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Alexander Graham Bell's design sketch of the telephone, ca. 1876.

[Detail] Alexander Graham Bell's design sketch of the telephone

Communication Technology

Of his many inventions, Bell is primarily noted for his invention of the telephone. He began his experiments in an attempt to improve the telegraph that depended on using Morse code to communicate. Bell's knowledge of the nature of sound from his work with the deaf and his love and understanding of music convinced him that multiple messages could be sent simultaneously over the same telegraph line. Have students search on harmonic telegraph for information on his early experiments in improving the use of the telegraph.

In a letter to his parents, Bell writes of an offer to finance his work on a "multiple telegraph". Prominent Boston attorney Gardner Green Hubbard, his backer and future father-in-law, resented Western Union's monopoly and was willing to provide funds and connections to support Bell's research. Have students conduct outside research on Western Union to understand the role this company played in America at the time. In addition, students can use Bell's experience with financing his work to understand the importance of funding to invention and its influence on research.

  • How might the source of funding for a project influence what a researcher decides to study?
  • How might the funding source effect what results a researcher pursues?
  • What can be done to keep the research objective while accepting the funding?
  • Why might it be important to disclose funding sources with the results of research? What might citizens surmise from knowing who funded the project?

While Hubbard urged Bell to spend more time on the invention, Bell and Thomas Watson, a young electrician he had hired, had diverted their attention to the telephone. One can get a sense of the excitement and significance of the invention from a letter written on March 10, 1876, in which the 29-year-old Bell tells his father of the success of the telephone. He recorded a sketch of his invention along with the famous utterance to Mr. Watson in his 1876 notebook. Search on telephone to find these and other documents.

Bell's further experimentation to perfect the telephone is included in his Experimental Note Book, Volume VII. Search Journal by Alexander Graham Bell, November 25, 1887.

Bell did not feel that his work on the telephone had progressed to the stage where he could demonstrate it at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. However, Hubbard and his daughter insisted and Bell agreed to display the telephone. Students can research the significance of this exhibition and other World's Fairs in outside resources. They can look for the impact of these exhibits on visitors and society at large. What hopes were associated with these exhibits? What did they represent to society?

With inventions comes the issue of patents. Search Elisha Gray for over 50 hits chronicling Bell's patent conflicts with Gray and Western Union over issues relating to the invention of the telephone. Students can use these papers to learn how inventions are protected and how one proves their right to patent an invention. Circulars, from December 20, 1878, to May 23, 1879 provides a synopsis of the patent disputes.

Having studied the thought and experimentation that went into the invention of the telephone, students can now begin an informed discussion of this invention's impact on society.

  • Start by thinking of ways in which the telephone is used in our daily lives. What other technology do we use that is dependent on the telephone?
  • Then have students consider how the phone changed society. What did it mean to have information travel so quickly among people? What disasters could be avoided? What opportunities were created? Can students imagine going one day without using the telephone or information received by phone?
  • Have students research the way the phone became integrated into society. What was the progression of adaptation of the phone into daily life from the introduction of the phone to modern usage? Who had access at first? Where were phone lines installed? In addition, students can search on Bell Telephone Company and American Telephone & Telegraph to learn of the early history of these companies.