Alexander Graham Bell and
the Passion for Invention
In late nineteenth century North America – the golden age of
invention – Alexander Graham Bell was a giant. He is both typical of
a period in which scientific ingenuity was creating a new world, and
an aberration, because he cared so little for fame and fortune and
never seemed to care whether he beat rivals such as Thomas Edison,
Elisha Gray or the Wright Brothers. Everybody knew when Bell
entered a room, because his kindly warmth and engaging guffaw
captured everybody’s attention. Yet he was also complicated and
neurotic: he preferred to work at night and sleep through the day;
he developed headaches if his compulsive daily routines were
disturbed; he hid in his attic with a cigar and a book rather than
attend social events.
Bell was not a scientist in today’s sense of the word: he never attended university,
and he relied on intuition for his intellectual breakthroughs. Thanks to his father,
a speech therapist in Edinburgh, he grasped from an early age how human
speech and hearing works. It was his understanding of sound waves, and how
these might relate to electrical waves, that allowed him, as a young man, to
invent the telephone before his many rivals got there. At the same time, his
mother’s deafness ignited in him a determination to release people like her from
their prison of silence. Throughout his life, he was pulled in two directions --
the humanitarian urge to improve deaf education, and the intellectual excitement
of scientific breakthroughs.
As a young man of 23, Bell was fascinated by electricity and the challenge of
improving Samuel Morse’s telegraph. Intent on producing a telegraph system
that could carry more than one message at a time, he stumbled on the idea of
a device that could carry messages in human speech rather than in dots-and-
dashes. But he was so impulsive and erratic that he would never have managed
to patent his “speaking telegraph” were it not for the insistence of his backer
Gardiner Hubbard, a Boston lawyer. And he would not have won the race to
get his invention to market if he had not fallen in love with Hubbard’s daughter.
Mabel Hubbard, who lost her hearing during
childhood, came to study articulation with
Bell when she was 15. Over the next two
years, Bell fell in love with his beautiful
young student. When he blurted out his
feelings to her parents, Gardiner Hubbard
told Bell that, if he wanted a chance to
marry Mabel, he had better complete his
In 1876, Bell won the race to invent the
telephone by a whisker: his main rival,
Elisha Gray, filed his papers only two hours
after Alec filed his patent application.
Patent No. 174,465, which recognized Alexander Graham Bell as the inventor of the telephone
with the exclusive right to commercialize it, was one of the most valuable patents ever granted.
The telephone patent made Alec famous and the Bells rich, but Alec always hungered to do more.
A new chapter opened in the Bells’ lives in 1885, when they visited Cape Breton, and fell in love
with its bracing climate and rolling hills. Acquiring a headland near Baddeck on Bras d’Or Lake,
the Bells named it Beinn Bhreagh (“beautiful mountain” in Gaelic) and established a family
fiefdom of cottages, boat houses, a laboratory, an observatory and a magnificent mansion
known as The Point. For the next 37 years, they divided their time between Washington and
During the second half of his life, Alexander Graham Bell explored
ideas as varied as flying machines, hydrofoils, selective sheep
breeding, tetrahedral constructions, salt-water distillation and energy
conservation. In 1919, a Bell-designed hydrofoil sped across Bras D’Or
Lake in Cape Breton, setting the record for the fastest boat in the
world. Had the Bells been closer to such centres of political or
“The inventor is a man who looks
economic power as Washington, New York, or even Ottawa, they
might have made millions from the purchase of these inventions by
around upon the world and is not
governments or entrepreneurs. But for Bell, invention was not about
profit, but about satisfying his own omnivorous curiosity. As the Age
contented with things as they are.
of Specialization dawned, he remained a generalist who continued
to believe, in his own words, that “The inventor is a man who looks
He wants to improve whatever he
around upon the world and is not contented with things as they are.
He wants to improve whatever he sees, he wants to benefit the world.”
sees, he wants to benefit the world.”
With the telephone, this fascinating and generous man successfully
changed the world forever.
— Alexander Graham Bell