HOW ONE MAN SET THE WORLD A-TALKING.
In the year 1874 there lived in Boston a young
Scotch-man who was a teacher of vocal physiology in the Boston
University. His name was Alexander Graham Bell.
Vocal physiology teaches what the voice is and how to
use it properly, and for years this young Scotchman’s father and
grandfather had been devoting their time and talents, in Edinburgh, so
to adapt this science of vocal physiology as to enable them to teach
deaf-mutes to speak,—the same educational charity that engaged the
attention of Horace Mann in the midst of his labors in behalf of popular
This young Scotchman of Boston had also made careful
and thorough study of this wonderful philanthropy, and, with some
knowledge of electricity, he was attempting to invent some method of
transmitting harmonious sounds,—perhaps even words and speech.
This young man, who earned his living by teaching
sound people the right use of the voice, and deaf people how to speak,
had no money to develop his valuable ideas. If he could get money
enough, he wished to take out a patent on what he called his harmonic
telegraph, —that is, telegraphing by sounds, or vibrations.
This seemed to be a practical thing, and
young Bell found that certain men whose children he taught were willing
to lend him money enough to take out a patent and perfect his invention.
But they laughed at his dream of transmitting speech,.—his telephone,
as he called it, an instrument for hearing and returning far-off sounds.
That, they declared, was a crazy scheme.
But Bell was so interested in his inventions, and had
so much faith in them, that he determined to risk everything on their
success. He gave up his teaching so as to have plenty of time for his
own work; he mortgaged his services as a teacher to be delivered when he
had finished his experiments; he lived almost on bread and water so as
to have all his money for his one idea, and, in a Boston garret, set to
work to perfect his invention.
His father had a system of what is known as
"visible speech,"—that is, teaching those to speak who are
dumb only because they are deaf, by showing them things which they learn
to know, or, as one might say, teaching them to talk by sight. It had
proved very successful, but Alexander Graham Bell believed he could go a
step further, and teach them to use the voice and even to talk
intelligibly. His experiments in this direction interested him in the
transmission of sounds, and out of this came, slowly and imperfectly,
what he called "speech transference, the telephone, the talking
All that year he worked away at his idea,
-unsuccessfully, so he thought. He talked with people interested in
electrical science, and they all said that, though his
ideas were good, something seemed lacking, and that
the talking telegraph could never be made practical.
But he believed that it could; and he meant that it
should some day. Further experiments were necessary; but he had no money
to enable him to make them, and there were few who believed sufficiently
in his ideas to help him with funds.
"What shall I do?" he said, one day, to Dr.
Henry, the director of the famous Smithsonian Institution at Washington.
"I’m afraid I have not enough electrical knowledge to overcome
"Get it, then," Dr. Henry replied.
Encouraged by this brief but practical advice, Bell
determined that he would "get it,"—although, as he declared,
"flesh and blood could not stand much longer such a strain as I had
Still, Dr. Henry had said he thought he ha~ "the
germ of a great invention," and even at the risk of starvation and
breaking down, young Bell determined to work on.
But success may be close at hand when we think it
farthest away. Alexander Graham Bell had, even when things looked the
darkest, really invented the telephone without knowing it. He knew his
theory was right, but the application seemed somehow lacking.
He discovered it by accident. One day, while
experimenting with his harmonic telegraph, which he had already
patented, his assistant, at one end, happened to knock the transmitter
while Bell, at the other end, was at the receiver. Bell heard the sound
of the knock exactly as it was given. At once the truth flashed upon
him. "If an audible sound like that can be
reproduced and transmitted," he said, "why cannot
The telephone that he had invented in 1874,
and which he and his friends believed to be
impracticable, was proved most practical.
"I’ll keep at it," he said, "and
have one made at once."
But that was far from easy to do, although easy
enough to say. He had neither money nor credit, and even though he
believed in the telephone, others did not. He was involved in a lawsuit
with another inventor over the rights in his harmonic telegraph. He
could neither buy tools nor hire help. Everything seemed against him.
