Profiles in Greatness: Alexander Graham Bell

UPDATED: December 5, 2011
PUBLISHED: December 5, 2011

Our relationships with history’s greatest innovators and influencers usually are developed in a classroom or during an hour-long documentary. Imagine having an entire evening, some appetizers, wine and steak with one of them. What would you say? Would you ask the obvious: What inspires you? Or would you go for gossip: Did you really have a thing for Amelia Earhart? Every month SUCCESS is going to “sit down to dinner” with one of the world’s greatest minds and ask a few questions of our own.

We recently had haggis (that’s Scottish sheep sausage to you and me) with Alexander Graham Bell, who was awarded U.S. Patent No. 174,465, a sequence of six numbers that officially launched the telephone. Though the phone is Graham’s most noted invention, he also innovated in areas of aeronautics, transportation, medical research and alternative fuels. And each of his innovations sprang from his desire, at least initially, to better understand sound and speech.

Q: Did you inherit your scientific mind from your parents or did you just wake up one day and think, “Today would be a good day to revolutionize communication”?

A: “A man, as a general rule, owes very little to what he is born with—a man is what he makes of himself.”

Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on March 3, 1847. His brother, father and grandfather all researched and studied elocution and speech. They greatly influenced Bell’s decision to explore elocution—clear speaking—as did his mother, who started losing her hearing when Bell was a boy. Many of his experiments were driven by a desire to communicate with his mother and collaborate with his family.

While Bell was certainly influenced by his surroundings, his obsessive interest in science and unyielding work ethic impelled him to become a great inventor. He spent his time exploring, experimenting and devising ways to improve existing technologies and people’s everyday lives. When he was 12, Bell built a corn de-husking machine for a local miller who had complained that manual de-husking was laborious and time consuming.

Like many innovators, Bell indulged all of his passions. If he had an interest, he explored it. He learned to read music and taught himself ventriloquism to entertain guests.

His varied interests often led to new inventions. His success with minor mechanical inventions like the de-husker and his understanding of the way ventriloquism and music manipulate sound all led to his eventual creation of the telephone.

Q: You didn’t exactly follow the crowd when it came to getting your education and finding a job. What would you tell others who yearn to take the road less traveled?

A: “Leave the beaten track behind occasionally and dive into the woods. Every time you do, you will be certain to find something you have never seen before.”

Bell left school at 15 (his record was undistinguished) to stay with his grandfather in London. There, his grandfather fueled his scientific curiosity, and Bell spent more time learning and studying than in the classroom. At 16, he became a student and teacher of elocution at the Weston House Academy in Scotland. By 19, he had an idea to produce vowel sounds electronically, and he made an observation that set the tone for the rest of his life’s work: He determined that if he could produce consonants, he could electronically “articulate speech.”

Q: There must have been a lot of pressure to say the right thing when you finally tested the first working telephone. What were the first words you spoke?

A: “Mr. Watson—Come here—I want to see you.”

Bell really started working on the concept of the telephone in 1871, five years before the patent was approved. He started work on his harmonic telegraph, a device that would allow multiple messages (rather than one at a time) to pass through a single wire by use of a transmitter and receiver. While he worked on the device, he opened the School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech in Boston and tutored several students. Stretched thin and unable to fully engage in his experiments, he turned his full attention back to his laboratory in 1874.

Following the success of the harmonic telegraph, Bell developed an acoustic telegraph (one that transmitted vocal notes) and embarked upon a patent race with Elisha Gray, who was working on an acoustic telegraph that relied on a water transmitter. The two got their patent applications in on the same date in 1876, but Bell won the patent, leading many to claim he stole Gray’s design.

Three days after getting his patent, Bell “phoned” his assistant, Thomas Watson, who had sat on the receiving end of countless failed attempts at telephone communication before hearing Bell’s voice.

Q: As an inventor you suffered many failures before attaining your many successes. What advice do you have for those who have met failure?

A: “When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”

Critics not only tore apart Bell’s successes, they also celebrated his failures. In 1881, Bell, his asssistant Sumner Tainter, and mathematician Simon Newcomb claimed to have developed a device that could locate bullets lodged in a person’s body. President James Garfield had just been shot and doctors were hoping to find a way to locate the bullet without using traditional means of trial and error, which was all that was available to them at the time.

The two men invented and experimented with a device that hummed when in close proximity to metal. They tried it on their own bodies by hiding bullets under their arms and locating them with the device. They were successful when they used it on themselves, but when they tried it on the president, it hummed nonstop. Bell was highly criticized for the failure. Later it was realized that Garfield’s bed had thrown off the device. Much of it was metal.

Though Bell technically failed to find the Garfield bullet, he’s credited with the invention of the metal detector.

Q: Spending hours on end in a lab seems like it might get dull. Did you ever get bored?

A: “There cannot be mental atrophy in any person who continues to observe, to remember what he observes, and to seek answers for his unceasing hows and whys about things.”

Anyone who saw Bell at work might have dismissed his antics as a waste of time, but his willingness to try anything and test his powers of observation led to many successful inventions. He and a brother once fooled visitors into believing their Skye terrier, Trouve, could say, “How are you, Grandma?” While they played it off as a practical joke, playtime with Trouve was actually an experiment in sound transmission. The Bell brothers would get the dog to growl then teach it to manipulate its mouth and vocal cords so it sounded as if the dog was asking after Grandma.

To some, playing with a dog was a waste of time. To Bell, it yielded insight into the complexities of sound transmission.

Q: Do you feel that your inventions are precursors for things like computers or smartphones?

A: “Great discoveries and improvements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds. I may be given credit for having blazed the trail, but when I look at the subsequent developments, I feel the credit is due to others rather than to myself.”

Bell knew better than anyone the importance of collaborating with other innovators and building off their innovations. Many of his 30 patents (a number of which were shared with colleagues) resulted from working with others or improving innovations.

And though Bell didn’t live to see its universal impact, his most famous invention certainly became the impetus for many more.