By Garrett P Serviss.
Alexander Graham Bell presents a remarkable example of apparent heredity in mental tendency, involving three successive generations: that of the original possessor of the intellectual hereditament in question, that of his son and that of his grandson, the latter being the subject of our sketch. In other words, it might be affirmed that the telephone is the product of three generations of effort in one family to extend and perfect the domain of human speech. The steps follow one another with beautiful precision. First, in the early days of the nineteenth century Alexander Bell, a Scotchman, began the march with an invention for removing impediments to speech. His life was concentrated upon the study of the natural organs of language and the means of improving them. To make the deaf heal, or at least to furnish them with some equivalent for hearing, was one of his dreams.
His son, Alexander Melville Bell, born at Edinburgh in 1819, took the next step. It was straight in line with his father's, but longer. He became connected with the University of Edinburgh and with the London University and later with Queen's College at Kingston, Canada, as a lecturer on the principles of speech and elocution. He greatly improved his father's system and invented a method of teaching deaf mutes to speak. It was called "visible speech," because it represented the pronunciation of words by symbols addressed to the eye, and it is still in use among institutions for the deaf and dumb.
All this was not accomplished without a profound study of the mechanism of the organs of speech and hearing and of the laws of sound, and the results of these studies, directly transmitted to the man who was to make the third stride, led, according to the statement of Alexander Graham Bell himself, to the invention of the telephone.
This third step opened out a new and broader field. The attempt was no longer merely to improve the ordinary means of transmitting and receiving speech, but to extend the audibility of the human voice to incredible distances; to enable man, as it were, to speak and be heard all around the world, wherever electric wires could be stretched. But this step would not have been taken if the man who made it had not been brought to an advanced position by those which preceded it. Professor Bell has been particular in averring that his great invention was no happy accident or inspiration, but the result of long, patient, persevering studies, based upon the labors of his predecessors. It is worthwhile to note this fact for the benefit of those who think that great things can be achieved by a sudden dash of genius.
This continued effort in a single direction by three successive individuals in one family, each catching his inspiration from his immediate predecessor like a leaping flame, is one of the rarest things in history. It is like the extension of one man's life over three generations. How happy would the inventor and discoverer, who feels himself thwarted by the brevity of life, become if he could always be assured that his son and his grandson would effectively prolong the development of his work over the space of a hundred years. It would be almost as good as the realization of the dream, inspired by the recent experiments of Professor Loeb and Dr. Matthews, that science may extend human existence to the measure of years meted to Enoch and Methuselah, who, alas! had no scientific theories to work out.
It is not the intention in this sketch to discuss the claims of those who have asserted that their right to be regarded as inventors of the telephone is as good as Professor Bell's. Long, expensive and famous litigations have legally established the standing of the latter; and whatever might or might not have been developed out of a triumph of his adversaries, the fact is that, with the field cleared before him, he has virtually encircled the earth with electrically transmitted speech, and the results of his experiments and discoveries, gathering force, like a projectile from a rifle, through three long generations of concentrated effort, have facilitated human intercourse and in d us try in every civilized country.
Precisely upon what does Alexander Graham Bell's claim to be regarded as one of the captains of industry in our time rest? Upon the invention of the telephone, to be sure; but many others have worked upon that problem, and there must be some particulars in which he stands ahead of them all. Others, experimenting with the transmission of sound by the aid of electricity, had been thwarted by the difficulties, presented by articulate speech. Musical telephones were comparatively easy to make, because musical notes can be transmitted by intermittent and pulsatory currents, and Reis's telephone, invented in 1860, could transmit a tune or a melody. But in order to transmit the peculiar timbre of articulate speech; something else was needed.
Here the knowledge accumulated by Professor Bell and by his father and his grandfather - for each of these had been in turn a careful and life-long instructor to his son - came exactly into play. All the known phenomena of speech and hearing were as familiar to Alexander Graham Bell as his daily bread. He took the human ear, not a model of it, but an actual ear, and by manipulating it as a phonautograph (a machine for writing sounds) he obtained perfect tracings, in the form of sinuous lines, of the sounds that affected the ear. While engaged in these experiments, he was struck by the remarkable disproportion in weight between the thin membrane of the ear-drum and the bones that it set in vibration, and he said to himself: "If a membrane as thin as tissue, paper can control the vibration of bones that, compared to it, are of immense size and weight, why should not a larger and thicker membrane be able to vibrate a piece of iron in front of an electromagnet? "
Acting upon this thought he constructed his first speaking telephone, and, after making a number of improvements, finally exhibited the instrument at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, where, among the crowd of idle curiosity-seekers, happened to be Sir William Thompson, now Lord Kelvin, who was amazed by the invention, pronounced it "the wonder of wonders in electric telegraphy, " and, on going home, astonished his colleagues of the British Association, then in session at Glasgow, by his account of what he had seen and heard.
We saw, a few moments ago, that the transmission of musical sounds by telephone was no new thing at this time; in what, then, did the wonder of Bell's machine consist? Sir William Thompson, in his Glasgow address, told wherein the marvel lay: Bell's, telephone reproduced by electricity "the tones and delicate articulations of voice and speech, and it was necessary, in order to obtain this result, to find out the means of varying the intensity of the current in the same proportion as the inflections of the sound emitted by the voice." In the musical telephones the electric current was intermittent, but such a current would not answer at all for reproducing human speech. To accomplish that, Bell found that he must produce an undulatory current whose vibratory character would not be obliterated, as occurred within the intermittent and pulsatory currents, when sounds of different pitches were simultaneously transmitted, but which in such cases would simply undergo changes in the shapes of the undulations. Upon this the entire success of the telephone, as an instrument for the electric transmission of speech, depended, and Bell's studies of the ear, above described, led him to the solution of the problem.
His telephone, whose diaphragm, vibrating pieces of iron in front of an electromagnet, had been suggested to his mind by the drum and bones of the human ear, produced the kind of current needed through the effects of induction. In the historic controversy between Professor Bell and Mr. Elisha Gray, one of the chief points in dispute related to the priority of claim for the use of undulatory currents, since these were indispensable for a speaking telephone, and the decision was in Bell's favor. Of course, this was only a beginning, but to an unusual degree it covered subsequent development. Yet the history of law records no bitterer contest than that waged against Professor Bell by his rivals; other geniuses have contributed to the perfection of the telephone as we know it today, and at present Bell's original instrument is used only for a receiver, more sensitive forms of transmitters having been devised. But the great triumph was his, and when he had beaten his adversaries in the courts he had only to spread his system over the planet and enter into the enjoyment of his millions.
Professor Bell is yet comparatively young, having been born in 1847. He has made other inventions, such as that of the photo-phone, and he is actively interested in the advance of science; but the telephone dwarfs all his other achievements and constitutes his claim to rank among the leaders of his time.
Originally published in Cosmopolitan Magazine. May 1902.