Speaking by WireóHow Alexander Graham Bell made the First TelephoneóThe Fight with the Western UnionóTelephoning across a Continent.

IN early days inventions were often stumbled upon more or less by accident, but with the coming of the nineteenth century inventing became a business. I will not say that chance does not still at times aid the inventor; but with regard to big inventions which have been derived from the study of electricity, for example, chance has played a very small part, and in almost every case the result has been one definitely striven for and achieved by sheer patience and hard work.

Many years ago it became known that sound was due to vibrations of the air, and soon after telephony became an accomplished fact inventors began to wonder whether air vibrations and sound could not be conveyed along wires by means of electricity. Sixty years ago a German schoolmaster named Reis first attacked the problem, using a membrane made of collodion upon which the waves of sound produced by a musical instrument were made to strike.

Reis was a poor man, and his apparatus was made of just such things as he could lay hands upon. The sound receptacle was a large wooden barrel bung which he hollowed out; the first membrane was nothing but the tightly stretched skin of a German sausage. A knitting needle furnished the bar for the receiver, and this was fastened to the bridge of an old violin, which acted as sounding board.

Reis did actually transmit musical notes with this first telephone, but was not successful in transmitting speech.

A little later an American, Elisha Gray of Chicago, applied himself to similar experiments. Gray had gone through college, working meantime as a carpenter in order to keep himself and pay his fees. After leaving college he began the study of electricity, and during his life secured more than half a hundred patents to his credit. In his telephone he was the first to use variations of a steady current and to make his current act on a distant electromagnet.

Unknown to Gray, another man was at work on the same problem at the same time. This was Alexander Graham Bell, who is regarded as the actual inventor of the modern telephone; and by a strange and remarkable coincidence Gray and Bell each filed their application for a telephone patent on the same day, February 14, 1876.

Alexander Bell was at that time a young man of twenty-nine years. He had been born in Edinburgh, but educated principally in London. Seldom if ever has an inventor been better trained for his special line of investigation, for Bellís grandfather, his father, one uncle, and two brothers were all teachers of elocution at various universities, and Alexander himself had been so carefully trained along the same lines that, when only sixteen, he obtained a post as teacher of elocution in a school. He was about twenty-one when he had the good fortune to meet two men who deeply influenced his future. One was Sir Charles Wheatstone of telegraph fame; the other, Alexander J. Ellis, who was an expert on sound and who showed Bell how tuning forks could be kept vibrating by the power of an electric magnet, and how the tones of several tuning forks could be blended so as to give a sort of imitation of the human voice. Bell at once began to wonder whether it would be possible to construct a sort of musical telegraph sending different musical notes over a wire by electricity.

There was consumption in the Bell family. Two of Alexanderís brothers died of this dread disease, and his doctor told him that he had better make a change of climate, so he went to Canada and there took up the work of teaching deaf-mutes to speak. He did so well that an offer came from Boston asking him to teach a school of deaf-mutes in that city, and there his success was so great that he was able to open a school of his own, which gave him a living. A certain Mr. Thomas Sanders, whose only child was a deaf-mute, engaged Bell to teach his boy. Sanders was something of a scientist, and allowed the young teacher to use a cellar in his house as a workshop, and in this underground room Bell set to work on the musical telegraph which had for so long been his great ambition. Only now he meant to do more than send musical notes along the wire, for he was already convinced that it would be possible to transmit the human voice.

His studies had taught Bell that he could make sounds picture themselves upon smoked glass; and from this he went on to study the way in which sounds are received by the human ear, and learned how sound waves, striking the delicate eardrums, are conveyed through the thicker bones behind the drum. He set himself to make a pair of artificial eardrums out of thin sheets of metal, and connected these by electrified wire. Working on these lines he eventually constructed his telephone.

Like many other inventors, Bell spent so much time experimenting that his other work suffered, and he found himself with only two pupils and hardly any money. By this time he was married, and the outlook became so serious that it seemed to him that he must abandon his scientific investigations and devote himself to an attempt to earn a living. Not knowing what to do, and feeling almost in despair, he called on Professor Joseph Henry, at that time the greatest electrical expert in America, and, having told him what he had done so far, asked the professorís opinion as to whether it was worth while going on. "Certainly you must go on," declared the Professor.

"But I have not the necessary electrical knowledge," said Bell.

"You can get it," was the answer. "Indeed, you must get it, for you are on the track of a great invention."

Bell, tremendously cheered, went home and set himself to work night and day to obtain the needful knowledge of electricity. Some friends helped him with money, and he rented a workshop from a man called Charles Williams, and hired an assistant, a lad named Thomas Watson, who helped him to construct the two vibrating discs which he had in mind. These discs were connected by wire which stretched from the workshop into another room.

