Day 44 of Colourisation Project – June 20
On this day, June 20, 1877 Alexander Graham Bell installed the world’s first commercial telephone service in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland 1847, Alexander Graham Bell was an eminent scientist and inventor, who held more than 18 patents and 12 others that he shared with collaborators. In 1876 he was awarded the first US patent for the telephone.
Between 1877 and 1886, the number of people in the United States who owned telephones grew to more than 150,000. During this time, improvements were made when Thomas Edison came along with his own invention, the microphone. This eliminated the need to shout into the telephone to be heard.
Unknown photographer, 1904. – Coloured by Loredana Crupi
For health reasons and after losing two brothers to tuberculosis, Bell’s family decided to uproot everything and in 1870 moved from the UK to Canada where they settled in Brantford, Ontario.
Bell developed an early 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 in this area, Bell was awarded the title of Honorary Chief where he participated in a ceremony wearing the traditional Mohawk headdress.
Throughout his life he referred to himself as “a teacher of the deaf”. Bell was home-schooled by his mother, who despite her own deafness was a proficient pianist. In 1872 after teaching stints at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes, the American Asylum for Deaf-mutes in Hartford, Connecticut, and the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts, Bell opened his own School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech in Boston, attracting a large number of deaf pupils including Helen Keller, who came to him as a young child unable to see, hear, or speak. In 1882 he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
In 1880, the French government awarded Bell the Volta Prize for the invention of the telephone from the Académie française. This prize was conceived by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1801 and named in honor of Alessandro Volta, an Italian physicist known for the invention of the battery…but that’s another story for another day. On a side note, among the luminaries who judged this award were Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.
Bell used his considerable prize money (approximately US$250,000 in today’s dollars) to set up the Volta Laboratory in 1887, an experimental facility devoted to scientific discovery and as a center for studies on deafness. This led to the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, a leading center for the research and pedagogy of deafness. In 1890, he established the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf. The Volta Laboratory is still in operation today in Georgetown, Washington, D.C.
At the laboratory he also developed the first ‘iron lung’, a metal jacket to assist patients with lung problems, conceptualized the process for producing methane gas from waste material, developed a metal detector to locate bullets in bodies. He invented an audiometer to test a person’s hearing; a device for locating icebergs at sea; a hydrofoil which set a world speed record of over 70 miles per hour and he developed a method of making phonograph records on a wax disc.
In 1898 he became a member of a governing board of the Smithsonian Institution. He was a founding father of the National Geographic Society and president from 1896 to 1904. Later in life he turned his interest to Aviation. He assisted physicist and astronomer Samuel Langley who experimented with heavier-than-air flying machines; he invented a special tetrahedral kite in 1903 and founded the Aerial Experiment Association in 1907.
It seems everyone wanted a piece of the action. Alexander Graham Bell was ranked 57th among the 100 Greatest Britons in 2002 in an official BBC nationwide poll, and among the Top Ten Greatest Canadians in 2004, and the 100 Greatest Americans in 2005.
In 1936 the US Patent Office declared Bell first on its list of the country’s greatest inventors, leading to the US Post Office issuing a commemorative stamp honoring Bell in 1940 as part of its ‘Famous Americans Series’. Curiously the Bell stamp became very popular and sold out in little time and it remains to this day, the most valuable one of the series.
In 2006 Bell was also named as one of the 10 greatest Scottish scientists in history after having been listed in the National Library of Scotland’s ‘Scottish Science Hall of Fame’.
In August of 1922 at age 75, Bell died of complications arising from diabetes at his home in Nova Scotia,
A poignant tribute was made upon the conclusion of Bell’s funeral, with every phone on the North American continent silenced for one minute in his honor.
“Mr. Watson — Come here — I want to see you.” Alexander Graham Bell (First intelligible words spoken over the telephone 10 March 1876, as recorded in Bell’s Journal entry.)