Many other inventions marked Bell's later life including groundbreaking work in hydrofoils and aeronautics. In 1888, Alexander Graham Bell became one of the founding members of the National Geographic Society.
His family was long associated with the teaching of elocution: his grandfather, Alexander Bell, in London, his uncle in Dublin, and his father, in Edinburgh, were all elocutionists. His father published a variety of works on the subject, several of which are still well known, especially his The Standard Elocutionist (1860) and treatise on Visible Speech, which appeared in Edinburgh in 1868. The Standard Elocutionist appeared in 168 British editions and sold over a quarter of a million copies in the United States alone. In this treatise, his father explains his methods of how to instruct deaf-mutes (as they were then known) to articulate words and read other people's lip movements to decipher meaning. Aleck's father taught him and his brothers not only to write Visible Speech but also to identify any symbol and its accompanying sound. Aleck became so proficient that he became a part of his father's public demonstrations and astounded audiences with his abilities in deciphering Latin, Gaelic and even Sanskrit symbols.
Intrigued by the results of the automaton, Bell continued to experiment with a live subject, the family's Skye terrier, "Trouve". After he taught it to growl continuously, Aleck would reach into its mouth and manipulate the dog's lips and vocal cords to produce a crude-sounding "Ow ah oo ga ma ma." With little convincing, visitors believed his dog could articulate "How are you grandma?" More indicative of his playful nature, his experiments convinced onlookers that they saw a "talking dog." However, these initial forays into experimentation with sound led Bell to undertake his first serious work on the transmission of sound, using tuning forks to explore resonance. At the age of 19, he wrote a report on his work and sent it to Alexander Ellis, a colleague of his father. Ellis immediately wrote back indicating that the experiments were similar to existing work in Germany. Dismayed to find that groundbreaking work had already been undertaken by Hermann von Helmholtz who had conveyed vowel sounds by means of a similar tuning fork "contraption", he pored over the German scientist's book, Sensations of Tone. From his translation of the original German edition, Aleck then made a deduction that would be the underpinning of all his future work on transmitting sound, "Without knowing much about the subject, it seemed to me that if vowel sounds could be produced by electrical means so could consonants, so could articulate speech.
Helping his father in Visible Speech demonstrations and lectures brought Bell to Susanna E. Hull's private school for the deaf in South Kensington, London. His first two pupils were "deaf mute" girls who made remarkable progress under his tutelage. While his older brother seemed to achieve success on many fronts including opening his own elocution school, applying for a patent on an invention, and starting a family, Bell continued as a teacher. However, in May 1870, Melville died from complications due to tuberculosis, causing a family crisis. His father had also suffered a debilitating illness earlier in life and had been restored to health by a convalescence in Newfoundland. Bell's parents embarked upon a long-planned move when they realized that their remaining son was also sickly. Acting decisively, Alexander Melville Bell asked Bell to arrange for the sale of all the family property, conclude all of his brother's affairs (Bell took over his last student, curing a pronounced lisp), and join his father and mother in setting out for the "New World. Reluctantly, Bell also had to conclude a relationship with Marie Eccleston, who, he had surmised, was not prepared to leave England with him.
At the homestead, Bell set up his own workshop in the converted carriage house near to what he called his "dreaming place", a large hollow nestled in trees at the back of the property above the river. Despite his frail condition upon arriving in Canada, Bell found the climate and environs to his liking, and rapidly improved. He continued his interest in the study of the human voice and when he discovered the Six Nations Reserve across the river at Onondaga, he learned the Mohawk language and translated its unwritten vocabulary into Visible Speech symbols. For his work, Bell was awarded the title of Honorary Chief and participated in a ceremony where he donned a Mohawk headdress and danced traditional dances.
After setting up his workshop, Bell continued experiments based on Helmholtz's work with electricity and sound. He designed a piano, which, by means of electricity, could transmit its music at a distance. Once the family was settled in, both Bell and his father made plans to establish a teaching practice and in 1871, he accompanied his father to Montreal, where Melville was offered a position to teach his System of Visible Speech.
