The Association of U S West Retirees



You had us at 'hello'
Alexander Graham Bell's breakthrough forever changed communications -- and society
By Barbara Yost
The Arizona Republic
Saturday, March 3, 2007

Like a tin can-and-string telephone, there is a connection between Alexander Graham Bell and Jim Wicks.

At one end is Bell, who invented what he called the "speaking telegraph" in 1876, a device that relayed a conversation between two people over a wire, provided they spoke loudly enough.

At the other end is Wicks, whose Motorola Inc. design team in Libertyville, Ill., has developed such telephonic progeny as the Razr, a wireless device that can connect billions of people, take pictures, send text messages, show color video clips with polyphonic speaker sound, play music, fit in your pocket and pick up a voice as soft as a whisper.

We've come a long way, Alexander.

Wicks, who affectionately calls his predecessor "Al," said, "I still think we're at the beginning."

Today is the 160th anniversary of Bell's birth in 1847, in Edinburgh, Scotland.  Bell was a teacher of the deaf and student of sound who immigrated to the United States as a young man.  In Boston, he opened a laboratory and set to work trying to make the telegraph more efficient and then to send the human voice over a wire.

On March 10, 1876, Bell, 29, splashed battery acid on his pants and called to his partner, "Watson, come here, I want you."

Down the hall, Thomas Watson, 22, heard Bell's plea through the wire of what would come to be known as the telephone, and the two men danced in celebration.  Bell had filed a patent on the concept the month before -- around the same time as rival inventor Elisha Gray.  But Gray filed only a "caveat," a kind of preliminary patent, and after legal challenges Bell was awarded the patent and declared the inventor of the telephone.

Lucky man.

"The telephone patent is considered one of the most valuable patents in history," said Ed Eckert, archivist for Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs, which grew out of the Bell Laboratories that was founded in 1925.

Throughout the 20th century, the popularity of the telephone grew and other inventors built on its technology.  Bell Laboratories lists among its top innovations the fax machine, the transistor, the cellular network, solar cells, fiber optics, the laser and communications satellites.

Although Alexander Bell could not have imagined the myriad implications of his device, insight told him this was no parlor game.

"He had an idea that it was not going to be a toy.  He knew it would connect people," Eckert said.  "Even Gray had to give him credit for understanding the importance of the phone beyond his scope."

Pick up, please

Sales of Bell's telephone began slowly.  In its first year, wealthy businessmen purchased a pair of phones to connect their home to their office.  When Bell Telephone Co. formed in 1877, there were 778 phones in the United States.  Callers had to shout to be heard, but the lines were clear.  By the end of the 19th century, there were 1,322,000 phones.

All calls were local as the signal died after a certain distance.  In the 1890s, long-distance service became available but was limited to 1,500 miles.

In 1914, Western Electric engineers, who later became part of Bell Labs, made use of a device called a vacuum tube (also called an audion) to place the first phone call between the American coasts.  Audions served as amplifiers that boosted the phone signal at points along the way as the signal faded, then regained power.  The accomplishment was repeated the next year in a more celebratory manner when Bell in New York City and Watson in San Francisco repeated Bell's historic, "Come here, I want you" message.

Overseeing the system was Bell Telephone and its subsidiary, American Telephone & Telegraph.  AT&T had purchased Bell's patent after telegraph giant Western Union turned it down, believing the telephone would never replace the telegraph.

By the 1920s, nearly everyone wanted a phone, from the urban socialite to the rural farmer, said William Caughlin, corporate archivist for AT&T.

"Over time, it became indispensable," Caughlin said.

Like a little computer

Bell's namesake labs have continued to expand on the applications made possible by his original invention.

The transistor (1947) replaced the vacuum tube and is used for space flight, radios, television, household appliances and computers.  The laser (1958) developed by Bell Labs has implications in industry, communications, consumer electronics and medicine.

Then came the cellphone.  Bell Labs developed the idea of using mobile-phone base stations, or "cells," in 1947.  But for years, the Federal Communications Commission restricted the number of frequencies that were available.  Taxi drivers and ambulances used the bulky device as car phones and "bag" phones.

