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.
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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
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
"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.