Physicists Biographies

Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell (1847 – 1922) was born on March 3, 1847, in Edinburgh, Scotland.

He was the second of three children born to Alexander Melville Bell and Eliza Grace Symonds.

His family had a tradition and reputation as a specialist in speech correction and training for people with hearing impairment.

Bell, his father and grandfather had the same first name – Alexander. Until he was 11 years old, he was simply called Alexander Bell, until one day at school, the teacher suggested that he adopt one more name to differentiate himself from his grandfather. After consulting family members, he chose Graham, named after a close friend of his father’s.

At the age of 14, he and his brothers built a curious reproduction of the vocal tract. In a skull they mounted a tube with “vocal cords”, palate, tongue, teeth and lips, and with a bellows, they blew the trachea, making the skull babble “ma-ma”, imitating a crying child.

Alexander Graham Bell grew up like this, in an environment rich in the study of voice and sounds, which certainly influenced his interest in this field, in addition to having a mother who, at a very young age, became deaf.

He studied at the University of Edinburgh, where he began experimenting on pronunciation. One day a friend of his father spoke about the work of a certain German scientist named Hermann von Helmholtz, who had investigated the physical nature of sounds and voice. Excited by the news, he hurried to get a copy of the book. There was only one problem: the book was written in German, a language I didn’t understand. In addition, it brought many equations and concepts in physics, including those relating to electricity, an area that he also did not dominate.

Despite all the difficulties, Bell got the impression that (through some drawings in the book) Helmholtz had managed to send articulated sounds, like vowels, through wires using electricity. In fact, what Helmholtz was trying to do was synthesize voice-like sounds using devices and not transmit them over a distance. Contrary to what you might be thinking, it was exactly this mistake that made Bell start thinking about ways to send the voice at a distance by electrical means.

In 1868, in London, he became his father’s assistant, taking up his position full-time when he had to travel to the United States to teach courses.

At that time, his two brothers, the eldest and the youngest, at an interval of one year, died of tuberculosis. Economic difficulties increased and the threat of illness, also found in Bell, led his father to abandon his career in London at its best and, in August 1870, to move with his family to Canada.

They bought a house in Tutelo Heights, near Brantford, Ontario, which was known as “House Melville” and which is now preserved as a historic relic under the name “Bell Manor”.

Bell’s father was famous and was very well received in Canada. In 1871, he received an invitation to train teachers at a school for the deaf in Boston, United States, however, preferring to remain in Canada, he sent his son in his place. Bell started to teach the pronunciation method developed by his father, training teachers in many cities besides Boston, because, at that time, before the discovery of antibiotics, deafness was much more common and could arise as a result of many diseases.

In 1872, he opened his own school for the deaf (where he later met D. Pedro II in 1876). The following year, in 1873, he became a professor at Boston University, at which time he began to be interested in telegraphy and to study ways of transmitting sounds using electricity.

Through his work as a teacher of the deaf, A. Graham Bell – as he signed it and liked to be called – met influential people who later helped him a lot. One of them was Thomas Sanders, a wealthy leather merchant who lived in Salem, near Boston, whose son – George – was a student of Bell. The boy showed such rapid progress that Sanders gratefully invited Bell to live in his house. Another important person was Gardiner Greene Hubbard, a successful lawyer and businessman, who would become his father-in-law in 1875.

In 1898, Bell replaced his father-in-law as president of the National Geographic Society, turning the entity’s old newsletter into the beautiful National Geographic Magazine, similar to the one we have today.

Alexander Graham Bell died at his home in Baddeck, Canada, on August 2, 1922, aged 75 years.

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