Alexander Graham Bell
Answer to Name This Famous Person Game - August 2014
by Mike McLeod

Sherron Lawson of Roswell and Ted Carlton of Utah correctly identified Alexander Graham Bell.

What was the greatest invention created by Alexander Graham Bell? The answer to most people, of course, is the telephone. But not to Alexander Graham Bell. To him, his greatest invention was the photophone—a device that used light beams for communicating sound like a telephone.

Fiber optic transmission of data was not accomplished until the 1960s. Bell and his assistant Charles Sumner Tainter successfully demonstrated they could transmit conversations via light with the photophone on June 3, 1880. They eventually sent and received their words a distance of 700 feet using light. 


“Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”

To say Alexander Graham Bell was ahead of his time is a classic understatement. The photophone was proof of this in that it would be decades before technology would catch up with his concept. Fiber optics was used for other than telephony devices in the first half of the 20th century, but not until the 1960s was it used for communication.

The photophone worked—almost miraculously—by bouncing rays of light off a mirror. A person spoke into a device with a selenium crystal attached to the opposite side of a mirror. The speaker’s voice vibrated the crystal and the mirror, and the light rays “absorbed” the vibrations and carried them to a receiver mechanism. This then converted the light rays back to sound using the process in reverse.

A photophone receiver.

A photophone transmitter.

Perhaps Bell’s epiphany about communicating via rays of light came from using electricity to communicate sound in telephones.

“Concentrate all your thoughts upon the work at hand. The sun's rays do not burn until brought to a focus.”

Bell’s inventive genius did not stop at communications. In 1881, “…Bell's newborn son, Edward, died from respiratory problems, and Bell responded to the tragedy by designing a metal vacuum jacket that simulated breathing. The amazing apparatus became a precursor of the iron lung used in the 1950s to aid polio victims.”1

“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.”

Bell also invented the metal detector and participated in the development of hydrofoils and airplanes. When President James A. Garfield was shot by an assassin in 1881, Bell developed a metal detector to find the bullet. However, the President was on a metal bed when he used his device, and this caused the attempt to fail. The President’s doctors would not allow him to be moved to a nonmetal bed to give Bell another chance. President Garfield died on Sept. 19, 1881.

In the early 1900s, Bell began to concept design improvements for the hydrofoil (or hydroplane boat), which was invented in 1898 Enrico Forlanini in Italy. Bell and other designers eventually developed a hydrofoil in 1911 that set a speed record of 70 mph.

“The nation that secures control of the air will ultimately control the world.”

Hydrofoils were a means to an ends for Bell. He wanted to adapt their water-skimming capabilities to airplanes so they could take off and land on water. In 1907, he formed the Aerial Experimental Association with other early aeronautical engineers: Glenn Curtiss, J.A.D. McCurdy, Thomas Selfridge and Casey Baldwin. Together, they created four aircraft, including the Silver Dart, which successfully flew in 19092, just six years after the Wright Brothers—and depending on which first-in-flighter you prefer, six years after Alberto Santos-Dumont of Brazil and eight years after Gustave Whitehead of Connecticut.

The Silver Dart, ca. 1909.

Alexander Bell was born on March 3, 1847 in Edinburgh, Scotland, and died on Aug. 2, 1922 from the effects of diabetes in Nova Scotia.

“Great discoveries and improvements invariably involve the cooperation of many minds. I may be given credit for having blazed the trail, but when I look at the subsequent developments, I feel the credit is due to others rather than to myself.”

Oh, and don’t think Alexander Graham Bell didn’t have a sense of humor:

“America is a country of inventors, and the greatest of inventors are the newspapermen.”

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1, 2 U-S-history.com, “Alexander Graham Bell.” All quotes from Brainyquote.com. 

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