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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
Believing that his findings were original, he set them down in an enthusiastic forty-page letter to his father, Alexander Melville Hell, who was then teaching elocution in London. Bell senior passed them on to a friend and professional colleague, Alexander James Ellis, a leader in British philological circles. Regretfully Ellis informed young Bell that his work had been anticipated three years earlier by the great German physicist and physiologist Hermann von Helmholtz, who had reached similar conclusions and described them in a work that has since become a classic, On the Sensations of Tone. Helmholtz’s experiments had been vastly more elaborate than Bell’s, for he had produced vowel sounds not with the human mouth but through combinations of electrically operated tuning forks and resonators. Owing to his limited knowledge of German, Bell could not follow the intricacies of Helmholt’s exposition. But from his study of the accompanying pictures and diagrams of apparatus he concluded that the German scientist had succeeded in transmitting vowel sounds from one point to another over a wire. His assumption was completely wrong; and Ellis, who was then at work translating Hemholtz’s treatise into English, corrected him, explaining that the German had simply used electromagnets to keep his tuning forks in continuous vibration.
This episode left several important residuals in Bell’s mind. First was his discovery that tuning forks could be made to vibrate continuously by the intermittent attraction of electromagnets. Second was the concept that had grown out of his misreading of the Helmholtz text. For even though he had leapt to an inaccurate conclusion and knew he had done so, his original error began leading a life of its own in his private meditations. If one imagined that vowel sounds could somehow be transmitted over a wire, why not the entire spectrum of the human voice? And finally, he had come to realize that he lacked the knowledge of electricity required to undertake the experiments that now began to clamor in his mind for execution. He resolved to repair this deficiency, and in the following year, 1867, while engaged in teaching elocution in the city of Bath, he started experimenting in his leisure moments with telegraph apparatus, electromagnets, and tuning forks. Hc continued his investigations in London, where, from 1868 until the spring of 1870, he assisted his father with elocution classes and completed his own education at University College.
Then tragedy struck the Bell family. Three years earlier, Graham’s younger brother, Edward Charles, had died of tuberculosis. Now, in May of 1870, his older brother, Melville, who had been carrying on the original Bell elocution classes in Edinburgh since his father’s move to London, died of the same disease. And Graham himself disclosed symptoms that led doctors to warn that he too was gravely threatened. His father did not delay. Determining to get his surviving son out of London into cleaner, drier air, he abandoned his career at its most prosperous peak, sold his house, and with his wile and Graham sailed for Canada in July. A lew weeks later they moved into their new home, a modest, painted brick house perched on a height of land above the Grand River at Branlford, Ontario. [Since Bell evolved many of his fundamental concepts there, the house at Brantford is today maintained as a national monument by the government of Canada.]
Here young Bell quickly regained his health, and spent long days continuing to ponder the mysteries of electricity and sound. He also studied the language of the Mohawk Indians, which he mastered so fluently that the Mohawks, pleased, initiated him into their tribe with full ceremonial rites. Sometimes he reclined thoughtfully in a hammock strung between two birch trees on the bluff above the winding river. Sometimes he worked indoors with his tuning forks and electrical circuits, or experimented with the piano. Although he was an accomplished pianist, during this period he was less likely to play music than to strike single notes and listen intently as their harmonics rippled away in the quiet country air.
Gradually it dawned on him, ever more compellingly, that if a tuning fork could be made to vibrate by the intermittent attraction of an electromagnet, the process could be reversed— i.e., a tuning fork vibrating at a certain frequency could, when connected to a circuit with make-and-break points like those of an electric bell, impose its frequency on an electric current. Then if the intermittent current so created were transmitted along a wire to a second tuning fork, the second fork would vibrate in resonance with the transmitting fork. And thus—in accordance with the physical principle of sympathetic vibration—a given note or tone could be sent from one point to another over a telegraph wire.