Returning home to Brantford after six months abroad, Bell continued his experiments with his "harmonic telegraph".The basic concept behind his device was that messages could be sent through a single wire if each message was transmitted at a different pitch, but work on both the transmitter and receiver as needed. Unsure of his future, he first contemplated returning to London to complete his studies, but decided to return to Boston as a teacher. His father helped him set up his private practise by contacting Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the president of the Clarke School for the Deaf for a recommendation. Teaching his father's system, in October 1872 Alexander Bell opened a school in Boston named the "Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech" which attracted a large number of deaf pupils. His first class numbered 30 students. Working as a private tutor, one of his most famous pupils was Helen Keller, who came to him as a young child, unable to see, hear or speak. She later was to say that Bell dedicated his life to the penetration of that "inhuman silence which separates and estranges.
Deciding to give up his lucrative private Boston practice, Bell only retained two students, six-year old "Georgie" Sanders, deaf from birth and 15-year old Mabel Hubbard. Each pupil would serve to play an important role in the next developments. George's father, Thomas Sanders, a wealthy businessman, offered Bell a place to stay at nearby Salem with Georgie's grandmother, complete with a room to "experiment". Although the offer was made by George's mother and followed the year-long arrangement in 1872 where her son and his nurse had moved to quarters next to Bell's boarding house, it was clear that Mr. Sanders was backing the proposal. The arrangement was for teacher and student to continue their work together with free room and board thrown in. Mabel was a bright, attractive girl who was ten years his junior but became the object of Bell's affection. Losing her hearing after a bout of scarlet fever at age five, she had learned to read lips but her father, Gardiner Greene Hubbard, Bell's benefactor and personal friend, wanted her to work directly with her teacher.
In 1874, telegraph message traffic was rapidly expanding and in the words of Western Union President William Orton, had become "the nervous system of commerce". Orton had contracted with inventors Thomas Edison and Elisha Gray to find a way to send multiple telegraph messages on each telegraph line to avoid the great cost of constructing new lines. When Bell mentioned to Gardiner Hubbard and Thomas Sanders that he was working on a method of sending multiple tones on a telegraph wire using a multi-reed device, the two wealthy patrons began to financially support Bell's experiments. Patent matters would be handled by Hubbard's patent attorney, Anthony Pollok.
In March 1875, Bell and Pollok visited the famous scientist Joseph Henry, who was then director of the Smithsonian Institution, and asked Henry's advice on the electrical multi-reed apparatus that Bell hoped would transmit the human voice by telegraph. Henry replied that Bell had "the germ of a great invention". When Bell said that he did not have the necessary knowledge, Henry replied, "Get it!" That declaration greatly encouraged Bell to keep trying, even though he did not have the equipment needed to continue his experiments, nor the ability to create a working model of his ideas. However, a chance meeting in 1874 between Bell and Thomas A. Watson, an experienced electrical designer and mechanic at the electrical machine shop of Charles Williams, changed all that.
With financial support from Sanders and Hubbard, Bell was able to hire Thomas Watson as his assistant and the two of them experimented with acoustic telegraphy. On 2 June 1875, Watson accidentally plucked one of the reeds and Bell, at the receiving end of the wire, heard the overtones of the reed; overtones that would be necessary for transmitting speech. That demonstrated to Bell that only one reed or armature was necessary, not multiple reeds. This led to the "gallows" sound-powered telephone, which was able to transmit indistinct, voice-like sounds, but not clear speech.
On 14 February 1876, Bell was in Boston. Hubbard, who was paying the costs of Bell's patents, told his patent lawyer, Anthony Pollok, to file Bell's application in the U.S. Patent Office. This was done without Bell's knowledge. Patent Number 174,465 was issued to Bell on 7 March 1876 by the U.S. Patent Office which covered "the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically… by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sound.
Three days after his patent was issued, Bell experimented with a water transmitter, using an acid-water mixture. Vibration of the diaphragm caused a needle to vibrate in the water which varied the electrical resistance in the circuit. When Bell spoke the famous sentence "Mr Watson — Come here — I want to see you" into the liquid transmitter, Watson, listening at the receiving end in an adjoining room, heard the words clearly.
Bell's successful test of Gray's water transmitter design provided a proof of concept experiment that proved to Bell's satisfaction that clear human voice sounds could be electrically transmitted. After that, Bell focused on improving the electromagnetic telephone and did not use a water transmitter in public demonstrations or in commercial applications.