Martin Cooper, an inventor at Motorola, is credited with developing the modern portable handset, and in April 1973 placed the first cellphone call -- to a competitor at Bell Labs.

But ambitions for the cellphone were greater than simply conversation and grew as more and more applications were discovered.

Today, cellphones are minicomputers that connect to the Internet and can transmit documents.  They serve as a phone book and appointment calendar.  They can be voice-activated, making them safer for driving and accessible to the disabled.  They are replacing watches as timepieces and Game Boys as portable entertainment.  They contain global-positioning systems that can help you find your way and help others find you.

Cordless phones were developed by AT&T and Ameritech around the same time as cellphones, but their drawback is their range that limits the distance between handset and base.

Bell, who died in 1922, lived to see widespread use of his device, but he didn't live to see how far, literally, it has gone.

In 1962, AT&T and its international partners launched the first active communications satellite into outer space.

Telstar was built by Bell Labs to transmit telephone, data and television communications.  Telstar was in service for only six months, but several versions followed, and communications satellites still orbit Earth.

Perhaps most amazing for Bell, who went on to invent flying machines and hydrofoils, would have been the phone call earlier this year between an oceanographer aboard the Alvin submersible 1.4 miles under the Pacific Ocean and an astronaut on the International Space Station 220 miles from Earth.

What else can it do?

At Motorola, the pace of invention is accelerating.  That's in part due to teams of researchers who have replaced the individual inventor common in the time of Bell, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.  Business demands also push progress, Wicks said from his Libertyville office, a narrow space between two floor-to-ceiling white boards covered in sketches of new phones and new features.

Today's telephone has become one of the most ubiquitous machines in modern society, said Wicks, vice president of design for mobile devices at Motorola.  It carries not only conversations but music, photographs, videos, television and data.  We might leave home without our credit cards, but we don't go out without our phones.

The near future, which scientists define as the next five to 10 years, will see phones become "remote control for life," Wicks said.  They will connect all intelligent systems from personal messages to operating systems at the home such as turning on air-conditioning and lights or engaging security systems.

Communications technology would astound Bell, Caughlin said.  "He'd be totally amazed.  His dream was to connect people all over the world."

Making connections

Michael Grasso, vice president for consumer marketing at AT&T, said the future is all about connectivity -- linking computers, telephones and televisions.

But what if your cellphone becomes so small you can't access all these features with a finger?

"They'll be voice activated," Grasso said.

And if it's so noisy you can't hear your cellphone, you can get Japanese manufacturer Sanyo's new "bone phone," which transmits sound through vibrations that move from the skull to the cochlea of the inner ear.  The sound is actually inside your head, making it more audible when there is a lot of ambient noise.

The last family member who knew Bell, his grandson, died recently.  But his great-grandson, Hugh Muller, lives on the family estate, Beinn Bhreagh, near Baddeck, Nova Scotia.  Bell and his family, including wife Mabel Hubbard Bell, spent summers there.

Muller, 74, lives in the Kite House, where Bell built kites.

Bell was an affable man with a sonorous baritone, Muller said.  But Bell felt that his invention of the telephone overshadowed his later work in aviation, marine transportation and even genetics (trying to breed a better milk cow).

"Here he invents this bloody thing (at age 29), and he has his whole life ahead of him," Muller said by speakerphone from Baddeck.

Still, to see where that "bloody thing" has gone, "I think he would have been fascinated."

Fascinated, but not surprised, said Charlotte Gray, author of Reluctant Genius: Alexander Graham Bell and the Passion for Invention (Arcade Publishing, 2006, $29.95 hardcover).  She said Bell was incredibly prescient while not particularly greedy.

"Because he was largely self-taught, he challenged all the conventional boundaries -- that's why he was a genius.  But he was also hopelessly non-entrepreneurial. . . . He was interested in brain activity, not in making money," Gray said.

One technology Bell predicted: electric writing.

Today we call that e-mail.

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-8597.