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Photos and text by Vincent Lê Hoàng Long

The telephone was one of the greatest inventions of the 19th century that changed the world forever.    Today we can simply call someone if our car breaks down or dial 911 if we need help. Thanks to the telephone, we can hear the voice of loved ones many miles away, and conduct business on a daily basis with associates all over the world.    The telephone has had a profound impact on personal relationships, business, and society.    Many of the things we take for granted today with the ability to transmit human voice over a long distance, which sounded more like witchcraft before, was made possible by Alexander Graham Bell’s invention in Canada.

Birthplace and family of Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell statue dedicated in 1949, in the front portico of the Bell Telephone of Canada Building in Brantford, Ontario
Alexander Graham Bell statue dedicated in 1949, in the front portico of the Bell Telephone of Canada Building in Brantford, Ontario

Alexander (Alec) Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on March 3, 1847, the middle of three brothers.   He came from a family that had been preoccupied with sound for at least two generations.     His father Alexander Melville Bell and his grandfather, also named Alexander Bell, both had the fancy title “professor of elocution.”   In today’s world, we would call them “speech pathologists.”

Alec’s early interests in studying acoustics were inspired by his mother Eliza who was deaf.  Perceptive to his mother’s hearing challenges, he developed a technique of speaking in clear and controlled tones directly into his mother’s forehead wherein she would hear him with reasonable clarity.  Because of his closeness with his mother and his focus on methods to communicate with the deaf, he was unaffected by the common assumption at the time that deafness affected intellectual ability.

The lifelong commitment to helping the deaf began with his father.   Alexander Melville Bell’s greatest achievement was his development of “Visible Speech,” a new phonetic alphabet based on his detailed knowledge of how humans speak.  Melville’s breakthrough later launched Alexander Graham Bell on a career of inventions for humanity that would change the world.

The Bell Homestead and early life in Canada

Bosworth House in Paris, Ont. The distinctive “chipped gable” was popular in the decorative Queen Ann style. After arriving in Canada, the Bell family first stayed here with their friend Reverend Henderson while awaiting the purchase and renovation of their house on Tutela Heights in Brantford.
Bosworth House in Paris, Ont. The distinctive “chipped gable” was popular in the decorative Queen Ann style. After arriving in Canada, the Bell family first stayed here with their friend Reverend Henderson while awaiting the purchase and renovation of their house on Tutela Heights in Brantford.

The Bell family emigrated from Scotland under sad circumstances.  Both of Alec’s brothers had died from tuberculosis and his health was also deteriorating.  His parents decided to move to Canada hoping that the climate would be better and help their lone surviving son recover.    After landing in Canada in August 1870, the Bell family stayed with their friend Reverend Henderson in Paris, Ont., before purchasing a homestead of 13 acres of land on the outskirts of Brantford.    Reverend Henderson would later retire from the ministry and became the first general agent for the telephone business in Canada. He played a significant role in its establishment and development.

Many pieces of furniture that the family sold off at auctions were tracked down and 90 per cent of what we see here today belonged to them. The telephone on the wall is an 1878 model, which is the third commercial telephone model in the world, and first to be connected to a switchboard. The cardboard on the left of this photo shows the phonetic symbols of his father’s Visible Speech.
Many pieces of furniture that the family sold off at auctions were tracked down and 90 per cent of what we see here today belonged to them. The telephone on the wall is an 1878 model, which is the third commercial telephone model in the world, and first to be connected to a switchboard. The cardboard on the left of this photo shows the phonetic symbols of his father’s Visible Speech.

After the Bells moved into their home in Brantford, Alec spent his first year resting and getting better.   By the spring of 1871, he was ready to start working again.  Back in Scotland, he was already making a name for himself as a teacher of speech and lip reading to deaf children and was hoping to continue to the same line of work.   Alec was able to get a position in Boston, so he was splitting time between Boston for the school year, and Brantford for the summer and winter vacations.

In the summer of 1874, Alec first conceptualized the idea of a “talking telegraph” at a spot he called “dreaming place” behind his home in Brantford, and continued to work on the concept.  Bell built the telephone during his time in Boston working with his associate Thomas Watson, but it was the family home in Brantford that provided an inspirational setting for its invention.  By March 1876, he was granted the first official patent for his telephone invention.   On August 10 in 1876, the call from their home in Brantford to a shop in Paris, Ontario was recognized as the world’s first long distance call.

Today, the Bell Homestead has been restored to what it was when the Bell family was living there.  Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited the home on June 28 in 1997 and formally unveiled a commemorative cairn, officially designating it as a National Historic Site of Canada.

Mabel – The love of Alec’s life

It would be a disservice to celebrate the accomplishments of Alexander Graham Bell and not mention his wife.  With her acute business sense, she indirectly contributed to her husband’s early commercial success after his creation of the telephone, and continued to be a steady support and influence in Alec’s life.  She provided him a safe haven in which he could pursue his passion for inventing.

Mabel Hubbard was the daughter of Gardiner Hubbard, a very successful and wealthy patent lawyer in Boston.    She completely and permanently lost her hearing due to scarlet fever when she was only five.   Until antibiotic was invented in the 20th century, such disease often leaves their victims without hearing, if they managed to survive at all.   Instead of shipping Mabel off to an institution like most deaf people in her day, her parents shared a belief in progress, and determined to find a solution for any problem.   She was given the opportunity to continue to be a vital member of the prominent Hubbard family.

Alec and Mabel’s engagement photos – Bell Homestead in Brantford, Ontario
Alec and Mabel’s engagement photos – Bell Homestead in Brantford, Ontario

Mabel became Alec’s star pupil in his new school for the deaf and mastered the system of Visible Speech notation in record time.  It did not take long for Alec to notice the intelligent and social skills of this remarkable young woman.    Her mother suspected that Alec was sweet on Mabel, but she had no idea that he had feelings of such intensity and passion for her daughter.    Mabel was 10 years younger than Alec and they got married on July 11, 1877 when she was only 19.

It was a blessing that Alec had fallen in love with Mabel; it was a wonderful marriage where each partner provided what the other needed most.   Mabel was a woman who learned to handle the challenge of her deafness with grace and confidence.    Her intelligence and strength of character were the qualities that helped Alec in pursuing his dreams of inventing for the rest of his life.    In return, Alec allowed her to live a full and normal life in the hearing world, as her parents always wanted.

While Alec’s father started the Canadian Bell Company in Brantford, the Bell Telephone Company in the United States was setup by Mabel’s father on July 9, 1877.   Alexander Graham Bell owned 1,497 of the 5,000 issued shares, but on their wedding day 2 days later, he immediately transferred all but 10 shares to Mabel, as a wedding gift to his new bride.   In the wedding vow, he said all that was his became hers, so this is his way of making good of his words.    He also was not as interested in the money side of things and her business savvy allowed him to focus on inventing.

The Legacies of Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell was far more than just an inventor of the telephone.   In a future issue, we will further explore his extraordinary vision, countless scientific accomplishments and his life dedication to advancing technology for the benefit of all humanity.

Bell Telephone Memorial in downtown Brantford.
Bell Telephone Memorial in downtown Brantford.

Monument completed in 1917 to commemorate the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell on July 1874 in Brantford, Ontario.   Designed by famous Canadian sculptor Walter Seymour Allward of Toronto.   The floating figure of “Inspiration” hovering over “Man”, who discovered his power to transmit sound through space, pointing to 3 floating figures represent the messengers of “Knowledge”, “Joy”, and “Sorrow”.   The 2 female figures on the left and right represent “Humanity”, one sending and the other receiving a message.