Voice in the Wire

Feature, Modern Era

Bell Invents the Telephone

For three generations the Bells had been teachers of speech, and with a name like that, with all its suggestion of clear sound, how correct, how appropriate. First, there had been grandfather Alex, a cobbler in St Andrews, who had discovered he possessed such gifts as an actor and an elocutionist that he threw away his last and became both these things. His son, Alex Melville Bell, followed his example, became superlatively good as a teacher of speech to those who through deafness had never mastered it, and as “Professor Bell” became a household name on both sides of the Atlantic.

And his son, Alexander Graham Bell, grandson of the cobbler, inherited the family gift. He was able to impart the gift of speech to sufferers who had given up all hope of normal human contact, he had a sympathy wedded to his skill which made men say that here was more than a fit successor to his father, here was the finest teacher of all time. And he is remembered, not for this, but as the inventor of the telephone.

Sadly for Scotland, he did it in America. As a child he had been sickly, like his brothers, and they had died, one after the other, of consumption. When it looked as if Alex Graham would follow them to an early grave, his father decided that now was the time to get out of Britain, with its fogs and its damp. He knew the United States and Canada well, he had lectured in both countries, demonstrated his methods, and in 1870 he took his little family to Canada.

They settled near the little town of Brantford, and within weeks Professor Bell knew he had made a wise decision.

Young Alex Graham, the doctors had given him six months to live, based on the case histories of his two brothers, began to put on weight, stopped coughing. He was not a child; he had qualified, under his father’s guidance, as teacher of speech and elocution, before they left Scotland, and now, with this miraculous improvement in health, there seemed a future for him. His father, who had more work than he could cope with, asked him to go south, cross the border to Boston, give a lecture for him. He did so; the lecture and demonstration were such a success that he was urged to leave Canada altogether, settle in Boston as teacher of “Vocal Physiology”.

He did so and was lucky in that the parents of a small boy who was stone deaf and yet making remarkable progress in his class decided they would invite Mr Bell to come and live in their large house outside Boston. Young Georgie would always be there, at meals, watching, studying his master and hero. Graham Bell was only too pleased, and he found, in the generous accommodation that was put at his disposal, that he had room to experiment with a hobby which he hoped would some day bring him a great deal of money. For Graham was in lovem, with a deaf girl, a pupil, the beautiful Mabel Hubbard, and he needed money, lots of it, to get married. The money-making hobby was his “Multiple Telegraph” with a theory closely allied to Bell’s study of the human voice and ear. If he could make it work, the same pair of wires could be made to send more, far more, than one message, at the same time. Obviously, if it were successful, this invention would be of the greatest use to the telegraph companies. Then Graham mused, he would become rich, able to marry.

The “vocal” principle on which he was working with his telegraph was one of “tuning” a telegraph receiver to a distant transmitter, by sending the dots and dashes of the Morse Code in “buzzes” of different pitch. If each receiver only responded to the pitch to which it had been set, he would be successful.

Experiments were encouraging, but by no means conclusive. It was during the course of them, working with a young assistant, Thomas Watson, that Graham Bell began to consider the possibility of sending the various notes of the human voice down a wire in the same way. By shouting into their transmitter, with its differently tuned reeds, they were able to get faint response, in the next room, from the receiver. Try as they would, they were unable to improve on it. They could produce, by screaming their heads off, a faint humming at the receiver; that was all.

Their interest mounted, however, and soon Bell was so excited by the discovery which seemed to lie just round the corner that he began to neglect his work on the telegraph. His future father-in-law, Mr Hubbard, grew incensed, said that unless he gave up the time-wasting nonsense of this Electric Speech and concentrated on his telegraph, he would have to give up all thought of marrying Mabel.

Convinced he was on the threshold of some great discovery, Graham faced his dilemma and went on with Electric Speech.

A few days later, on 10 March, 1876, he was proved right. For months since the first feeble twang there had been no progress. Then to-day the faithful Watson was listening, as usual, ear hard against Bell’s receiver, for anything that might come through. They had adjusted both machines a dozen times during the morning. Suddenly, perfectly, frighteningly, clear, came the words:

“Mr Watson, come here, I want you!”

Bell had spilt a flask of acid down his clothes; being a poor man, unable to buy himself any more, he was appalled at what he had done. If young Watson would only dash in from the next room, help with bowls of water while he mopped, the trousers might yet be saved.

But to Watson, the crisis, whatever it might be, was trivial. Bell’s words had come to him, not through the air, but along wires, had emerged from his little receiver, loud and clear. He ran into the next room, blurted out his news and drove all thought of trousers from Bell’s mind. Like children playing some game, a vocal musical-chairs, they hopped from one room to the other, reciting poems to each other, singing snatches of song.