Bell and his partners, Hubbard and Sanders, offered to sell the patent outright to Western Union for $100,000. The president of Western Union balked, countering that the telephone was nothing but a toy. Two years later, he told colleagues that if he could get the patent for $25 million he would consider it a bargain. By then, the Bell company no longer wanted to sell the patent. Bell's investors would become millionaires while he fared well from residuals and he, at one point, had assets nearly reaching one million dollars.
Bell began a series of public demonstrations and lectures in order to introduce the new invention to the scientific community as well as the general public. Only one day after his demonstration of an early telephone prototype at the 1876 Centenary Exhibition in Philadelphia made the telephone the featured headline worldwide. Influential visitors to the exhibition included Emperor Pedro II of Brazil, and later Bell had the opportunity to personally demonstrate the invention to William Thomson, a renowned Scottish scientist and even Queen Victoria who had requested a private audience at Osborne House, her Isle of Wight home; she called the demonstration "most extraordinary". The enthusiasm that surrounded Bell's public displays laid the groundwork for universal acceptance of the revolutionary device.
The Bell Telephone Company was created in 1877, and by 1886, over 150,000 people in the U.S. owned telephones. Bell company engineers made numerous other improvements to the telephone, which emerged as one of the most successful products ever. In 1879, the Bell company acquired Edison's patents for the carbon microphone from Western Union. This made the telephone practical for long distances, unlike Bell's voice-powered transmitter that required users to shout into it to be heard at the receiving telephone, even at short distances. On 25 January 1915, Alexander Graham Bell sent the first transcontinental telephone call, at 15 Day Street in New York City, which was received by Thomas Watson at 333 Grant Avenue in San Francisco. The New York Times reported: "On October 9, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Watson talked by telephone to each other over a two-mile (3 km) wire stretched between Cambridge and Boston. It was the first wire conversation ever held. Yesterday afternoon [on January 25, 1915] the same two men talked by telephone to each other over a wire between New York and San Francisco. Dr. Bell, the veteran inventor of the telephone, was in New York, and Mr. Watson, his former associate, was on the other side of the continent. They heard each other much more distinctly than they did in their first talk thirty-eight years ago.
On 13 January 1887, the United States Government moved to annul the patent issued to Bell on the grounds of fraud and misrepresentation. After a series of decisions and reversals, the Bell company won a decision in the Supreme Court, though a couple of the original claims from the lower court cases were left undecided. By the time that the trial wound its way through nine years of legal battles, the U.S. prosecuting attorney had died and the two Bell patents (No. 174,46 and dated 7 March 1876 and No. 186,787 dated 30 January 1877) were no longer in effect, although the presiding judges agreed to continue the proceedings due to the case's importance as a "precedent." With a change in administration and charges of conflict of interest (on both sides) arising from the original trial, the U.S. Attorney General dropped the law suit on 30 November 1897 leaving several issues undecided on the merits.
During a deposition filed for the 1887 trial, Italian inventor Antonio Meucci also claimed to have created the first working model of a telephone in Italy in 1834. In 1886, in the first of three cases in which he was involved, Meucci took the stand as a witness in the hopes of establishing his invention's priority. Meucci's evidence in this case was disputed due to lack of material evidence of his inventions as his working models were reportedly lost at the Western Union laboratory. Meucci's work, like many other inventors of the period, was based on earlier acoustic principles and despite evidence of earlier experiments, the final case involving Meucci was eventually dropped upon Meucci's death. However, due to the efforts of Congressman Vito Fossella, the U.S. House of Representatives on 11 June 2002 stated that Meucci's "work in the invention of the telephone should be acknowledged," even though this did not put an end to a still contentious issue. Most modern scholars do not recognize the claims that Bell's work on the telephone was influenced by Meucci's inventions.
The value of the Bell patent was acknowledged throughout the world with patent applications made in most major countries, but when Bell had delayed the German patent application, the electrical firm of Siemens & Halske (S&H) managed to set up a rival manufacturer of Bell telephones under their own patent. The Siemens company produced near-identical copies of the Bell telephone without having to pay royalties. A series of agreements in other countries eventually consolidated a global telephone operation. The strain on Bell by his constant appearances in court, necessitated by the legal battles, eventually resulted in his resignation from the company.