On the afternoon of June 2, 1875, Bell was stooping over the disc at one end of the wire when all of a sudden a sound came clearly to his ears. He dashed into the other room. "Snap that reed again, Watson!" he cried, and darted back. Next minute he caught the sound as before, and again he ran back, his face glowing with excitement. "Donít change anything," he ordered. "Let me see first what you did." Watson explained that the make-and-break points of the transmitter spring had become welded together, and all he had done was to snap this spring. The spring, of course, was magnetized, and by its vibration over the pole of its magnet had sent the vibration across the wire just at the moment when Bell fortunately happened to be listening.

This was the beginning; but there were months of hard work before, in March, 1876, the new instrument actually talked. Watson, who was in the basement, heard the
First telephone
Bell's first telephone
disc say, "Watson, come here: I want you"; and, as Watson said afterward, he never went up three flights of stairs so quickly in all his life as he did in answer to the first telephone call. "I can hear you," he shouted as he burst into the room. "I can hear the words."

1876 was the year of the Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia, and Bell and his backers decided that this was the great opportunity for making the new discovery known to the world at large. One of Bellís backers, Mr. Gardiner Hubbard, was a commissioner, and he obtained leave to have Bellís telephone exhibited in the Department of Education. Bell himself was by this time almost penniless. He had not even money to buy a ticket to go to Philadelphia, so remained in Boston, trying to find new deaf-mute pupils. The Exhibition had been open for six weeks, and not a word had been said about the telephone. Apparently no one had even noticed it. At last, in sheer despair, poor Bell got on a train, and, though he had no ticket, managed to reach Philadelphia. His friend, Mr. Hubbard, told him that he had arranged for the judges to examine the telephone on the following afternoon, and Bell waited in trembling anxiety.

The day turned out very hot, and the judges were not inclined for violent exertion. When the time came for them to examine the telephone they were still in another department. It was seven oíclock when at last Bell saw them come in. One picked up the telephone receiver, looked at it, then laid it down again. Bell saw that all the judges were tired out and hungry and anxious to get away as soon as possible. His heart went to his boots.

At that moment a slim, elderly man came up. He had a dark skin and white hair, and was followed by several attendants. He came up to Bell with outstretched hand. "Professor Bell, I am very pleased to see you again," he said, speaking good English, but with a slight foreign accent. Bell almost collapsed, but managed to pull himself together. He bowed deeply. "Your Majesty is most kind to remember me," he said. For the newcomer was actually the Emperor Dom Pedro of Brazil, who some years before had visited Bellís school for deaf-mutes in Boston.

"And what is this invention of yours?" questioned the visitor. While Bell explained, a considerable crowd gathered. Never did an inventor have a better chance for making known his invention, and Bell, with his finely trained voice, made the most of it. The Emperor was intensely interested. "I must try it," he said; and while Bell went to the transmitter the Emperor put the receiver to his ear. A momentís pauseóthen the Emperor flung up his head. "Dios!" he cried. "It talks!"

Who should then appear but the aged Professor Joseph Henry, the one who had encouraged Bell in Boston. He, too, tried the telephone, and was equally astonished. So did many others. Until closing time the room was packed, and next day the telephone was the greatest attraction in the whole Exhibition. It was moved to a central spot, and the judges gave it their certificate. In a week Bell was one of the best-known men in America, for every newspaper had columns of description of this marvellous new invention.

Perhaps the greatest piece of good fortune, so far as Bell was concerned, was that he had such a friend as Mr. Hubbard. Bell himself was a man of science rather than of business, and, left alone, would never have been able to make the most of his invention. But Mr. Hubbard attended to the business side of the undertaking, and

"Dios! It talks!"
"Dios! It talks!"

under his care the telephone "caught on" rapidly. By August, 1877, there were nearly eight hundred telephones in use in America, and a company was formed called "The Bell Telephone Association." The company offered the invention to the Western Union Telegraph Company, but President Orton rather scornfully refused the offer. Mr. Hubbard was not dismayed, but continued his endeavors, and presently the Western Union Company was dismayed to find that a good many people were using the telephone instead of the telegraph. They called Mr. Edison to their aid, and started "The American-Speaking Telephone Company", advertising that they had "the only original telephone."

On the face of it, the odds seemed in favor of the great and wealthy company, with its huge resources and clever inventors. But at this juncture Bell and Hubbard were joined by a young man named Theodore Vail, who was one of the most brilliant business men of the day. He started to create a national telephone system, and fought the Western Union Company tooth and nail. For a time he held them; then that marvellous genius, Edison, invented a new transmitter which was so great an improvement that it made the Bell telephone almost obsolete.

