Alexander Graham Bell was born on March 3, 1847, in Edinburgh, Scotland. The second son of Alexander Melville Bell and Eliza Grace Symonds Bell, he was named for his paternal grandfather. The middle name “Graham” was added when he was 10 years old. He had two brothers, Melville James Bell and Edward Charles Bell, both of whom died from tuberculosis.
During his youth, Alexander Graham Bell experienced strong influences that had a profound effect on his later life. Bell’s hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland, was known as the “Athens of the North,” for its rich culture of arts and science. His grandfather and father were experts on the mechanics of voice and elocution. Alexander’s mother, who was nearly deaf, became an accomplished pianist and inspired him to undertake big challenges.
Eliza home schooled Alexander and instilled an infinite curiosity of the world around him. He received one year of formal education in a private school and two years at Edinburgh’s Royal High School. Though a mediocre student, he displayed an uncommon ability to solve problems. At age 12, while playing with a friend in a grain mill, he noticed the slow process of husking the wheat grain. He went home and built a device with rotating paddles and nail brushes that easily removed the husks from the grain.
In 1871, Alexander Graham Bell moved to Boston and began work on a device that would allow for the telegraph transmission of several messages set to different frequencies. He found financial backing through local investors Thomas Sanders and Gardiner Hubbard. Between 1873 and 1874, Bell spent long days and nights trying to perfect the harmonic telegraph. During his experiments, he became interested in another idea, transmitting the human voice over wires. The diversion frustrated Bell’s benefactors and Thomas Watson, a skilled electrician, was hired to refocus Bell on the harmonic telegraph. But Watson soon became enamored with Bell’s idea of voice transmission and the two created a great partnership with Bell being the idea man and Watson having the expertise to bring Bell’s ideas to reality.
Through 1874 and 1875, Bell and Watson labored on both the harmonic telegraph and a voice transmitting device. Though at first frustrated by the diversion, Bell’s investors soon saw the value of voice transmission and filed a patent on the idea. For now the concept was protected, but the device still had to be developed. On March 10, 1876, Bell and Watson were successful. Legend has it that Bell knocked over a container of transmitting fluid and shouted, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you!” The more likely explanation was Bell heard a noise over the wire and called to Watson. In any case, Watson heard Bell’s voice through the wire and thus, he received the first telephone call.
With this success, Alexander Graham Bell began to promote the telephone in a series of public demonstrations. At the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, in 1876, Bell demonstrated the telephone to the Emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro, who exclaimed, “My God, it talks!” Other demonstrations followed, each at a greater distance than the last. The Bell Telephone Company was organized on July 9, 1877. With each new success, Alexander Graham Bell was moving out of the shadow of his father.
On July 11, 1877, Alexander Graham Bell married Mable Hubbard, a former student and the daughter of Gardiner Hubbard, his initial financial backer. Over the course of the next year, Alexander and Mable traveled to Europe demonstrating the telephone. Upon their return to the United States, Bell was summoned to Washington D.C. to defend his telephone patent from law suits by others claiming they had invented the telephone or had conceived of the idea before Bell.
Over the next 18 years, the Bell Company faced over 550 court challenges, including several that went to the Supreme Court, but none were successful. Even during the patent battles, the company grew. Between 1877, and 1886, over 150,000 people in the U.S. owned telephones. Improvements were made on the device including the addition of a microphone, invented by Thomas Edison, which eliminated the need to shout into the telephone to be heard.