Articles


Go to content

ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL


FATE, FAME and FORTUNE


by Denys Parker

Kay and I have recently returned from a Round-the-World trip travelling on Trains, Planes, Automobiles and a Ship. One of the unplanned highlights was a visit to the Alexander Graham Bell Museum in Baddeck, Nova Scotia, managed by PARKS CANADA. The almost new Ship, the MS EURODAM we were on, was stopping at Sydney, Nova Scotia and one of the excursions offered was to the Museum.

What was on display there was an eye-opener. I bought a small book, a biography by Jennifer Groundwater. I had no idea that AGB was such a prolific inventor. His story held me so enthralled I read it in two sittings.

Born in Scotland, AGB had two brothers who both died of TB. To find a better climate for their only remaining child was the reason his parents moved to North America settling in Brantford, Ontario [CANADA] in 1870. He took over his father's methods of "visible speech" which was then a novel way of teaching deaf mutes to speak. He was trying to improve these methods and working on an "harmonic telegraph" when he fell in love with one of his students in 1874. She was Mabel Hubbard who as a small child went totally deaf after an attack of Scarlet Fever. Her father, wealthy Boston patent attorney Gardiner Greene Hubbard, was to play an important part in AGB's future. [Fate]

By the 1870's the giant Western Union virtually held the monopoly on the Telegraph wires in North America. It completed the Transcontinental line in 1861 and within a few years controlled 90 percent of all telegraph messages in the US. The limitations of one message over the wires of the telegraph technology of the day were becoming very apparent. The first inventor to come up with a way to send more than one message over the same line at the same time would become very wealthy. AGB at age 25 in 1872, started making designs to improve his "harmonic telegraph". The race was on.His greatest rival at this time was Elisha Gray who was a practical electrician.

Within months AGB devised a machine that would transmit two messages simultaneously but was beaten by Joseph Stearns who had his "duplex telegraph" snapped up by Western Union. In January 1874 he was trying to get the British Government interested in his invention but received a flat refusal. He just happened to mention this to G.G. Hubbard, his future father-in-law (mentioned above), and was delighted to discover that Hubbard had been lobbying Congress for a charter to operate a company to rival Western Union. Mr. Thomas Sanders, the father of another deaf patient of Alec's urged him to apply for American citizenship so he could get a caveat, a precursor to a patent, on his ideas.

His mind was now filled with thoughts of going further, of creating a machine that would transmit speech. He faced serious competition in Elisha Gray, but Alec believed that his knowledge of the mechanics of sound was greater. In Charles Williams' workshop in Boston, he met Thomas A. Watson, the gifted electrician who could make a model of one of Alec's designs overnight. In January 1875 he became AGB's full time assistant. [More Fate]

Alec traveled to New York to meet William Orton, the President of Western Union, one of the most powerful men in America. Orton persuaded him to demonstrate his multiple telegraph device and spend a long afternoon explaining to W.U. electricians exactly how it worked. By coincidence or otherwise Elisha Gray had dropped in while Alec was at lunch and now Orton was not interested. He said Western Union would not take up a scheme backed by G.G. Hubbard because of Hubbard's repeated attempts to break W.U.'s telegraph monopoly. Alec had been outsmarted by Orton who had tried to get as much information out of Alec as possible, and then turned him away. In early June Alec and Watson were working on the multiple telegraph when a metallic reed became stuck. In plucking it off, the twanging sound was heard in a receiver 20 metres away. [FATE]

They had accidently discovered what Alec had surmised the year before, that sound really could induce an undulatory electrical current, travel through a wire electrically and be reproduced at the far end. They immediately began work on a "membrane telephone". Around this time he learnt his love for Mabel Hubbard had not been rejected and a great weight fell from his shoulders. On her 18th birthday, she told him she would be his wife. He could now get on with his invention and patent application in earnest.

He needed another backer and an elderly wealthy neighbour George Brown entered the picture in the fall of 1975. They made a deal. George and his brother would provide funds for 6 months at US$25 each monthly. In return for the $300 they would each receive one quarter of any profits from the patent in The British Empire including Canada. The arrangement also included that the British application was to be granted before filing the U.S. one. George set sail for England in January 1876 to file the patents but due to an oversight Alec had not included the vital specification relating to the variable resistance transmission of speech which had been included in the U.S. patent application.

They waited impatiently to hear from George. Finally in late February, Brown told Alec that the British Scientists had looked at the application and told him it was worthless. That vital specification was missing and made the application invalid. George hadn't even bothered to file the application.

