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Reference MS.8748
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Previous Numbers WMS/ALS: Bell
Level Item
Extent 1 file (1 item)
Title Bell, Alexander Graham (1847-1922), teacher of the deaf and inventor of the telephone
Date 1878
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Name Bell, Alexander Graham, 1847-1922.
Description One letter, signed by Bell but the body of it in another hand, to Lyon Playfair, first Baron Playfair (1818-1898), politician and chemist. Bell reports back on a demonstration of the telephone that he has just performed for Queen Victoria, and thanks Playfair for bringing the invention to her attention.
Historical Background

Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh in 1847, the son of Alexander Melville Bell (1819-1905) and his first wife, Eliza Grace née Symonds. Alexander Melville Bell was a speech therapist and elocutionist; his own father, Alexander Bell (1790-1865) was also an elocutionist.

Bell was educated at the Royal High School in Edinburgh 1858-1862, then spent some time in 1862 learning from his grandfather in London; from 1863 to 1864 he was a pupil-teacher in Elgin, teaching both music and elocution. He studied at Edinburgh University 1864-1865, returning to Elgin as a master in 1865 and moving to Somerset College, Bath, in 1866. In 1867 he moved to London, joining his father who had taken on the work of the senior Alexander Bell. In London, Alexander Graham Bell studied anatomy and physiology at the University of London, and became skilled at teaching the deaf.

In 1870 Bell and his parents emigrated to Canada. Alexander Graham Bell continued his work with the deaf in New England, becoming Professor of Vocal Physiology and Elocution at Boston University in 1873. He adopted US citizenship in 1874.

Bell's work on the transmission of sound by electricity, which led to the development of the telephone, grew out of his work with the deaf and in particular his interest in phonetics. Building on work by Helmholtz on the production of composite sounds by electric tuning forks, and by Koenig and Scott on the translation of sound into visual images via electric impulses, Bell spent much of the winter of 1874/5 in experiments and in summer 1875 demonstrated a system that used a diaphragm to translate sound into electrical impulses, transmit it down a wire using various interrupted tones of different frequencies, and translate it back into intelligible human speech at the other end using another vibrating membrane: the modern telephone. (An Italian inventor, Antonio Meucci (1808-1889), had filed a patent caveat - a notice to patent a device - for a similar system in 1871, choosing in 1874 not to renew it, and is often credited with priority in the field; however, Meucci's specification lacks detail on how the sound is to be translated into electric impulses, which Bell achieved.)

Bell set up the Bell Patent Association in 1875 to finance the telephone's development, investors including a Boston attorney, Gardiner G. Hubbard, whose daughter Mabel married Bell in 1877. Mabel had been deaf from childhood. They had two daughters.

From 1880 Bell left the business issues of telephone development to his company, which grew eventually into the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, and focussed his efforts on developing the photophone, which would use the photoconductive properties of selenium to transmit speech via a light beam. Although Bell regarded this as his greatest achievement its range was limited and radio rendered it unnecessary. He also worked on phonographs, flight and air conditioning, and took a keen interest in the work of the National Geographic Society. He died at his home in Nova Scotia in 1922 on 2nd August; he was buried at 6:25pm on August 4th, at which time all telephone traffic in the United States was stopped for one minute as a tribute.

Acquisition Details Purchased from Glendining, London, January 1935 (acc.67971).
Accession Number 67971
Access Status Open
Access Conditions The papers are available subject to the usual conditions of access to Archives and Manuscripts material.
Reproduction Conditions Images are supplied for private research only at the Archivist's discretion. Please note that material may be unsuitable for copying on conservation grounds. Researchers who wish to publish material must seek copyright permission from the copyright owner.
Language English
Related Material

In the Wellcome Library:

Letters and papers by Lyon Playfair are held as MS.7431, and correspondence by or to him occurs in various places in the collection, which can be identified by searching the database.

Correspondence and notes relating to Bell's rival for priority in the invention of the telephone, Antonio Meucci, can be found at MS.7323.

Subject Telephone
MaterialType Archives - Non-digital
System No. 37931eb0-9ad8-4b73-8879-31c1ad75711b