Alexander Graham Bell - the Telephone
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Alexander Graham Bell
Alexander Graham Bell
invented the telephone

   Alexander Graham Bell was a teacher of the deaf and living in Boston, Massachusetts, in the early 1870s.  From his work there, he knew that sounds - including voice sounds - are caused by vibrations in the air.

   Bell began spending much of his spare time on experiments to see if there was a way to send sound vibrations by electricity over a wire.  In 1875, he succeeded.

  The photo shows a working model of the very first telephone.

Before the telephone: the telegraph system

  Before the telephone, a device called a telegraph was the only way to send messages over a wire.  It used the Morse Code patterns of "dots" and "dashes" for each letter of the alphabet.  The telegraph first went into wide use in the 1840s.

   The operator sending the message tapped the telegraph key to send the code pattern for each letter.  The operator on the receiving end would listen to the clicks made by the sounder and write down each letter of the message.
   Bell did experiments in the 1870s that he hoped would improve the telegraph system.  He quickly realized that he could do something much better: create a device to send voices over a wire.

Click here to see and hear a demonstration of an old telegraph system.

What early telephones looked like

   Bell's telephone system was used mainly by businesses at first.  But after about 1900, they were being bought by more and more people for use in homes.  The photos show how telephones looked by the early 1900s.  This style is called a candlestick telephone.

A candlestick telephone
from the early 1900s.

A telephone switchboard and operators

   The photo shows operators sitting at switchboards in a central telephone office around 1915.  The person making a call told the operator the number of the person he or she wanted to reach.  The operator then connected the call to the right circuit with the wires and jacks in front of her.  Automatic dialing equipment for telephones did not come into use until the 1920s.

A wife and partner in life and business

   This photo shows Alexander Graham Bell, his wife Mabel, and their two daughters.  Mabel became completely deaf from an infection when she was five years old, but learned to lip-read very well.  She met Bell when she was sent to his school for the deaf in Boston to improve her speech.  Bell admired her intelligence and self-confidence.

   They became engaged when she turned 18, and married a year and a half later.  Bell made her a part owner of the Bell Telephone Company, and always valued her as a full partner in family life and in his work.

The black and white photos are from the Library of Congress.
The color photo of the telegraph equipment is by David Burns.
Some photos have been edited or resized for this page.

Copyright Notice

   Copyright 2009, 2017 by David Burns.  All rights reserved.  As a guide to the Virginia Standards of Learning, some pages necessarily include phrases or sentences from that document, which is available online from the Virginia Department of Education.  The author's copyright extends to the original text and graphics, unique design and layout, and related material.