In 1882, Bell became a naturalized citizen of the United States. The Bell family maintained a residence in Washington, DC, where Alec set up a laboratory. In 1915, he characterized his status as: "I am not one of those hyphenated Americans who claim allegiance to two countries." Despite this declaration, Bell has been claimed as a "native son" by Canada, Scotland and the United States. By 1885, a new summer retreat was contemplated. That summer, the Bells had a vacation on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, spending time at the small village of Baddeck. Returning in 1886, Bell started building an estate on a point across from Baddeck, overlooking Bras d'Or Lake. By 1889, a large house, christened "The Lodge" was completed and two years later, a larger complex of buildings were begun that the Bells would name Beinn Bhreagh(Gaelic: beautiful mountain) after Alec's ancestral Scottish highlands. Bell would spend his final, and some of his most productive, years in residence in both Washington, D.C. and Beinn Bhreagh.
Until the end of his life, Bell and his family would alternate between the two homes, but Beinn Bhreagh would, over the next 30 years, become more than a summer home as Bell became so absorbed in his experiments that annual stays lengthened. Both Mabel and Alec became immersed in the Baddeck community and were accepted by the villagers as "their own". The Bells were still in residence at Beinn Bhreagh when the Halifax Explosion occurred on 6 December 1917. Mabel and Alec mobilized the community to help victims in Halifax.
Bell worked extensively in medical research and invented techniques for teaching speech to the deaf. During his Volta Laboratory period, Bell and his associates considered impressing a magnetic field on a record as a means of reproducing sound. Although the trio briefly experimented with the concept, they were unable to develop a workable prototype. They abandoned the idea, never realizing they had glimpsed a basic principle which would one day find its application in the tape recorder, the hard disc and floppy disc drive and other magnetic media.
Bell's own home used a primitive form of air conditioning, in which fans blew currents of air across great blocks of ice. He also anticipated modern concerns with fuel shortages and industrial pollution. Methane gas, he reasoned, could be produced from the waste of farms and factories. At his Canadian estate in Nova Scotia, he experimented with composting toilets and devices to capture water from the atmosphere. In a magazine interview published shortly before his death, he reflected on the possibility of using solar panels to heat houses.
The March 1906 Scientific American article by American hydrofoil pioneer William E. Meacham explained the basic principle of hydrofoils and hydroplanes. Bell considered the invention of the hydroplane as a very significant achievement. Based on information gained from that article he began to sketch concepts of what is now called a hydrofoil boat. Bell and assistant Frederick W. "Casey" Baldwin began hydrofoil experimentation in the summer of 1908 as a possible aid to airplane takeoff from water. Baldwin studied the work of the Italian inventor Enrico Forlanini and began testing models. This led him and Bell to the development of practical hydrofoil watercraft.
During his world tour of 1910–1911, Bell and Baldwin met with Forlanini in France. They had rides in the Forlanini hydrofoil boat over Lake Maggiore. Baldwin described it as being as smooth as flying. On returning to Baddeck, a number of initial concepts were built as experimental models, including the Dhonnas Beag, the first self-propelled Bell-Baldwin hydrofoil. The experimental boats were essentially proof-of-concept prototypes that culminated in the more substantial HD-4, powered by Renault engines. A top speed of 54 miles per hour (87 km/h) was achieved, with the hydrofoil exhibiting rapid acceleration, good stability and steering along with the ability to take waves without difficulty. In 1913, Dr. Bell hired Walter Pinaud, a Sydney yacht designer and builder as well as the proprietor of Pinaud's Yacht Yard in Westmount, Nova Scotia to work on the pontoons of the HD-4. Pinaud soon took over the boatyard at Bell Laboratories on Beinn Bhreagh, Bell's estate near Baddeck, Nova Scotia. Pinaud's experience in boat-building enabled him to make useful design changes to the HD-4. After the First World War, work began again on the HD-4. Bell's report to the U.S. Navy permitted him to obtain two 350 horsepower (260 kW) engines in July 1919. On 9 September 1919, the HD-4 set a world's marine speed record of 70.86 miles per hour (114.04 km/h). This record stood for ten years.
In 1891, Bell had begun experiments to develop motor-powered heavier-than-air aircraft. The AEA was first formed as Bell shared the vision to fly with his wife, who advised him to seek "young" help as Alexander was at the graceful age of 60.