Things looked black indeed for the Bell Company. Bell himself had visited England, where Sir William Thomson had been greatly interested, and had shown the new invention to the British Association, but from a business point of view he had done nothing. He was ill, too, and on his return was forced to go to hospital, whence from his bed he wrote telling the company that he had not yet recovered a penny for his invention, but, on the contrary, was seriously out of pocket by his researches.

At this critical moment a young man named Francis Blake showed Mr. Vail a new transmitter equal to Edisonís and offered to sell it for stock in the company. His offer was accepted, a new company was formed, and the war was recommenced in earnest. The Western Union Company was fighting on the plea that the patent of Elisha Gray, which it had bought, was taken out before that of Bell. But it was at last proved beyond shadow of doubt that Grayís application was merely a declaration that he believed that he could invent a certain device, whereas Bellís was a statement that he had already perfected his invention. The battle in the law courts lasted a year before victory fell to the Bell Company.

The result of the verdict was that shares in the Bell Company jumped to ten times their face value, and Bell, Watson, and the rest were able to sell out and retire with comfortable fortunes.

By 1880 the Bell Company possessed no fewer than fifty-six thousand telephones, and by 1882 the number was doubled and the gross earnings were more than a million dollars. It was in this year that Alexander received from the Government of France the Volta prize of fifty thousand francs and the Cross of the Legion of Honour. Once the telephone was well launched in America its progress was almost miraculous, and it is said that the Bell patent has proved to be the most valuable ever taken out.

In the British Isles, however, the progress of the telephone was much slower. Although Sir William Thomson and Mr. Preece fully appreciated Bellís invention and did their best to make their countrymen realize its importance, English people were much less ready to take up the new means of communication. A company was formed, called the United Telephone Company, which acquired the patent rights of Bellís electromagnetic receiving telephone and the carbon transmitter invented by Mr. Edison. In London and other great cities exchanges and call offices were opened, but so late as 1889 the English company had in all only five thousand subscribers. Even to-day America uses more than five times the number of telephones per thousand of the population than England. In 1880 Mr. Justice Stephen had decided that the telephone was a form of telegraphy, and was therefore under the jurisdiction of the Post-office; but the company was allowed to carry on under license from the Postmaster General on payment of one tenth of its receipts. By 1891 this tenth amounted to $200,000 and by 1898 to $500,000. The license expired in 1911, and since that date the telephone system of Great Britain has been, like telegraphy, a monopoly of the Post-office.

The first London-to-Paris line was opened in 1891, but it was not until 1903 that a submarine telephone line was laid from Dover to Ostend. This line, sixty miles in length, was the longest which so far had been laid under the sea. At that date, however, London could talk to Manchester, a distance of two hundred miles, while New York was in communication with Chicago, the two places being nine hundred and fifty miles apart.

Telephone development in America during the present century has been amazingly rapid. It was Colonel Carty, Vice President of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, who first put the maze of overhead wires into underground conduits. This example has been followed to some extent in England, and to-day no storm can interfere with telephonic communication between the great cities, although in country districts the wires are still nearly all overhead.

Early in 1915 the transcontinental telephone between New York and San Francisco was opened. Nearly three thousand tons of copper wire cross thirty-four hundred miles of country, suspended upon one hundred and thirty thousand poles. Submarine telephones connect the West Indies with the mainland, and in 1921 Colonel Carty spoke from Havana in Cuba to Catalina Island, the famous fishing resort off the Californian Coast. The distance was no less than fifty-five hundred miles, yet the voices were heard with perfect clearness.

In spite of the competition of wireless telephony, the telephone system of the world is constantly spreading, and it promises eventually to enmesh every country with a network of wires. The telephone itself is almost a perfect instrument, and modern development is not directed toward improving the instruments used, but rather toward saving time in its working. This is effected by the automatic system. The automatic telephone has been described as the nearest approach to a human
Automatic telephone
An automatic telephone
brain possible to machinery. One telephone is able to reach out to as many as a million different centers, all automatically controlled from the callerís instrument.

Under the old system the average time taken to complete a connection was found to be forty seconds. With automatic apparatus the corresponding time is only fifteen seconds; thus a saving of twenty-five seconds is effected upon each call.

Another immense advantage which the automatic possesses over the older system is that wrong numbers are called only when the caller himself makes a mistake. As soon as he has completed the necessary calling operation on his own instrument he can hear in his own receiver the bell ringing on the instrument he has called, or, if the line is engaged, a buzzing sound. More wonderful than all, his own instrument records the exact number of calls made with it.

Although not all the great cities are using the automatic signal, the change from the older system is being steadily made and eventually every telephone will be equipped with its own automatic device for signaling.

Chapter 17
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© 2002 by Lynn Waterman