“Mr. Watson! Come here! I need you!”
Yes, it could have been Sherlock Holmes calling out to his longtime associate, but it was not. It was actually the Scottish-born scientist Alexander Graham Bell (above) calling out to his assistant three days after he filed his patent for his new invention in the first intelligible message ever carried on it. On this date of March 7 in the year 1876, Bell received a patent for his new telephone. Eventually Bell would consider his invention to be an intrusion. But invent it he did, and as a result, the world became forever smaller.
Young Bell Has an Idea….
Bell was born on March 3, 1847 in Edinburgh Scotland. He worked in London with his father Melville, who had developed a system of writing for speaking with the deaf called “Visible Speech”. In 1870, the family moved to Boston, Massachusetts, and the young Alexander acquired employment in a teacher’s position at the Pemberton Ave School for the Deaf. It was during this time in Boston that Bell became fascinated with the possibility of transmitting human speech over wires, in much the same way that Morse’s telegraph transmitted messages. Bell wanted to improve on Morse’s idea by coming up with a “harmonic telegraph” that would transport the sound of human voices over wires just as the telegraph transmitted messages.
Developing Bell’s Idea
By 1874, Bell had indeed made progress towards this concept. He had experimented with an item called the “Phonautograph” which could draw the shapes of various sound waves upon smoke glass by tracing their vibrations. Bell thought that it might be possible to make undulating electrical currents that corresponded to sound waves, and that these metal reeds tuned to different frequencies like a harp might be able to turn these undulatory currents back into sound. Bell’s idea of sending sound over the wires by use of this multi-reed device attracted the backing of Patent Attorney Anthony Pollock, who arranged a visit by Bell to Smithsonian Institution Scientist Joseph Henry, who told Bell that he had the “great germ of invention “ in this idea. But Bell said that he lacked the knowledge to make his idea work. “Get it!” Henry urged the young Bell (Below: Bell with telephone, circa 1876).
Bell was indeed encouraged, and his meeting with Thomas A. Watson, an experienced electrical designer put him towards getting it as Henry had urged him. 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. Eventually, Bell was able to come up with a device which he patented ; U.S. Patent number 174,465, was issued to Bell on March 7, 1876, by the U.S. Patent Office. Bell’s patent 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 later, while working on further refinements, Bell on one end of the phone accidentally spilled some acid in his office, leading to the famous cry to Watson.
The World Shrinks!!
The new device caught on and made the world much smaller by putting people at great distances together as if they were just a few feet away. One could argue that this has not been an altogether great thing. Indeed, Mr. Bell himself came to look upon the telephone as an intrusion upon privacy, and refused to have one installed in his private study. Given the repeated interruptions of cell phone ring tones on even the most private and/or solemn gatherings to which we are repeatedly subjected nowadays, it is hard not to agree with him. Nevertheless, on January 25, 1925, Bell made the first intercontinental phone call, as reported by the New York Times:
“On October 9, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Watson talked by telephone to each other over a two-mile 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 3,400-mile 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.”
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