On this day, the first discernible speech is transmitted over a telephone system when inventor Alexander Graham Bell summons his assistant in another room by saying, “Mr. Watson, come here; I want you.” Bell had received a comprehensive telephone patent just three days before.
Alexander Graham Bell, born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1847, was the son of Alexander Melville Bell, a leading authority in public speaking and speech correction. The young Bell was trained to take over the family business, and while still a teenager he became a voice teacher and began to experiment in sound. In 1870, his family moved to Ontario, Canada, and in 1871 Bell went to Boston to demonstrate his father’s method of teaching speech to the deaf. The next year, he opened his own school in Boston for training teachers of the deaf and in 1873 became professor of vocal physiology at Boston University.
In his free time, Bell experimented with sound waves and became convinced that it would be possible to transmit speech over a telegraph-like system. He enlisted the aid of a gifted mechanic, Thomas Watson, and together the two spent countless nights trying to convert Bell’s ideas into practical form. In 1875, while working on his multiple harmonic telegraph, Bell developed the basic ideas for the telephone. He designed a device to transmit speech vibrations electrically between two receivers and in June 1875 tested his invention. No intelligible words were transmitted, but sounds resembling human speech were heard at the receiving end.
On February 14, 1876, he filed a U.S. patent application for his telephone. Just a few hours later, another American inventor, Elisha Gray, filed a caveat with the U.S. Patent Office about his intent to seek a similar patent on a telephone transmitter and receiver. Bell filed first, so on March 7 he was awarded U.S. patent 174,465, which granted him ownership over both his telephone instruments and the concept of a telephone system.
Three days later, on March 10, Bell successfully tested his telephone for the first time in his Boston home. In May, he publicly demonstrated the invention before the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston, and in June at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. In October, he successfully tested his telephone over a two-mile distance between Boston and Cambridgeport.
In 1877, he formed the Bell Telephone Company with two investors, and the first commercial applications of the telephone took place. Within a few months, the first of hundreds of legal challenges to Bell’s telephone patent began. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually upheld Bell’s claims, and the Bell Telephone Company enjoyed a monopoly on the telephone until the expiration of the patent in 1894. After 1878, however, the legal battles were out of Alexander Graham Bell’s hands because he sold his company to a group of financiers. The company, which after 1899 was led by the parent American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), eventually grew into the largest corporation in the world.
Alexander Graham Bell continued his experiments in communication, inventing the photophone, which transmitted speech by light rays, and the graphophone, which recorded sound. He continued to work with the deaf, including the educator Helen Keller, and used the royalties from his inventions to finance several organizations dedicated to the oral education of the deaf. He later served as president of the National Geographic Society. Beginning in 1895, he experimented with the possibility of flight and built giant man-carrying kites and a hydrofoil craft. He died in 1922 at his summer home and laboratory on Cape Breton Island, Canada.
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