How Alexander Graham Bell Invented the Telephone

Alexander Graham Bell plaque (1847)National Museums Scotland

Alexander Graham Bell was the first to secure a patent for the telephone, but only just. And it almost cost him his marriage...

At the age of eleven he chose to add the middle name Graham, which stuck for the rest of his life.

This plaque (on the right) is outside Alexander Graham Bell’s birthplace in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh.

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Sound and speech were part of Bell’s life from a young age.

Both his father and grandfather were well-known teachers of elocution and speech training; his father in Edinburgh, his grandfather in London.

Phone listing (1848-1849)National Museums Scotland

His father’s work focused on developing a system of ‘visible speech’, which allowed speech sounds to be written down.

He wanted to use this to help teach deaf people, who had never heard spoken words, to speak.

Model of larynx (1860)National Museums Scotland

This type of model was used to teach anatomy students the complexities of human vocal physiognomy.

Encouraged by his father, young Bell attempted to make working models of ears and vocal cords, aiming to create a mechanical speech device.

He attended classes in anatomy and physiology in London for several years, building his understanding of how speech and hearing worked.

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Following the death of both of Bell’s brothers from tuberculosis, in 1870 the family emigrated to start a healthier life in Canada.

Building on his father’s earlier work on the human voice, Bell moved to the United States in 1871 and started teaching deaf students in Boston.

Two years later, he was appointed Professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at Boston University.

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These early experiments in speech creation, along with his knowledge of anatomy, informed his own experiments on transmitting speech, which he began in earnest from 1873.

Replica of ‘gallows frame’ telephone (1937)National Museums Scotland

Through study and experimentation, Bell hypothesised that if sound waves could be converted into a fluctuating electric current, then that current could then be reconverted into sound waves identical to the original at the other end of the circuit.

By the summer of 1875 he had succeeded in transmitting sounds, though still not recognisable speech, on a ‘gallows frame’ telephone like this one.

A replica of ‘liquid transmitter’ telephone (1870's)National Museums Scotland

On 10 March 1876, the first intelligible telephone communication was made. Bell was in his laboratory with this latest experimental version of a telephone transmitter. In the bedroom, his assistant Watson waited with a reed receiver pressed against his ear.

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Two days later, Bell described what happened in his laboratory notebook:

“I then shouted into M [the mouthpiece] the following sentence: ‘Mr Watson – come here – I want to see you.’

"To my delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said."

Illustration of Bell’s box telephone with lid. (1870's)National Museums Scotland

On 11 August 1877, Bell and his wife Mabel arrived in Britain from the USA on honeymoon.

In Bell’s luggage was his new communication device, the telephone.

Example of phone Bell used for demonstration (1877 - 1888)National Museums Scotland

Bell travelled the country promoting his invention, even demonstrating the device to Queen Victoria, who was so amused she asked to keep the temporary installation in place.

The first telephones - called box telephones because of their shape - went on sale later that year.

Illustration of Bell's equipment used (1877)National Museums Scotland

But could Bell truly lay claim to inventing the telephone?

On 14 February 1876, sensing the danger of rival developments for this valuable invention, Bell’s future father-in-law, Gardiner Hubbard, filed a patent application for ‘Improvements in Telegraphy’.

A wealthy lawyer and politician, Hubbard was supporting Bell’s experiments financially but would not let him marry his daughter, Mabel, until he had perfected his invention!

On that same day a few hours later – or was it a few hours earlier? – inventor Elisha Gray of Highland Park, Illinois, filed his own idea for a telephone device at the same office.

Bell was granted the patent on 7 March 1876, just three days before his first successful transmission.

Tel. Phon. (1877-01-12)LIFE Photo Collection

Controversy remains as to whether Bell or his father-in-law might have had access to the details of Gray’s patent through a patent office clerk in Hubbard’s pay.

The clerk seemed to admit as much in a later court case, but Bell’s patent was upheld, as it was in the many cases which followed.

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Still widely known as the inventor of the telephone, by his early thirties Bell had given up his interest in this invention.

He spent the rest of his life with Mabel and their family in Canada, working on a series of varied projects including flight, sheep breeding, developing a ‘vacuum jacket’ to aid artificial breathing, and the founding of the National Geographic magazine.

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The project that Bell himself called his greatest achievement in 1880 he named the photophone.

This was a method of transmitting sound in a beam of light using a light sensitive selenium cell to translate the light density into electric signals.

Today the vast majority of all our telecommunication travels the globe at the speed of light along fibre optic cables.

By Ted ThaiLIFE Photo Collection

In November 1920, Bell returned to Edinburgh for a visit.

At a speech given to pupils at the city’s Royal High School, where he had been a student 60 years before, he imagined that this young generation might live to see a time when someone “in any part of the world would be able to telephone to any other part of the world without any wires at all”.

Portrait of Alexander Graham Bell (1915)LIFE Photo Collection

Alexander Graham Bell died on 2 August 1922 aged 75.

On the day of his funeral the telephone systems in the US and Canada were silenced for one minute.

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