In 1898, Bell experimented with tetrahedral box kites and wings constructed of multiple compound tetrahedral kites covered in silk. The tetrahedral wings were named Cygnet I, II and III, and were flown both unmanned and manned (Cygnet I crashed during a flight carrying Selfridge) in the period from 1907–1912. Some of Bell's kites are on display at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site.
Bell was a supporter of aerospace engineering research through the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), officially formed at Baddeck, Nova Scotia, in October 1907 at the suggestion of Mrs. Mabel Bell and with her financial support. The AEA was headed by Bell and the founding members were four young men: American Glenn H. Curtiss, a motorcycle manufacturer at the time termed the "world's fastest man" having had rode his self-constructed motor bicycle around in the shortest time, later was awarded the Scientific American Trophy for the first official one-kilometre flight in the Western hemisphere and became a world-renowned airplane manufacturer; Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge, an official observer from the U.S. government and the ONLY person in the army who believed aviation was the future, Frederick W. Baldwin, the first Canadian and first British subject to pilot a public flight in Hammondsport, New York; and J.A.D. McCurdy; both engineering students at University of Toronto.
The AEA's work progressed to heavier-than-air machines, applying their knowledge of kites to gliders. Moving to Hammondsport, the group then designed and built the Red Wing, framed in bamboo and covered in red silk and powered by a small air-cooled engine. On 12 March 1908, over Keuka Lake, the biplane lifted off on the first public flight in North America. The innovations that were incorporated into this design included a cockpit enclosure and tail rudder (later variations on the original design would add ailerons as a means of control). One of the AEA project's inventions, the aileron, is a standard component of aircraft today. (The aileron was also invented independently by Robert Esnault-Pelterie.) The White Wing and June Bug were to follow and by the end of 1908, over 150 flights without mishap had been accomplished. However, the AEA had depleted its initial reserves and only a $10,000 grant from Mrs. Bell allowed it to continue with experiments.
Their final aircraft design, the Silver Dart embodied all of the advancements found in the earlier machines. On 23 February 1909, Bell was present as the Silver Dart flown by J.A.D. McCurdy from the frozen ice of Bras d'Or, made the first aircraft flight in Canada. Bell had worried that the flight was too dangerous and had arranged for a doctor to be on hand. With the successful flight, the AEA disbanded and the Silver Dart would revert to Baldwin and McCurdy who began the Canadian Aerodrome Company and would later demonstrate the aircraft to the Canadian Army.
In 1880, Bell received the Volta Prize of 50,000 francs ($10,000) for the invention of the telephone from L’Académie française, representing the French government, in Paris. Among the luminaries who judged were Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, père. The Volta Prize was established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1803 to honor Alessandro Volta, an Italian physicist noted for developing the battery. (The modern usage of the word "volt" is derived from his name.) Since he was reaching affluent circumstances himself, Bell used the money from the Prize to create a number of social structures in and around Washington, D.C. using the symbolic "Volta": the "Volta Fund," "Volta Laboratories" and "Volta Bureau."
In partnership with Gardiner Hubbard, Bell established the publication Science in 1883. In 1888, Bell was one of the founding members of the National Geographic Society and became its second president (1897–1904) and Regent of the Smithsonian Institution (1898–1922). He was the recipient of many honours. The French government conferred on him the decoration of the Légion d'honneur (Legion of Honour); the Royal Society of Arts in London awarded him the Albert Medal in 1902; and the University of Würzburg, Bavaria, granted him a Ph.D. He was awarded the AIEE's Edison Medal in 1914 "For meritorious achievement in the invention of the telephone."
The bel (B) is a unit of measurement invented by Bell Labs and named after Bell. The bel was too large for everyday use, so the decibel (dB), equal to 0.1 B, became more commonly used as a unit for measuring sound intensity.
A number of historic sites and other marks commemorate Alexander Graham Bell, as well as the world's first telephone company:
A large number of Bell's writings, notebooks, papers and other documents rest at the United States Library of Congress Manuscript Devision, as the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers; the collection is available for online viewing. Another large collection of Bell's documents resides at the Alexander Graham Bell Institute
Dr. Alexander Graham Bell was buried atop Beinn Bhreagh mountain overlooking Bras d'Or Lake. He was survived by his wife and his two daughters, Elisa May and Marion.
U.S. patent images in TIFF format