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Alexander Graham Bell and the History of the Telephone

Alexander Graham Bell was born on March 3, 1847, in Edinburgh, Scotland. He had two brothers, but both passed away from tuberculosis by the time Bell was 20 years old. When he was born, his given name was just Alexander Bell. Both of his brothers had middle names, and Alexander pleaded with his father for a middle name as well. When Bell was 11 years old, his father allowed him to take the middle name of Graham, which was the last name of a family friend. Bell's mother was deaf, and his father and grandfather were famous in England for their work in a field of speech development called elocution. This inspired Bell to study speech and communication as well. At 12 years old, Bell invented a de-husking machine for his friend's family grain mill. The machine Bell built was used by that family for many years. It was Bell's first in a very long line of practical and famous inventions.

In 1867, Bell and his family moved to London so that he and his remaining brother could study at better schools. Prior to moving to London, Bell had been experimenting with using electrical current to send sounds from one place to another. He set up a telegraph wire from his Somerset College room to the room of a friend in a different building. Later that year, Bell's second brother passed away. The family mourned, but Bell and his father were in the middle of a tour of English colleges doing demonstrations on speech innovations, including sign language and advanced lip-reading techniques. Bell and his father had created a laboratory where they were conducting their experiments, and they had several techniques that were getting the attention of speech experts from all over the country.

In 1870, Bell was working himself to the point of exhaustion. His parents did not want to lose their remaining son, so they decided to sell all of the family's belongings in the United Kingdom and move to Canada. After stopping in the province of Quebec, the Bells settled in Paris, Ontario. Alexander Graham Bell immediately put together a new laboratory and continued his experiments. One of Bell's first accomplishments in Canada was to put the unwritten language of the Mohawk tribe into a format that could be written and reproduced. The Mohawk tribe honored Bell for his accomplishments, and his achievement made him famous in North America.

Bell became a professor in elocution at Boston University and decided to split his time between his Ontario home and Boston. By 1873, Bell's working habits and travel schedule had a serious effect on his health. He decided to stay in Boston and advance the work he had started in London on transmitting sound using an electrical current. By the time he decided to focus on what was referred to as the acoustic telegraph, Bell was forced to give up lecturing and settle into a more relaxing routine. Bell did not want to stop teaching and traveling, but his health forced him to stop.

In 1876, Bell had advanced his work to the point where he was able to transmit sounds using a method that involved a needle vibrating in water, which caused the electrical current to change. The change in current was what transmitted the sound. It was this water-based device that Bell used to utter the words "Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you" to his assistant, Thomas Watson, who was listening in another room on another of the same device. Bell was awarded his patent for the telephone on March 7, 1876. An inventor named Elisha Gray had filed an intent to get a patent for a very similar invention on February 14, 1876: The U.S. Patent Office's decision to award the patent to Bell remains a point of contention among historians and members of the Gray family to this day.

In August 1876, Bell was able to conduct a demonstration of his telephone by using two telegraph offices that were five miles apart. Using only the existing telegraph lines, Bell was able to conduct the world's first phone call in front of an audience of amazed onlookers. Later that year, Bell and his financial backers offered to sell the patent for the telephone to Western Union, but Western Union dismissed the telephone as a useless toy that would never amount to anything. That inspired Bell and his partners to keep the telephone patent for themselves, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Here are some resources you can use to learn more about Alexander Graham Bell and the telephone:

The Biography of Alexander Graham Bell from Biography.com

A Very Detailed Biography of Alexander Graham Bell from History.com

Good Biographical Information on Alexander Graham Bell from PBS

The Encyclopedia Britannica Entry on Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell Facts for Kids from Science Kids

The Ducksters Offer A Concise Biography of Alexander Graham Bell for Children

Mr. Nussbaum's Alexander Graham Bell Page for Kids

Brainpop Educators Offers Resources on Alexander Graham Bell

Famous Scientists Gives a Look at Alexander Graham Bell's Life

The FCC Teaches Kids the History of the Telephone

The Alexander Graham Bell Timeline from Soft Schools

Alexander Graham Bell - Biography for Kids

Canadian History for Kids - Alexander Graham Bell

The University of Houston Offers an Audio Story and an Article on Alexander Graham Bell

EduPlace Offers a Quiz on Alexander Graham Bell

A Slideshow from America's Library on the First Telephone Call

A Video on Alexander Graham Bell

MIT's Inventor of the Week Piece on Alexander Graham Bell