Alec was very angry. All this time had been wasted. Despite the fact that George Brown had not upheld his end of the bargain Alec still felt compelled to keep his promise to Brown. By an extreme stroke of good fortune, Gardiner Greene Hubbard had become tired of waiting and filed the patent application without Alec's knowledge on February 14th 1876. [FATE again] On that same day, only hours later, Elisha Gray filed a caveat for a telephone.

Both applications were suspended. Alec went to see Zenas Wilber, the man in charge of patents and spent some time explaining his invention and how it worked. Alec could also produce a working machine, whereas Gray could not.

The days dragged on seeming a lifetime. Then on his 29th Birthday he received the best news, the patent would be granted. Patent no. 174,465 was issued a few days later and became one of the most valuable patents in history.

1876 was the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S.A. was celebrating. There was a Centennial Exhibition to be held in Philadelphia which would showcase all the good things progress had brought to the country. It ran from May to December attracting nine million visitors when the population of the US was only 46 million. In June 1876 prior to him demonstrating his invention at the Centennial Exhibition, he met some of the Judges. Amongst these were Dom Pedro, the Brazilian Emperor and another, Sir William Thomson. [later to become Lord Kelvin] [FATE once again]

Elisha Gray was also demonstrating his own invention but had to get a professor to explain how it worked. The day was long and hot and Alec had not yet shown his apparatus. The Judges were hot and weary and about to retire for the day and Alec absolutely had to be on the train home that evening. Dom Pedro, who had been impressed by Alec's methods of teaching the deaf, happened to see him and persuaded the other Judges to see and hear a demonstration of Bell's telephone. It worked. Sir William Thomson and the other scientists were astounded. They had to be sure there was no trickery involved and tested it again and again in different locations to safeguard against it being a hoax.

A.G. Bell was awarded with the Centennial Medal for his invention, Sir William describing it as "the most wonderful thing I have seen in America." [FAME]

He now needed to market his invention.

Re-enter Thomas Sanders who was a neighbour of Alec's parents and who convinced Alec to apply for U.S. citizenship. He poured over $110,000 of his own money into the company to get the instrument launched. Alec and his wife by now, Mabel, were in London in 1878 demonstrating the Telephone. Due to fraud or mismanagement the company there failed and almost shut down. Now it was G.G. Hubbard's turn. He appeared on the scene and with his business management skills, rescued the British Bell Company. It was also Hubbard's idea to rent out the instruments, rather than sell them.

Because of Orton's dislike for Hubbard it appears Western Union knocked back the Telephone and yet within a short time, operating as the American Speaking Telephone Company, they capitalized on their extensive existing Telegraph lines and actively infringed on Bell's patent. They also proclaimed Bell was not the true inventor of the Telephone and had stolen the idea from Elisha Gray.

Alec was sick of all the controversy and the lawsuits and almost let his success slip away. Again it was Gardiner Greene Hubbard, his father-in-law, who came to the rescue. With Sanders providing the funds they hired some very astute lawyers to do battle with Western Union. Bell Telephone sued for patent infringement. After a year of wrangling Bell Telephone won on October 25th 1879.

In winning, they acquired all the telephone inventions of those who had consigned their rights to W.U. such as Elisha Gray, Thomas Edison and George H. Phelps. In return W.U. were licensed to use the Telephone for transmission of Telegraphic messages AND would receive 20% of Bell Telephone profits for 17 years. Over the next 18 years when the original patent expired, Bell Telephone Co. took on challengers over 600 times. They never lost a case. [FORTUNE]

Bell was now financially independent. He continued to challenge conventional wisdom of the time. He was fascinated with flight and the concept of a man flying. In 1885 he and Mabel discovered Baddeck in Nova Scotia and built a house there. He had read about Samuel Pierpoint Langley and traveled to Washington to meet him. They joined forces and in 1896, a steam powered unmanned propeller driven biplane built by them flew for 800 metres at heights of up to 30 metres. In spite of this, for some years Bell was absorbed with the idea of the Tetrahedron, a triangular pyramid shape which has exceptional three-dimensional strength combined with light-weight and he built numerous large kites.

Meanwhile Langley'e early successes had convinced the US Government to put up $50,000 towards developing a flying machine that would carry a pilot. He worked under sustained media scrutiny and his experiments were well documented and witnessed. To his anguish, at its official launch in December 1903 "Langley's Folly" crashed into the Potomac River after a wing tore in half.

