Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922)

Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh in 1847. After attending Edinburgh University and University College London, he studied the physics of sound waves in connection with his father’s work on the mechanics of speech.

Bell and his family emigrated to Canada in 1870, and a year later he moved to the United States to teach. He set up a school for deaf people in Boston in 1871, and in 1873 became a professor of vocal physiology at Boston University.

Bell was interested in the idea of transmitting speech, and by 1875 had come up with a simple receiver for turning electricity into sound. He might have been beaten to the patent office had it not been for his future father-in-law, who filed his patent without Bell’s knowledge on 14 February 1876.

Working with his assistant Thomas Watson, Bell quickly created a satisfactory working telephone and demonstrated it to eminent scientists and businessmen with great success. He set up the Bell Telephone Company in 1877 and the device quickly became a common sight in households across America.

Though made wealthy by the success of the telephone, Bell continued to invent and experiment throughout his life, working on sound reproduction, the ‘photometer’ (a device that transmitted sound on a beam of light, and the precursor to today’s optical and laser communication technologies) and an early metal detector. Bell also developed the magazines Science and National Geographic (which was edited by his family for many years), as well as founding the National Geographic Society. After 1895 he concentrated on the development of air and water transport, experimenting with kites, propellers and early powered aircraft, and co-building a hydrofoil which set a water speed record in 1919.

Bell died at his summer home on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia in 1922.