Five Professional Lessons from Bell’s Inventive Career

NAMED AFTER HIS GRANDFATHER, Alexander Bell picked his middle name, Graham, from a family friend he admired.  His father, Alexander Melville Bell, was a professor at the University of Edinburgh and had invented Visible Speech— a code of phonetic symbols used to represent the position of speech organs corresponding to different alphabets. His mother, Eliza Grace Bell, was a talented musician who taught his son how to play piano, though she herself was nearly deaf and used an ear tube to listen to her own tunes. 

As he grew up, Graham considered a career in music at first but eventually chose to follow his father’s footsteps. At fifteen, he joined Weston House Academy as a student-teacher. During next few years, while the Bell family kept migrating, first to London and subsequently to Ontario, Canada, young Alexander Bell remained busy teaching and improving his own education.

It was around this time that Bell got a chance to study a book titled Sensations of Tone by Hermann von Helmholtz. Since the book was written in German which Bell could hardly understand, he relied on the accompanying diagrams. The author had described his experiments concerning artificial reproduction of vowel sounds using tuning forks; however, Bell misinterpreted that Helmholtz had been able to transmit sounds along electric wires.

While he realized his mistake soon, Alexander Bell did not dismiss in his mind the idea of electric transmission of sound. In fact, transmission of speech along electric wires became his future vision which culminated into the invention of the telephone.

Lesson One: Do not neglect the value of your mistakes. Rather learn from them and move on. Alexander Bell had realized that he had misconceived Helmholtz’s ideas, but instead of ignoring it as a waste, he chose that misconception as his future vision, thus ushering us into the era of the telephone.

In 1872, Bell became professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at the University of Boston. By this time, he was obsessed with the idea of making something to help people speak and communicate; however, he had no inkling how to turn that into reality. His interest in electricity was growing day by day, yet he was not a trained scientist. In addition, he lacked the financial resources to construct any practical device.

Bell’s technical troubles were soon tackled as he found a capable and diligent assistant in Thomas Watson whom he had met at a machine shop. Meanwhile, he got acquainted with two wealthy businessmen: Thomas Sanders, whose son George was born deaf and was brought to Bell as a pupil; and Gardiner Greene Hubbard, a Boston attorney whose daughter, Mabel (Bell’s future wife), came to Bell as a deaf student.

Both Sander and Hubbard, due to their personal tragedies, admired Bell’s efforts for helping deaf and hence chose to become his financiers and future business partners. Similarly, Thomas Watson got a share in Bell’s subsequent patents. 

Lesson Two: Do not hesitate to seek resources when you need them; pay back to the people who help you grow. Bell had a vision about telephone but lacked both technical and financial means. Though Alexander Bell is often solely credited as the inventor of the telephone, yet it would not have been possible without the skillful hands of Thomas Watson and of course the financial backing from Sanders and Hubbard.

As Bell joined hands with Watson, the duo started working on the idea of a harmonic telegraph. A telegraph was nothing new; the extant electric telegraphs used a code of symbols called Morse Code (in the name of its inventor Samuel Morse) to transmit electric signals over wires which could then be translated into messages at the destination. The limitation with these devices was that only one message could be sent along a wire.

By 1872, the Western Union Telegraph Company was able to send two messages over two telegraph wires at the same time. Bell was excited and thought, why not more than two! And why not to send the sound itself! He mused if vibrations from several pairs of tuning forks could be sent along a wire, it was possible to make tuning forks at the other end vibrate at the exact same pitch; he called this idea a harmonic telegraph.

By June 1875, after repeated failures with sound transmission through tuning forks, Bell was utterly frustrated. To make things worse, his financiers wanted him to focus on improving the electric telegraphs as they thought the Western Union Telegraph Company—being the sole service provider—were overcharging the customers and a better, more economical alternative was the need of the hour. Bell was in a professional dilemma: he owed to his investors, yet he wanted to work around his own ideas.

One day, while they were working together, Thomas Watson suggested using reeds instead of tuning forks. Bell liked the idea; the two men went into separate rooms to try sending each other messages. Thomas had the transmitter while Bell carried the receiver. The transmitter and receiver were connected through a long wire. As Thomas tried to make the reeds vibrate to produce sound, one of them got stuck; when he plucked the reed to unstuck it, Bell heard a “ping’ out of the receiver. The telephone was conceived.

Lesson Three: Be open to suggestions from your peers and assistants. Though electric transmission of sound was Bell’s vision, yet it was Watson’s out of the box idea and the subsequent happenings that opened the pathway for the breakthrough.

Still struggling to convince the investors, Bell and Watson spent the better part of the next summer experimenting and refining their rudimentary device. The following September, Bell started to write the specifications of his first telephone patent, and on March 7,1876, the patent was issued to Alexander Graham Bell. However, they were still far from transmission of human voice.

Three days later, Bell had another “hurrah!” moment. He was testing his transmitter; Watson was downstairs with the receiver. Suddenly Bell spilled a bottle of acid on his trousers and shouted in anguish, “Mr. Watson, Come here, I want to see you!”. In his pain, Bell had forgotten that Watson was downstairs and could not listen his voice, but he was astonished when Watson came rushing up and told him that he had heard Bell’s voice clearly through the receiver. It was the first telephone call!

Lesson Four: Try your best and leave the rest to fate. Bell and Watson had already invented a device that could send sounds across electric wires; however, luck favored them again as Bell met another serendipity and his scream travelled across to Watson through wires. Accidents are bad but some of them are good as well.

Near the end of 1876, Bell and his partners offered the rights of the telephone to the Western Union for $ 100,000. But the answer was no. And how spectacularly wrong they were! The invention of the Telephone was about to change the way people communicate. Not long afterwards, Bell found him traveling across the United States to demonstrate how his telephone worked; by 1886, the number of telephone users had exceeded 150,000.

While the Western Union proved to be short-sighted, Bell himself failed to appreciate the financial value of his invention. Bell and his partners had founded the Bell telephone company in 1877; but by 1881, Bell had stepped down from the company. Not only this, upon his wife’s insistence, they had sold most of their shares at relatively cheap values. The share prices doubled shortly afterwards but Bell and his Mrs. had already missed the bus.

Lesson Five: Do not underestimate the value of your brand. Bell had invented a revolutionary device, but he first agreed to sell the rights of the invention to the Western Union and then sold his shares like peanuts. Though the invention made him wealthy but not as much as it could.

The invention of the telephone had made Bell famous and wealthy, but he continued trying novel ideas until much later. In 1880, he invented a photophone— a device that could carry voice messages through a light beam. This was Bell’s personal favorite, nonetheless it could not gain any value as fiber optics technology came decades later. A year later, he invented a metal detector and made an unsuccessful attempt to detect the bullet in President James Garfield’s body (assassinated just six months after being elected).

Alexander Graham Bell died on August 2,1922 in Nova Scotia, Canada. We still remember him each time we pick the telephone or whenever the unit ‘decibel’ is mentioned as a sound measure. 

8 thoughts on “Five Professional Lessons from Bell’s Inventive Career

  1. Lesson 1 is a good one, we were punished for mistakes when we were in school with lower grades.

    This system doesn’t translate well into the real world. We need to break away from it.

    Mistakes show us what isn’t the way so we can find the right way

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Five Professional Lessons from Wright Brothers’ Inventive Career | Five Lessons

  3. Pingback: Five Professional Lessons from Steve Jobs’s Entrepreneurial Career | Five Lessons

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