- Historic Sites
THE VOICE HEARD ROUND THE WORLD
"My God, it talks!” said the Emperor of Brazil. So the new invention did—but not until Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant had solved some brain racking problems
April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
For the next three years after Bell’s return from England, both he and Watson were compelled to spend most of their time either testifying in court or preparing to testify. Again and again Watson found himself building reproductions of the original telephone instrument in order to prove to judges and juries that it actually had worked right from the start. The litigation went on for decades, and in time virtually every big electrical and telegraph company in the United States mobilized its technical and legal resources in all-out battles to break the bulwarks of Patent No. 174,465. When Western Union tardily recognized the potential of Bell’s invention, just two years after they had haughtily spurned Hubbard’s offer to sell it to them for $100,000, they engaged Thomas Edison and Elisha Gray to evolve instruments that would work as well as the Bell telephone and yet evade the restrictions of the basic patent. Edison did, indeed, evolve a carbonbutton transmitter that proved superior to Bell’s magneto transmitter, as Watson rather ruefully admitted afterward.
“Our transmitter was doing much to develop the American voice and lungs,” he observed, “making them powerful but not melodious. This was the telephone epoch when, they used to say, all the farmers waiting in a country grocery would rush out and hold their horses when they saw anyone preparing to use the telephone.”
The basic principles involved in Patent No. 174,465 were, however, unique, inimitable, and not subject to disguise or variation. The patent withstood all assaults, and one by one the various adversaries were struck down by the courts—and on several occasions by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Both Bell and Watson separated themselves from the telephone company in the same year, 1881, and turned their restless minds to other interests. By now both young men were financially secure for life; they were, indeed, rich, and they were bored by such matters as law suits and corporate expansion. “Bell was a pure scientist,” Watson explained. “Making money out of his idea never seemed to concern him particularly.” When the Bell Telephone Company of Canada was incorporated, Bell gave three quarters of his interest to his father and generously dispensed smaller fractions to many others who had helped him. To his wife he gave his entire holdings in the American company as a wedding gift, along with complete control of his financial affairs. Once, while at home in Brantford on vacation, he was asked to return to the States to testify in another patent suit. Throwing up his hands in exasperation, he declared that he would rather surrender all interest in the telephone and devote the rest of his life to teaching the deaf than participate in one more piece of litigation.
As for Watson, he resigned his position as General Inspector of the New England Telephone Company, partly because the incessant pressures of the embattled and swiftly expanding firm had given him chronic insomnia, and partly because “the telephone business had become, I thought, merely a matter of routine, with nothing more to do except pay dividends and fight infringers.” In this latter assumption, events were to prove him incorrect. For the telephone system, from the day it was born, was a living organism that immediately began a process of expansion and technical development that has accelerated with each passing year. The process involved vastly more than the bare necessities of festooning additional miles of wires or manufacturing thousands of new phones. Other original minds, other gifted technicians, took up where Bell and Watson left off. By 1900, less than a quarter century after Bell filed his original patent, more than three thousand patents had been filed in Washington by the second generation of Bell inventors.
Bell’s creation of the telephone overshadowed later achievements that by themselves would have insured a degree of immortality to a lesser man. He made important advances toward the development of the photoelectric cell, the phonograph, the iron lung, and the desalination of ocean water. Working with the aviation pioneer S. P. Langley, he contributed valuably to aeronautical theory, in which he was intensely interested; on a practical level, he was the co-inventor of the aileron as a device to control the lateral balance of an airplane.
Yet through all his years of international fame and glory, until his death in 1922, Bell never lost his interest in the problems of the deaf. With $300,000 of his own money he founded the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf, and he developed a lifetime friendship with Helen Keller, whom he first knew in 1886 as a six-year-old still almost completely mute. He was always tenderly considerate of his deaf wife, and repeatedly, from the time of his first triumphs in Boston, he declared that he would rather be remembered by posterity as one who had helped the deaf than as the inventor of the telephone.