The pilot had a narrow escape but Langley had put $20,000 of his own money into the project so the crash was a considerable financial blow to him. The ridicule was worse and he died a few years later, a broken man. Only nine days after the crash, the Wright brothers who were highly secretive and would not fly in public, flew for the first time in a private experimental attempt at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

Many did not believe the Wrights had really flown, but Bell did and soon he found several other men who believed it was possible too. On 1/10/1907 the Aerial Experiment Association was formed in Baddeck, Nova Scotia with Bell as chairman. There was five of them, Bell, Douglas McCurdy, F.W. "Casey" Baldwin, Glenn Curtiss and Lt. Thomas Selfridge. Their mission was simple: "To get a man into the air." Alec's wife Mabel had come up with the idea and she funded the AEA almost entirely with her own money to the tune of $35,000. Each had a specialty. Glenn Curtiss was an engine manufacturer.

They agreed to design and build five machines. Each member in turn signing off on a final design. On 12th March 1908, on a day none of them would ever forget, Casey Baldwin piloted their "Red Wing" along the ice of Keuka lake in New York State for about 100 metres then the fragile little plane rose about 3 metres into the air and flew about another 100 metres. They had succeeded. A few days later it was totally wrecked except for the engine, on a snowy, windy day.

A few Months later, another design, "White Wing" took to the skies. This one flew several times. It had two important innovations that are still used on airplanes today, ailerons for stability, and landing gear. When it also crashed, they worked on another design. Meanwhile the Scientific American magazine offered a prize for the first flying machine to cover more than a kilometre. A Glenn Curtiss design, "June Bug" was entered in the competition. Piloted by Glenn it flew for the first time in late June 1908. On it's second flight June Bug flew for about a Kilometre and a half. They had won the prize.

Unlike the first two planes, June Bug did not crash and they all got to fly it over the next few weeks. In only nine months the AEA had managed to create an aircraft that flew so well the Wright Brothers felt compelled to challenge the invention. As with the Telephone a protracted legal proceeding ensued to determine who was in the right. Eventually the AEA was awarded their patent, but not until December 1911. In September 1908, AEA member Lt. Tom Selfridge became the first victim of an Airplane crash in the U.S. He had been ordered by the US Army to observe one of the Wright Brothers first public flights. The test became deadly when it crashed injuring Orville and killing Selfridge.

They were devastated but, with Mabel supplying 6 months more funds, they pushed on with a fourth plane. Christened the SILVER DART, it was shipped to Baddeck in Nova Scotia for the test flight. On 23rd February 1909 with McCurdy at the controls, it flew for about one and a half kilometres at 65 K's an hour. This was the first flight of a Flying Machine in Canada and the entire British Empire. Over the next few weeks he made many flights, some up to 30 kilometres.

In only 18 Months, Bell and his brilliant team, the AEA, had put four heavier than air machines into the air and achieved several firsts in Aviation. Mission accomplished. At 12 midnight 1st April 1909 the AEA dissolved itself.

Bell and Casey Balwin went on to work on hydrofoils. Over the next decade their work culminated in the HD-4. This hydrofoil set a world speed record on Baddeck Bay on 9th September 1919 reaching speeds of 113.38K or 70.86 MPH. This record was not broken for over 10 years. We saw the remains of the original HD-4 and a full sized replica at the Museum.

In his lifetime, Alexander Graham Bell invented and improved on numerous other items including a Vacuum Jacket [the forerunner of the Iron Lung] and an Electric Probe [early metal detector] which was used [unsuccessfully] to find the bullet in President Garfield in July 1881 after an assassination attempt. He won many awards and in 1880 the French gave him the VOLTA prize for the "inventor of the best application of Electricity." In 1881 he formed the VOLTA ASSOCIATES with two others and they worked on improving Edison's tinfoil phonograph. They discovered wax was a better medium to hold the impressions of the recordings than tinfoil and also invented the floating stylus.

They sold the patent rights and AGB used his $200,000 to form the VOLTA Bureau. Its charter was to increase and disseminate knowledge of the deaf. It is still in existence and is now called "The Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing". His legacy lives on.

Over the years he has had many detractors. There is no doubt his name is the one remembered while most of those who assisted and backed him have largely been forgotten. I believe he must have had a "presence" or charisma, which attracted those of a similar inquiring nature to him. I am sure that if he could witness the communications of today he would be just as amazed as the public was with his Telephone of 1876.

There was much about the Aeroplanes and the Hydrofoil, but disappointingly little in the way of Telephone gear at the Museum in Baddeck. What was there gave us a glimpse into the life of a great and generous man who was lucky enough to have a number of good men and Fate, Fame and Fortune on his side.



With full acknowledgement to Jennifer Groundwater's Biography, "Alexander Graham Bell, The Spirit of Invention."

Denys Parker 6th October 2008

Images from “Wikipedia” and “inventors.about.com”



Back to content | Back to main menu