Alexander Graham Bell is one of the most famous inventors; he is also one of my heroes, because he led such a colourful life. This column tells readers of Business Standard history; it was published on 12 October 1999.
The later lives of Bell and Watson
Everyone knows that Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A Watson invented the telephone in 1876. Bell died in 1922, Watson in 1934. Their invention made them rich at a young age. What did they do with the rest of their lives?
In 1876, Bell was a 29-year-old man of no fixed occupation. His father, Alexander Melville Bell, was professor of elocution in London University; he coached actors, and taught the deaf to speak (both he and his son married deaf women). Alexander Graham Bell (Alec) left school at 11. At 16 he went to Elgin, and by neglecting to state his age, got a job as a schoolteacher.
By then, however, his father was gaining a reputation as a teacher of elocution. He was invited to give lectures at Lowell Institute in Boston in 1868; Alec went with him to America.
Alec’s elder brother died of tuberculosis in 1866, and his younger brother in 1870, leaving him as the last sibling alive. Alec was also diagnosed with tuberculosis. Fearful that he too may die, his father gave up his professorship and migrated to Canada. On recovering his health, Alec set up a School of Vocal Physiology in Boston in 1872.
At that time his father told Alec about a paper by Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz on the use of electric tuning forks to produce vowel sounds. Alec got hold of the paper, but did not understand it since it was in German. He thought Helmholtz had transmitted speech electrically. That misconception fired him, and he began experiments to do the same.
For help with the construction of the device, he turned to the 20-year-old Thomas Watson in 1874. Watson worked in a local workshop as a machinist. At that time there was no mass production, accuracy required manual dexterity, and people who had it were prized. Watson was one of them. In his spare time, Watson went to mediums and dabble in psychic phenomena; he also went to beaches and declaimed poetry.
The idea of the telephone started from the telegraph. The telegraph had been invented in 1837 by William Cooke, who had served as a soldier of the East India Company and had been sent back to England on account of ill health. He patented it together with Charles Wheatstone, professor of natural philosophy at London University. Samuel Finley Breeze Morse, who invented an alphabet consisting of dots and dashes, turned it into a practical device. In a telegraph, an electric current sent down a wire made a reed magnet at the other end vibrate; a pen attached to it put down dots and dashes in the pattern conveyed by the wire. The first telegraphic message was sent from Washington to Baltimore in 1844: it was “What hath God wrought?” By the 1870s, America was crisscrossed with telegraphic wires owned by a mammoth monopoly, Western Union. Bell and Watson’s idea was to make reed magnets reproduce human speech instead of dots and dashes.
Bell was busy giving speech lessons by day and making experiments at night. He was earning little and always in debt. But he was giving lessons to Mabel, the deaf daughter of Gardiner Hubbard, who was rich and more practical than Bell.
Bell had gnawing doubts about his telephone. But he was not the only one working on the idea; many were in the race. Hubbard filed patent papers for him without his knowledge, and thus closely beat Elisha Gray. Hubbard also drove Bell to exhibit his telephone at the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia celebrating the centenary of independence of the United States in 1876. There the telephone caught the fancy of Dom Pedro II, Emperor of Brazil, who inaugurated the Exposition. It also brought Bell in contact with Lord Kelvin, one of Britain’s foremost scientists who visited the Exposition and carried the word of the invention to Britain.
Although the telephone was shown to work, it was still to make some money. Bell started giving lecture demonstrations with it. The money he earned from them was enough to relieve him of his debts and marry Mabel in July 1877. They left for Britain on honeymoon, and returned fifteen months later. Bell had little to do with the commercialization of the telephone; Hubbard and Watson organized it.
They offered the patent rights to Western Union for $100,000. It rejected the offer; instead, it began to sell and instal telephones in breach of the patent. Watson filed a Nsuit and won it; Western Union had to sell its telephone business to National Bell Company, which was formed in February 1879. The early history of Bell Telephone was full of suits, financial crises and intrigue. But it was also a story of explosive growth, which made Bell and Watson millionaires.
Bell took American nationality in 1882, built a huge mansion in Washington and settled down. He built a country house at Cape Breton in Canada and spent summers there. He lived a life of leisure, entertained lavishly, played the piano, read literature to guests, and indulged in amateur dramatics.
On the beach at Cape Breton he began to fly kites. He designed various kites, some as big as a room. Big kites collapse in high wind; to give them strength with the least addition to weight, Bell invented the tetrahedron or four-cornered, three-dimensional pyramid; it led later to the trapezoid structures of Frank Lloyd Wright, and continues to be used in structures. With some friends he experimented with motorized kites, and invented the aileron and the tricycle undercarriage. Then he became interested in hydrofoils, and built one in 1919. It reached a speed of 70 miles an hour – a marine record it held for 10 years.
Watson retired from Bell at 27, and sailed for Liverpool in 1881. He traveled to Norway, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, where he spent some time learning French. Then he went to Italy, learnt Italian, and worked for a while as a tourist guide in Rome.
On returning to Boston, he married Elizabeth Kimball, and bought a farm at East Braintree, Massachusetts, on which he introduced state-of-the-art mechanization. But soon he lost interest in farming. He set up a machine shop on the farm and started making steam engines for boats.
Then Elizabeth and he joined MIT and studied geology and paleontology. Meanwhile, his engine shop prospered; he went on to build destroyers, cruisers and submarines. At that point his company failed; in 1903, he was forced out of the company, and lost his entire investment. For a time he earned a living as prospector and by means of public readings.
In 1910, at the age of 56, he left for England and joined Frank Benson’s Shakespearean Company. Starting as a member of crowd scenes, he rose to doing secondary parts, and wrote plays for the company based on Dickens’s novels. After two years of travel he returned to Boston, where he spent the rest of his life in amateur dramatics, elocution and geological exploration.
So there is life after early success for those who made their million before they were 30; they do not have to sink into sloth and drink.