Alexander Graham Bell: The Case Files

The Franklin Institute awarded Alexander Graham Bell the Elliott Cresson Medal in the field of Engineering in 1912 for "Electrical Transmission of Articulate Speech."

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Elliott Cresson Medal, 1912

Ranked among the most famous inventors in the history of science, Alexander Graham Bell is forever associated with the telephone. Did you know, however, that the telephone was neither his first nor his last innovation?

Biography of Alexander Graham Bell Biography of Alexander Graham Bell (1912)Original Source: Case File for Alexander Graham Bell's Elliot Cresson Medal

On March 6, 1847, the Scotsman newspaper brought residents of Edinburgh the news of the birth of Alexander Bell, son of Eliza and Alexander Melville Bell. Coincidentally, the newspaper also announced the upcoming arrival of a telegraph line, which would speed communications between London and Edinburgh. Coming from a long line of Alexanders (both his father and his grandfather responded to this name), Alexander Bell of telephonic fame was known as "Aleck." When he was ten years old, Aleck Bell's household received a young lodger named Alexander Graham. This youth had been a pupil of Alexander Melville's, and drew the respect and admiration of Aleck. Distressed that both of his brothers had two Christian names while he had only one, and worshipful of his household's young lodger, Aleck requested a new name for his eleventh birthday. His father complied with this request, and on March 6, 1858, he raised his glass to toast the birthday boy, newly christening him Alexander Graham Bell.

In 1858, Alexander Melville (called Melville) and Eliza Bell purchased a pleasantly rustic two-storey stucco house in Trinity, located in the environs of Edinburgh. Their neighbors in Trinity included a lively family called Herdman, who operated a nearby flour mill. A number of photographs survive from this and other periods of Aleck's life, due to Melville's contagious fascination with photography. In his early teens, photos and descriptions reveal that Aleck was tall, dark and handsome, with a trademark habit of flicking his long locks back over his shoulders.

The dashing youth was first encouraged to invent at age eleven or twelve, when the rowdy behavior of Aleck and Ben Herdman prompted Ben's father to exasperatedly question the boys, "Why don't you do something useful?" Intrigued by the idea, Aleck asked John Herdman how he could be of use. The man replied that he needed help taking the husks off of wheat. In response, Aleck combined a windmill-like machine consisting of rotation paddles with a nail brush, creating a dehusking machine that was put into operation and used steadily for a number of years. Many years later, Alexander Graham Bell wrote on his youth at the flour mill: "So far as I remember, Mr. Herdman's injunction to do something useful was my first incentive to invention, and the method of cleaning wheat the first fruit."

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On March 7, 1876, the United States Patent Office issued Alexander Graham Bell patent No. 174,465. Entitled "Improvement in Telegraphy," this patent came to be described as the most valuable patent ever issued. In 1912, The Franklin Institute recognized Bell's success in achieving the electrical transmission of articulate speech with the Elliot Cresson Medal.

Bell's telephone was able to electrically transmit articulate speech thanks to the collaboration of three main parts: the undulatory current, the electro-magnet, and the armature. In his patent, Bell explains that electrical undulations are created by "gradual changes of intensity exactly analogous to the changes in the density of air occasioned by simple pendulous vibrations."

Bell explains the way in which magnets are capable of producing an undulatory current, describing the interaction between a permanent magnet and an electro-magnet. A permanent magnet is a piece of magnetic material that retains its magnetism after it is removed from a magnetic field, while an electro-magnet is defined as a magnet consisting essentially of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a soft iron core that is magnetized only when current flows through the wire. When a permanent magnet is caused to approach the pole of an electro-magnet, the permanent magnet induces a current of electricity in the coils of the electro-magnet. When the permanent magnet recedes, that action causes a new current of opposite polarity to appear on the wire. If you cause that permanent magnet to vibrate in front of the electro-magnet, it induces an undulatory current of electricity in the coils of the electro-magnet. How rapidly these undulations repeat corresponds to the rapidity of the vibrations of the magnet. Their polarity corresponds to the direction of the permanent magnet's motion, and their intensity corresponds to the amplitude of the magnet's vibration.

Undulations are caused by the vibration or motion of bodies capable of inducing action. In the case of the telephone, the voice is the capable body that induces undulations. Bell depicts a telephonic circuit in a drawing accompanying his patent, showing a circuit where one armature is across from another. Each armature is loosely attached at one extremity to an electro-magnet, and at the other to the center of a stretched membrane. A cone is used to converge sound vibrations upon the membrane. When a sound is uttered into the cone, that motion sets the membrane in vibration, and the vibration of the membrane in turn causes the armature to take part in the motion. The armature's motion then creates electrical undulations on the circuit. When represented graphically, these vibrations are similar in form to the initial vibrations caused by the sound that was made into the cone. A sound similar to that uttered into the cone is thus heard to proceed from the cone attached to the opposite end of the circuit.

Committee on Science and the Arts Letter to Alexander Graham Bell, 4/29/1912 (1912-04-29)Original Source: Case File for Alexander Graham Bell's Elliot Cresson Medal

Documents reveal a written discussion between The Franklin Institute's secretary and Alexander Graham Bell, in which the secretary asks for the title of the remarks Bell will be making upon receipt of his Elliot Cresson Medal. Bell's reply asks in a somewhat biting tone if such remarks might be dispensed with, in the interest of allowing him to enjoy himself. Though a handsome man unafraid of the public eye, Bell was always a solitary creature and became increasingly so as he aged. When working on inventions, he became completely consumed by his work, and was also a veritable night owl. His thoughts were most lucid during the early hours of the morning, and he often took to solitary nocturnal rambles. He also had a habit of playing the piano far into the night, though this peculiarity did come as a disturbance to other members of his household.

Letter from Alexander Graham Bell to R.B. Owens, 5/1/1912, 1912-05-01, Original Source: Case File for Alexander Graham Bell's Elliot Cresson Medal
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Mr. and Mrs. Bell's acceptance of the invitation to attend The Franklin Institute Award ceremony on May 15, 1912, 5/9/1912., 1912-05-09, Original Source: Case File for Alexander Graham Bell's Elliot Cresson Medal
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Letter from R.B. Owens to Alexander Graham Bell confirming hotel reservations, 5/13/1912, 1912-05-13, Original Source: Case File for Alexander Graham Bell's Elliot Cresson Medal
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Credits: Story

The Alexander Graham Bell project is made possible by support from The Barra Foundation and Unisys.

This website is the effort of an in-house special project team at The Franklin Institute, working under the direction of Carol Parssinen, Senior Vice-President for the Center for Innovation in Science Learning, and Bo Hammer, Vice-President for The Franklin Center.

Special project team members from the Educational Technology department are:
Karen Elinich, Barbara Holberg, Margaret Ennis, Natasha Fedder, and Jay Treat.

Special project team members from the Curatorial department are:
John Alviti and Andre Pollack.

The project's Advisory Board Members are:
Ruth Schwartz-Cowan, Leonard Rosenfeld, Nathan Ensmenger, and Susan Yoon.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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