The Message of Alexander Graham Bell

The Message of Alexander Graham Bell

6 Mins
March 1, 2013

Few men of great stature provide a more striking contrast to Sebastian Bach than does Alexander Graham Bell. Bach was the supreme master of his craft, one whose skill improved throughout his lifetime and who rarely produced any work that was less than superb. Bell was a kind and loving man with an inquisitive temperament, and an outstanding teacher to the deaf. Seen historically, however, he did one great thing: he invented the telephone. He then spent the rest of his life trying to prove his legal and moral right to that accomplishment (a task at which he succeeded), as well as trying to prove that his life had not reached its high point at the age of twenty-nine (a task at which he did not succeed).

Born in Scotland on March 3, 1847, Alexander Graham Bell was the son and grandson of prominent elocutionists and speech therapists. Indeed, the Bells and their circle provided the inspiration for George Bernard Shaw's Henry Higgins. Aleck Bell, as he was called, stood as best man to James Murray, the first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Shortly after joining the family trade, Bell became interested in the possibility of using the telegraph to transmit sound. In 1872, after his family had moved to Canada and Bell had begun teaching deaf students in Boston, this interest in telegraphy was revived by a report that Western Union had paid a large sum of money for a telegraph system that sent two messages simultaneously over the same wire (though moving in opposite directions). From his knowledge of sound waves, Bell reasoned that numerous messages at different pitches could be translated into electricity, carried by one wire in the same direction, and then separated back out into distinct messages. He called his idea the harmonic telegraph. Two businessmen—one of them his future father-in-law, Gardiner Greene Hubbard—gave him some financial backing, although he had to continue working as a teacher by day.

In 1874, Bell had the further thought that the amplitude of vocal tones as well as the pitches could be translated into electricity, carried over a wire, and then reproduced at the other end. This was the essential insight of the telephone. In November, Bell wrote home to his parents: "I have scarce dared to breathe [the idea] to anybody for fear of being thought insane" (Bell, Robert V. Bruce, p. 123). Certainly, his backers were not interested, and they insisted that Bell spend his time on the multiple telegraph. Hubbard even threatened to break off Bell's relationship with his daughter, but Bell's proud and angry reply forced him to back down.

Fortunately, by the beginning of 1875 Bell had gained the assistance of a skilled craftsman, Thomas A. Watson, and work went forward more rapidly. On April 6, 1875, Bell received a patent for several key elements of his telegraph. Nevertheless, he continued working with Watson to make the instrument commercially viable.

In June 1875, Watson was making a delicate adjustment on the telegraph's transmitting reed when Bell suddenly came running in from the next room to say he had heard the sound on his receiving reed. Bell's chief worry about the telephone was that the pressure of human speech did not have enough energy to create an adequate current. That the barely audible twang of Watson's reed had transmitted itself proved this fear groundless. Wrote Watson: "All the experimenting that followed that discovery, up to the time the telephone was put into practical use, was largely a matter of working out the details."


The tale of Bell's invention is a fascinating one, but so is the tale of how it is told. Certain contemporary historians of technology like to highlight every element of chance, fortuity, serendipity, and accident that entered into the invention. The implication is: Inventive success is so much a matter of luck that the capitalist system's rewards for invention are unjust. In principle, Bell's telephone is only one case study. But because his telephone patent is the most profitable ever issued in America, the sources of Bell's achievement have come under great scrutiny.

Numerous objections can be raised to the reasoning that tries to trace his success to luck. But the first line of rebuttal lies in the historical facts. Consider, for example, one story that attributes Bell's success to chance. By 1866 he had developed a theory about the relationship between vowel sounds and musical notes, only to be told by a linguist that the German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz had already reached the same conclusion. The linguist had a copy of Helmholtz's book, but unfortunately it was in German, which Bell could not read. Nevertheless, the book's illustrations erroneously convinced Bell that Helmholtz had succeeded in transmitting vowels by telegraph. Conclusion: Bell's work on the harmonic telegraph and the telephone arose from his good luck in mistaking the state of the German's work.

One problem with this story is that it distorts the essential truth. Bell did not, after learning of Helmholtz's work, undertake the project of transmitting sounds and speech by telegraph. Though he began telling his friends that someone would eventually find the means for transmitting speech by telegraph, "he did not see himself as the man" (Bruce, p. 51). Bell took up the study of electricity simply because Helmholtz had applied it to sounds, which were the heart and soul of the Bell family's work. He did not begin working on the transmission of sound by telegraph until 1872, six years after seeing the Helmholtz illustrations, two years after his arrival in America, and at a time when he had become fully cognizant of Helmholtz's experiments. Bell's initial error, therefore, did not materially alter his course.

Another problem with the tale is its arbitrary psychological assumption about how Bell's mistake must have motivated him. Note that precisely the opposite assumption is applied to a second instance of Bell's luck. On July 10, 1874, the New York Times ran a story about an invention of Elisha Gray, a founder of the Western Electric Manufacturing Company. It was a device for transmitting music by telegraph, something very similar to what Bell was doing. On July 11, the Boston Morning Advertiser reprinted the story verbatim. But on July 10, Bell had left Boston to summer in Canada. Conclusion: "If the mercurial Professor Bell had read [the story] he would have been unsettled, perhaps deterred from further work" (Bruce, p. 118).

In the case of Helmholtz, then, we are led to believe that Bell plunged into his work only because he falsely believed a great scientist had already accomplished much of it. In the case of Gray, we are told that Bell persisted in his work only because he did not know that a great inventor had already accomplished much of it. But perhaps in the first case Bell would have begun his work far sooner if he had realized the transmission of sounds by telegraph was yet to be accomplished. And surely it is plausible that, in the second case, Bell would have pushed himself harder to complete his telephone if he had heard of Gray's device. After all, he was on the precipice: His crucial breakthrough came only sixteen days after leaving Boston. His father's diary for July 26 reads: "New Motor (hopeful). Electric speech (?)."

But a third line of defense is needed to back up these two. Perhaps the most famous aspect of the Bell patent case is that Bell's father-in-law formally filed the application for a telephone patent on the morning of February 14, while Elisha Gray's attorney entered a caveat for a telephone patent later that same day. In her article on patents and copyrights, Ayn Rand seems to have been aware of the famous coincidence, for she wrote:

As an objection to the patent laws, some people cite the fact that two inventors may work independently for years on the same invention, but one will beat the other to the patent office by an hour or a day and will acquire an exclusive monopoly, while the loser's work will then be totally wasted. This type of objection is based on the error of equating the potential with the actual. The fact that a man might have been first does not alter the fact that he wasn't (The Objectivist Newsletter, May 1964, p. 20)

In short, even if Bell's acquisition of the telephone patent had depended critically on his good fortune in beating Gray to the patent office, so what? Luck is a part of human life, like the weather; we must take the good with the bad. (As it happens, Bell was not dependent on beating Gray to the patent office. "In a fair hearing, Bell's claim to priority of conception, and hence to patent rights, could not have been (and in fact was not) successfully refuted" [Bruce, p. 171]).

Ethically, the only relevant question is whether, when people are in a head-to-head competition for a zero-sum prize, the influence of luck typically outweighs the difference between rationality and irrationality, hard work and idleness. Nothing in the career of Alexander Graham Bell supports such a conclusion. On the contrary. The success that followed from Bell's long hours of experimenting (after teaching all day) and from his continual re-thinking of the problems before him upholds entirely the wisdom of Damon Runyon: "It may be that the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong. But that is the way to bet."