Portraits of Inventors: Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell

Learn how two of the most famous inventors of the 19th century used portraiture to craft their public personae and market their ideas.

Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Alva EdisonSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Two of the most famous U.S. inventors of the nineteenth century—Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell—were born less than three weeks apart in 1847. Edison originally hailed from Milan, Ohio, and Bell from Edinburgh, Scotland. By the 1870s, both were working in the United States and had invented new technologies that revolutionized daily life.

Thomas Alva Edison (1907) by Pach Brothers StudioSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Edison was a prolific inventor who obtained 1,093 U.S. patents. He is well-known for developing the automatic telegraph (1870–74), the phonograph (1877), the first practical incandescent lightbulb (1879), and an early motion picture camera called the Kinetograph (1888–91).

In this photograph from 1907, Edison sits beside one of his inventions, a phonograph emblazoned on the side with the words “Edison Business Phonograph.”

Edison established a new, entrepreneurial process for research and development. He built two large laboratory complexes in New Jersey and employed dozens of staff. Many times, Edison and his team improved an existing technology to make it more commercially viable.

LIFE Photo Collection

Bell (shown here at top right), by contrast, did not consider inventing his primary occupation. He began his career teaching students at schools for the Deaf in Great Britain and the United States. His interest in the mechanisms of speech directed his work as an inventor.    

Alexander Graham Bell (c. 1895) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Bell secured thirty U.S. patents over his lifetime. His inventions—though not as plentiful as Edison’s—were no less impactful. Bell is most famous for creating the first practical telephone (1876) and an improved phonograph that he called the graphophone (1885–86).

Alexander Graham Bell (1892) by E. J. HolmesSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Edison and Bell, both famous during their lifetimes, used portraiture to shape their public image and draw attention to their inventions. Let’s look closely at some of their portraits in the National Portrait Gallery’s collections.

Thomas Alva Edison (c. 1878) by Alfred S. Seer EngraverSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

"It Talks! It Sings! It Laughs!" The startling assertions of this large wood-engraved poster from around 1878 undoubtedly attracted the curious to demonstrations of Edison's newly invented phonograph.

The poster emphasizes Edison’s role in creating the new machine—his hand firmly grasps the phonograph’s crank as he towers over the apparatus.  Edison was a famous personality, and his ability to stay in the public eye was an important factor in his career.

Thomas Alva Edison (1890) by Abraham Archibald AndersonSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Edison promoted his newly improved phonograph at the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris, where the artist Abraham A. Anderson began this portrait. The new phonograph was more commercially viable because of its better sound clarity. Here, Edison is portrayed operating his invention, turning a knob with his right hand while wax cylinders and other tools needed to operate the device rest on the table in the foreground.

Thomas Alva Edison (1890) by William Kennedy Laurie DicksonSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Many portraits of Edison show the inventor ostensibly working in his laboratory. In this cyanotype, Edison dons a laboratory jacket and holds glass beakers. The photographer William Kennedy Laurie Dickson worked for Edison and ran a profitable side business selling portraits of his employer.

Thomas Alva Edison (c.1915) by Underwood & UnderwoodSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Edison’s visage entered middle-class homes through various means, including stereographs like this one made by Underwood & Underwood. It bears the inscription, “MOST FAMOUS INVENTOR OF THE AGE, THOMAS A. EDISON IN HIS LABORATORY,” while the biographical text on back claims, “If history is the story of man’s progress, then Edison will hold an important place in our American History.”

Alexander Graham Bell at the unveiling of a plaque commemorating the 1876 invention of the telephone, Boston, Mass., 1916 (1916) by Richard W. SearsSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Public portraits of Bell were typically made in conjunction with demonstrations and commemorations of the telephone. Here, Bell stands beside a plaque that marks the site in Boston where he and his assistant Thomas A. Watson first transmitted sound—the vibrations of a plucked reed—across a telephone wire.

Alexander Graham Bell (1892) by E. J. HolmesSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

This photograph of Bell was made in New York City on October 18, 1892, at the formal opening of the first long-distance telephone line between New York and Chicago. At the time of its installation, it was the longest telephone line in operation.

Alexander Graham Bell (1922) by Moses Wainer DykaarSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

The artist Moses Wainer Dykaar completed this marble portrait bust of Bell in 1922, the year of the inventor’s death. Upon hearing of Bell’s passing, Edison remembered him as “my late friend . . . whose world-famed invention [the telephone] annihilated time and space and brought the human family in closer touch.”

Portraits of Edison and Bell perpetuate the notion that invention is a process conducted by lone geniuses, a framing that undoubtedly helped publicize and market the new technologies. A closer look at the intertwined biographies of these two men, however, illuminates the collaborative and iterative nature of such work.

LIFE Photo Collection

Edison created a carbon-button transmitter (1877–78) that greatly improved the distance over which sound could be transmitted by telephone. This print illustrates Bell and Edison's inventions side-by-side, revealing the two men's contributions to this revolutionary technology.

LIFE Photo Collection

It was also Edison’s idea to commence a phone call with the word “Hello” (Bell suggested using “Ahoy”).

LIFE Photo Collection

Working with Chichester A. Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter, Bell developed wax cylinders for recording sound that proved superior to Edison’s original tinfoil devices for the phonograph. Between 1887 and 1889, Edison used the improvements by Bell and his colleagues to make further advances in phonograph and wax-cylinder technologies.

Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Alva EdisonSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Edison and Bell, together with their collaborators, created some of most commercially successful new technologies of the late nineteenth century. Portraits of the two men helped ensure that the inventors were as well known to the public as their inventions.

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