"However," he wrote to his father, who
lived in Canada, "Morse conquered his electrical difficulties,
though he was only a painter, and I don’t intend to give in, either,
till all is completed."
That was plucky, was it not? But Alexander Graham
Bell was just that. He was, too, an unconscious inventor. He had
succeeded without knowing it.
"My inexperience is my greatest drawback,"
he said. He knew what he desired to accomplish, but did not know how to
undertake it. For that reason he could not get a patent on his
telephone, because what he sent on to Washington was not definite enough
to meet the patent office requirements, and, indeed, he very nearly lost
all his rights by a rival claim.
But he found an electrician in Boston who could put
his ideas into practical shape, and in his shop the telephone was really
invented. For this skilled workman
followed the directions which the unskilled inventor
described in his specifications and explanations. His application was
filed at Washington in February, 1876, and his patent was granted just
in time to save his invention.
Even then, however, success did not come at once. The
invention must be demonstrated in the presence of scientific men, if the
world was to accept it as a practical thing.
This opportunity came at last. On the 26th of June,
1876, at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, a number of
electrical inventors had arranged a private "show" of their
inventions for the benefit of some of the distinguished foreign visitors
to the exhibition,— notably Dom Pedro, then Emperor of Brazil, and Sir
William Thomson, the English scientist.
It was a hot day, and the distinguished visitors were
hungry; but as a last "show," they expressed a willingness to
look at the newfangled idea which this young Boston Scotchman wished to
Bell had already rigged up his telephone line, andè
sending his assistant to the transmitter, he placed the receiver at his
ear, and repeated aloud to the audience what was said to him over the
Instantly the visitors were wide awake; their hunger
was forgotten; they could not believe what was told them.
"Try it yourselves, gentlemen," said Mr.
Sir William Thomson did try it; so did the Emperor of
Brazil; so did the other scientists and "distinguished
visitors." They talked and listened, replied and talked again,
until even their skeptical minds were convinced,
they believed, as Sir William Thomson told his brother scientists, when
he returned to England, "it is by far the greatest of all the
marvels of the electric telegraph."
So Alexander Graham Bell leaped into fame at once.
The penniless teacher of deaf-mutes became renowned and rich, although
it was some time before all his fights with rival inventors were over,
and the Supreme Court of the United States declared, on the 19th of
March, r888, that Alexander Graham Bell was the real inventor of the
telephone, and that "none of the rival claimants had succeeded in
transmitting human speech by the aid of electricity until Mr. Bell had
shown the world how it could be done."
Today his marvelous creation is known and used all
over the world. Men talk across miles of space,—a fact more marvelous
than anything even the "Arabian Nights" can tell; and the
benefit and service which the
telephone has already been to the world are not to be
calculated or expressed.
And this was really a Massachusetts
invention. It was not the first time the Old Bay State had led in the
marvels of electrical invention. In the town of Boston was born, in
1706, Benjamin Franklin, the pioneer of electricity, the man who, so
France declared, "snatched the thunderbolt from heaven and the
scepter from tyrants;" in Charlestown, just across the river, was born,
in 1791, Samuel Finley Breese Morse, the inventor of the electric
telegraph; in the city of Lynn Professor Elihu Thomson developed and
improved his wonderful system of electrical power that lights and moves
the world; and in Boston Alexander Graham Bell invented and perfected
the greatest of electrical marvels, the telephone.
To-day in the United States there are in use hundreds
of thousands of miles of telegraph and thousands upon thousands of
telephones. The business of the world could scarcely exist without them.
Cables flash the news of each day’s happenings beneath the seas.
Chicago talks with Boston, New York with New Orleans. And the
possibilities of electricity have but just begun to be realized.
In their services to humanity, to the progress of
mankind and the neighborliness of the world, none have done better or
deserved more of the republic that esteems and honors them than
Franklin, Morse, and Bell, all three men of Massachusetts, brothers of