And so the first words came by wire. That night Graham wrote his mother. “March 10th, 1876, this is a great day for me. I feel that I have at last struck the solution of a great problem and the day is coming when the telegraph wires will be laid on to houses just like water or gas, and friends converse with each other without leaving home.”

Within two years Bell was demonstrating his amazing invention, in England, to Queen Victoria. Before that, he astonished people at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, commemorating the hundred years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Transmitter and receiver were separated by five hundred feet of wire, and the distinguished visitors to the Centennial were thunderstruck to hear Bell’s voice squeaking through with “To be, or not to be, that is the question”, then to be given the opportunity of trying it themselves. The foremost scientist of the day, Sir William Thompson, later Lord Kelvin, gasped when he heard the voice. “This,” he said, “is the most marvellous thing I have seen in America!” A visiting Japanese, Mr Issawa, asked whether the machine spoke Japanese as well, and was delighted to be shown that it did.

This first telephone consisted of an electromagnet with an armature connected to a flexible diaphragm, and the device served as both transmitter and receiver. The vibration of the thin diaphragm in response to vibrations of the human voice caused a fluctuating current in the coils around the magnet. This current could be made to affect the electromagnet at the receiver, so the receiver’s diaphragm vibrated exactly in sympathy with the transmitter’s. A battery in circuit improved reception over a distance, but as the device was both transmitter and receiver, had to be moved from mouth to ear, it was ill-suited to normal conversation.

Later Bell telephones, which had separate transmitter and receiver, used a more efficient “carbon granule” transmitter. In this, two carbon electrodes, one fixed, the other attached to the centre of a flexible diaphragm, were separated by granules of carbon. Vibration of the diaphragm with speech moved the front electrode and altered the resistance of the carbon granules, the more compressed they were, the less resistance they offered to the flow of electricity— so that a current, passing through them from a battery, altered hundreds of times a second, and made the receiver diaphragm move in sympathy.

Bell was right. The telephone was soon “laid on to houses, just like water or gas”. Without it, much of modern life would be impossible. Quite apart from the world’s network of telephones, in homes, hospitals, offices, fire-stations and so on, there is the equally complex and more universal distribution of radio and television receivers, and the stations which provide their programmes. Vast strides have been made in studio equipment but the principle behind every one of the world’s microphones, loudspeakers or headsets— without which radio as we know it would be impossible, is Graham Bell’s.

Though it is reasonable to assume that had Bell not existed, someone else would, rather later, have invented something to do the same job.

From Bell’s first arrangement of two “telephone stations” five hundred feet apart, able to converse only with each other, the system expanded to embrace a manual “exchange” which enabled an operator to put a “subscriber” through to any one of many others. Before long the manual exchange began to give way to automatic ones in which the subscriber by operating a dial attached to his instrument could select any other subscriber without human intervention. Now it is possible to dial not only subscribers in the same district but telephone users in many other parts of the world.

Amplifiers have made it possible for the feeble fluctuations of the human voice to travel unlimited distances; it is no longer necessary to have the superbly produced, stentorian roar of a Graham Bell to be heard.

A distant cousin of the Multiple Telegraph which Bell was working on when he stumbled into “electric speech” now makes it possible for the same ordinary pair of wires to carry up to twenty-four simultaneous telephone conversations, each completely separated from the others, with no possibility of eavesdropping. The rather more sophisticated “co-axial” cable (still only a pair of conductors, but arranged one inside the other, with a common axis) can now carry many hundreds of conversations at once. The great majority of telephone cables are now laid underground, though in the early days of the century big cities like New York were festooned with overhead wires.

One simple but important innovation since Bell’s earliest work is the use of a buzzer or a bell (and sometimes a light) to attract attention. In the earliest days the only indication one had of an incoming call was the impatient tapping of the man or woman at the other end, banging the instrument with a pencil.

Like many other inventors, Graham Bell was slow to derive profit from his work. Everyone who tried out the telephone was fascinated, thrilled, delighted; no one would consider the mammoth undertaking of stringing sufficient wire sufficiently far, with an exchange and instruments, to make it a commercial proposition. Then, as in the case of the Wright brothers and their first aeroplane, it was England which pricked up its ears, asked Graham Bell to return and consider beginning a Post Office network. Until this happened, the only money he made with his telephone was from a series of lectures he was asked to give all over America.

When the G.P.O. in England asked him to design them a telephone system, his future father-in-law relented and allowed him to marry Mabel. Their honeymoon was spent in England and Scotland. Though Graham Bell was delighted to be back in his native land, to show it off to his young and beautiful wife, he had become too much of an American to want to stay there permanently. A few months was sufficient before he went back to Boston, and in 1882 he became a United States citizen.

The British climate, particularly that of London, where the Bell family had settled to be near the Professor’s work, has much to answer for. Not least, perhaps, for having driven the future inventor of the telephone away, to be delivered of his brainchild in America.