Many great inventions are born out of the desire to fix or improve the challenges of daily life. Inventors are constantly searching for solutions to the problems they face, often using personal experience as inspiration.
One of history’s most well-known inventors drew on personal experience to develop improvements in communication. National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Alexander Graham Bell is recognized for his innovations in telegraphy, or the practice of constructing communications systems for the transmission of information. Most notably, Bell is credited for his invention of the telephone, which grew out of his research on the telegraph. Thanks to his contributions, communications continue to expand and improve across the globe, allowing people to stay connected from virtually anywhere.
Inspired to Invent
Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1847. His father and grandfather had been elocutionists who worked with the deaf, and his mother was almost fully deaf. In 1870, his family immigrated to Canada, and one year later, Bell moved to Boston. While in the United States, Bell spent several years teaching at schools for the deaf. In 1877, he married Mabel Hubbard, who had lost her hearing in childhood due to scarlet fever.
Seeing the impact of communication and hearing loss on the lives of those around him, Bell was committed to developing improvements to the world of sound. While teaching, he spent time researching methods of transmitting several telegraph messages simultaneously over a single wire. Known as “harmonic telegraphs,” these systems used reeds or tuning forks that responded to specific acoustic frequencies.
Bell became interested in how the human voice could be transmitted, and he formed an agreement with investor Gardiner Hubbard that allowed him to devote most of his time to developing the harmonic telegraph while also working on the concept of the telephone. In 1875, Bell spent several months creating a working transmitter and receiver with his laboratory assistant Thomas A. Watson. The transmitter was capable of varying electronic currents, and the receiver could reproduce those variations in audible frequencies.
Though his instrument had yet to transmit a human voice, on March 7, 1876, Bell received a patent for his telephone, which was described as an “apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically.” Three days later, on March 10, Bell spoke through the instrument to Watson, using the now famous line, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”
In the months that followed Bell and Watson’s achievement, they continued to refine the instrument and eventually demonstrated it publicly at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. Bell was also on the receiving end of the first one-way long-distance call, which was transmitted between Brantford and Paris, Ontario. In July 1877, Bell Telephone Co. was established, and Bell served as the company’s technical adviser until the early 1880s, when he lost interest in the company’s work and decided to sell his shares.
In the years that followed, Bell continued his innovative pursuits. He made advancements with photophones, metal detectors, hydrofoils and aeronautics. In 1888, he also became a founding member of the National Geographic Society as he sought to further expand scientific study.
Inventors like Bell helped create the foundations for modern telephone communications, which today function as important systems that help people everywhere connect from a distance.
To learn more about the inventors and inventions that have changed our world, visit our Inductee portal.