Chapter 31


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 education.

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 telegraph."

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 the difficulties."

"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 on me."

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 speech?"

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 show them.

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 line.

Instantly the visitors were wide awake; their hunger was forgotten; they could not believe what was told them.

"Try it yourselves, gentlemen," said Mr. Bell.

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,

and 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 the commonwealth.