Alexander Graham Bell 1847-1922

At the time Alexander Bell arrived in Boston in 1871 to accept a teaching position at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes, businesses worldwide were growing at such a rapid rate that the telegraph was no longer sufficient to handle the level of communication necessary. In 1873, Bell was hired by Boston University as Professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution.

Around 1875, Bell and other inventors were working on an improved version of the telegraph when he envisioned the telephone. In the same shop where Edison had worked a few years before, at 109 Court Street (see Edison, page 46), Bell and his assistant Thomas Watson began their work on transmitting the human voice over wires.

As they came closer to making their telephone work, Bell and Watson moved their lab to a boardinghouse on Exeter Place near Downtown Crossing to keep their invention a secret. In 1876, the inventors were experimenting with different levels of sulfuric acid to try to raise the volume of the telephone and make the human voice intelligible. Watson had placed one end of the electrical wire into a cup of sulfuric acid when Bell went into another room to conduct the test. Suddenly, Watson heard "Mr. Watson, come here! I want you!" over the wires. Bell had accidentally spilled acid on his clothes, and in calling to Watson for help, had spoken the first audible sentence ever sent over the telephone wires.
Bell faced complex obstacles as he struggled to bring his telephone idea to fruition. First, his financial backers were interested in an improved telegraph and withdrew their support when Bell persisted in pursuing his vision of a telephone. To complicate matters, Bell was in love with his deaf student, Mabel, who was the daughter of Gardiner Hubbard, one of his financial backers. Bell also faced competition from other inventors and filed his patent for the telephone a mere two hours before another Boston inventor, Elisha Gray, submitted a similar sketch.

After trying, without success, to sell his patent to Western Union, Bell formed the Bell Telephone Company with Thomas Sanders and Gardiner Hubbard, now his father-in-law. Between 1883 and 1893, the Bell Telephone Company defended itself in over 600 lawsuits. Fish, Richardson, and Storrow (now Fish and Richardson), a patent law firm founded in Boston in 1878 and still thriving today, represented Bell's company and won every lawsuit.

With Mabel's support and management of their assets, which amounted to about a million dollars in 1890, Bell continued to teach the deaf and to invent. When his son was dying of respiratory illness as a baby, Bell constructed a "vacuum jacket," the forerunner of the iron lung, to ease his breathing difficulties.

Upon Bell's death on August 2, 1922, the nation's phones were stilled for a silent minute in tribute to the man whose yearning to communicate made them possible.

  Alexander Graham Bell: The Life and Times of the Man Who Invented the Telephone by Harry N. Abrams, 1997

The Telephone Patent Conspiracy of 1876: The Elisha Gray-Alexander Graham Bell Controversy and Its Many Players

by Edward A. Evenson, 2000

  Alexander Graham Bell: An Inventive Life by Elizabeth MacLeod, 1999