the next 18 years, the Bell Company faced over 550 court challenges, including several that went to the Supreme Court, but none were successful. Even during the patent battles, the company grew. Between 1877, and 1886, over 150,000 people in the U.S. owned telephones. Improvements were made on the device including the addition of a microphone, invented by Thomas Edison, which eliminated the need to shout into the telephone to be heard.

Pursuing His Passion in His Final Years

By all accounts, Alexander Graham Bell was not a businessman and by 1880 began to turn business matters over to Hubbard and others so he could pursue a wide range of inventions and intellectual pursuits. In 1880, he established the Volta Laboratory, an experimental facility devoted to scientific discovery. He also continued his work with the deaf, establishing the American Association to Promote Teaching of Speech to the Deaf in 1890.

In the remaining years of his life Bell worked on a number of projects. He devoted a lot of time to exploring flight, starting with the tetrahedral kite in 1890s. In 1907, Bell formed the Aerial Experiment Association with Glenn Curtiss and several other associates. The group developed several flying machines, including the Silver Dart. The Silver Dart was the first powered machine flow in Canada. He later worked on hydrofoils and set a world record for speed for this type of boat.

In January 1915, Bell was invited to make the first transcontinental phone call. From New York, he spoke with his former associate Thomas Watson in San Francisco.

Bell died peacefully with his wife by his side in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, Canada, on August 2, 1922. The entire telephone system was shut down for one minute in tribute to his life.

Communication networks are not given much consideration in modern times, except for the odd occasion when they are blocked up (like a clogged artery), or broken (like a downed electricity cable), or overloaded (like a road traffic jam), or inadequate to meet our needs (like an old fashioned railway network), yet the civilisation that we live in would not be possible without them.  These communication networks are as essential for technological civilisation as the communication networks in our human bodies are essential for us:
  • Without the nervous system transporting information around our bodies we (individually) would not know a thing about the outside world (the peripheral nervous system transports data from the sense organs to the central nervous system, spine & brain, for us to process), without the communication network transporting information around civilisation we (collectively) would not know a thing about the outside world (imagine a world without the internet, phone lines, or mail routes).
  • Without the circulatory system transporting nutrients around our body we simply would not be able to live (an arm without fresh blood quickly turns gangrenous), without the communication network (roads, rail, rivers etc) transporting goods around civilisation we would not be able to live.
Think of an isolated settlement in Alaska, the Australian outback or Siberia, and how dependent that settlement is on roads in order to have goods and information delivered to it; then imagine that settlement lost its communication network in a freak accident, it wouldn't last long would it?  That's how essential communication networks are for civilisation.

With this in mind it's a lot easier to appreciate the efforts of men who have dedicated their lives to improving the communication networks of civilisation, men like Graham Bell.

The result of innovations in communication networks, like the telephone, is that they have enabled civilisation to become more advanced.  They are comparable to the evolutionary leaps in biological communication networks that have allowed biological organisms to become more advanced.  Without men like Bell we would be like mere simple single-celled organisms, nothing more than amoebas bumbling around oblivious to outside world and unable to interact with it in any meaningful way.  But instead we are complex multi-celled organisms that are capable of both perceiving the outside world and interacting with it in any way that we choose.  That is what we should be thankful for: increased self-awareness and freedoms.

Obviously is preferable to be a complex organism than a simple one because it means that we have more control over our own destiny than less control.  The same principle applies to civilization as to the human body.  This is why we owe a great deal to men like these because they allow our civilization to advance, like evolution has allowed our human body to advance.



  1. Just fyi, that's number 99 already!

  2. You keep better check than I do!

    Hmmm.. [rubs chin] now what can we do for a centenary special..?