Five Professional Lessons from Bell’s Inventive Career

NAMED ORIGINALLY FOR HIS GRANDFATHER, Alexander Bell adopted his middle name Graham from a family friend whom he greatly admired. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Alexander Graham Bell was the son of Alexander Melville Bell, a teacher who enjoyed worldwide reputation as an expert on correct speech and as the inventor of visible speech – a code of symbols used to indicate the position and action of throat, tongue, and lips in uttering various sounds.

When Alexander was a boy of twelve, his mother began to lose hearing, a fact that contributed greatly to his intense desire to help the deaf later in his life. As he grew up, he planned a career in music for a while but eventually decided to follow his father’s footsteps and enrolled as a student-teacher at Weston House, a boys school near Edinburgh. Subsequently, after study at the University of Edinburgh, he became a full-time teacher.

Around this time, Graham tried reading a book titled Sensations of Tone, by Hermann von Helmholtz. The book was written in German language, which Bell didn’t understand well, so he got the wrong impression that the author had managed to telegraph (to send voices from one place to another through a wire) the vowel sounds. On the contrary, Helmholtz had merely described his demonstrations with electrically driven forks to generate vowel sounds synthetically.

Though Graham Bell soon realized his mistake, yet he did not dismiss in his mind the possibility of electrical transmission of speech. While he had no idea how to go about doing it, he had a vision about future – a vision that culminated in the invention of telephone, a device we find so mundane today. Not long afterwards, Bell found himself stating:

“I believe, in future, wires will unite different cities, and a man in one part of the country may communicate by word of mouth with another in a distant place”.

Lesson One:Don’t underestimate the value of your mistakes; they might leave your ego bruised, however, sometimes, they may contain hidden opportunities. Alexander Graham Bell misunderstood Helmholtz’s ideas, but that mistaken impression became his future vision which eventually led to the invention of telephone.

In1871, Bell moved to Boston, United States. Despite his vivid vision about speech telegraphy, he was not a trained scientist. Besides, he lacked financial backing. His interest in electricity was growing day by day but soon realized that he needed certain technical skills to make any practical device. He found an assistant in Thomas A. Watson whose technical capabilities, combined with Bell’s knowledge on human speech, turned magic into reality.

Meanwhile, Graham Bell had made two friends in Boston who later became his financiers: Gardiner Greene Hubbard, a Boston attorney whose little daughter Mabel had been left deaf by scarlet fever; and Thomas Sanders, a successful leather merchant, whose son George was born deaf and was brought to Bell as his private pupil. Both men, due to their personal tragedies, admired Bell’s work greatly and hence chose to support him financially.

Both Sanders and Hubbard agreed to share the expenses while all three men would share in the profits, if Bell’s experiments proved successful. Similarly, Thomas Watson, his assistant, would also receive a share in Bell’s telephone patents as part pay for his work.

Lesson Two:Build a team of individuals who could make up your shortcomings; share the fruits of success with your team members. Despite Bell’s inventive mind and a clear vision about the electrical transmission of speech, he lacked the technical skills and financial resources to execute his plans. So he sought support in both areas and ultimately succeeded in his endeavors. 

2nd June 1875 was a milestone in telephone history. In a garret at 109 Court Street, Bell sat at one end of the line and Watson positioned in a different room­­; Watson was able to receive first recognizable sounds from the inventor: “Watson, come here! I want to see you!”.This was the first successful telephone transmission, and off course, the beginning of a revolution. 

The two men spent better part of the summer conducting further experiments. The efforts were intense and incessant. By September, Bell began to write specifications for his first telephone patent. On March 7, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell became the first inventor to own a patent for a telephone; however, the commercial success of the invention required more ardent efforts. 

A year later, Bell set up a one-way telephone circuit from Brantford to Paris, Ontario. It talked successfully across a distance of about ten miles. During the weeks and months that followed, Bell and Watson made many successful demonstrations of the telephone, leading to start of telephone service in America from where it spread across the world. 

Lesson Three:Be persistent with your efforts in the face of your goals. Success is rarely an overnight phenomenon. It took Bell years of experimentation before succeeding to construct a functional telephone. It took him many more years to make it a commercial realization. 

Though Bell’s invention aroused significant public interest, yet the Western Union Telegraph Company, which was offered the rights to the invention for $100,000, declined to purchase it. In July 1877, Bell and his associates got together to form a company of their own – the ancestor of today’s American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T). Soon afterwards, AT&T became the largest private business corporation in the world. 

Despite the commercial success of the telephone company, Bell failed to anticipate its true worth. In March 1879, Mr. and Mrs. Bell owned around 15 percent of the shares in the company. Within seven months, they had sold the majority of their stock at an average price of about $ 250 a share. In 1881, they unwisely sold off one-third of their remaining stock. Two years later, the stock had risen to a worth of about one million dollars.

Lesson Four:Never underestimate the value of your brand. Telephone was an ingenious invention of incomparable utility; however, Bell and his wife were unable to appreciate the significance of this achievement and sold their shares for a meager value.  

The invention of telephone had made Alexander Bell a wealthy man, but he never discontinued his research activities. More than a century before the proliferation of cell phones, Bell invented a wireless telephone that transmitted speech by beams of light. It was called a “Photophone” and was patented in 1880. However, it could never meet commercial success primarily because of absence of technologies such as fiber optics, which came decades later. 

In 1881, following shooting of President James Garfield, Alexander Bell attempted to build an electromagnetic machine to locate the bullet in the President’s body; however, this quest could not be successful. On the contrary; a Bell designed boat reached a speed of more than 70 miles per hour during a 1919 test, a record maintained for nearly a decade.

Lesson Five:Do not let success or failures abate your passions. Alexander Bell had already achieved a lot by inventing telephone, but he continued with his passion towards invention and innovation. Though some of his efforts could not succeed yet the joy is in the climb itself, and not in the summit. 

Bell died at his summer home in Nova Scotia, Canada on August 2,1922. Two days later, all telephone services across the United States and Canada was suspended for a full minute at the precise moment of lowering Bell into grave. Today, we commemorate him as the inventor of telephone and whenever the intensity of sound is measured in units called “decibel”.