March 7: For Whom the Bell Toils

This Day in History

If there had been a Forbes 30 under 30 list of world’s most influential entrepreneurs and businessmen in 1876, Alexander Graham Bell would be top on the list. The brilliant young inventor received a patent on this day (March 7) in 1876 for a strange, new, voice-transmitting, revolutionary technology called the telephone. (Ironically, the speaking device was inspired when he was working as a teacher in a school for the deaf).

Born in Scotland in 1847, Bell grew up mostly in London, where he was exposed to a family of speech enthusiasts (due to, perhaps, the fact that both his mother and his wife were deaf).  His father, Melville Bell, developed Visible Speech, which is a system to teach speaking to the deaf. His grandfather, Alexander Bell, was a scholar on phonetics and speech disorders. To Bell, inventing another speech-related device was second nature.

 

In 1874, Bell began to experiment with sound vibrations tracing on glass- which became a primitive way to record sound. Inspired by the telegraph invention by Samuel Morse, Bell had the idea to transfer the human voice over the telegraph. After consulting a scientist friend on the viability of transmitting voices over air waves, Bell complained that he just lacked the education to propel his idea into action. His friend replied, “Well, then get it!” A few months later, Bell met Thomas Watson, an electrical engineer, and they began to experiment in the laboratory.

Meanwhile, another inventor named Elisha Gray was also in the race to transmit the human voice electronically. On the morning of February 14, 1876, Elisha Gray officially filed a patent for his invention. Amid some controversy, Bell also filed a patent (supposedly) a few hours prior (he was in Boston at the time and not in Washington D.C as it is recorded. His drawings also looked curiously similar to Gray’s drawings submitted thereafter). Although there is a fierce debate on who was the first to submit their patent, scholars generally agree that it was Bell who ultimately became known as the inventor of the telephone. On March 10, 1876, Bell demonstrated his invention by uttering the now famous words to his assistant in the other room: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”

 

The revolutionary device forever changed communication. Never before had the human voice been captured and sent over distances in real time. The man who did not have a college education earned eight honorary Doctorate of Laws, two Ph.D.s and an M.D  from universities across the country. Of his accomplishments, Bell remarked: ”God has strewn our paths with wonders, and we shall certainly not go through Life with our eyes shut.”

Thanks to Mr. Bell, never again would mere distance shut our mouths and ears as well!

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