The Sound of a Great Invention


ALECK had a dreaming place. It was high on a bank with a river below. There he could rest quietly in his hammock beneath the birch trees and think through his ideas. It was here that he dreamed about inventing what was to become the telephone. How different the telephone is today. You can ``program'' the telephone like a computer with a set of numbers that connect you with just one touch.

I wonder what Aleck (Alexander Graham Bell) would think about telephones you can program? I suspect he'd be delighted because he was an inventor and relished new ideas.

Anyone can be an inventor, all it takes is some original thinking. Inventions can be little or big. Inventions are often the result of wanting to help others.

Alexander Graham Bell was interested in how people communicate with each other. He cared especially about people who had difficulty with hearing and speaking. He experimented in how sound waves travel.

His interest in how people make sound began when he was a boy in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he learned about speech from his father and grandfather who were teachers of speech. Also Aleck's father and his two brothers learned how to communicate in helpful ways to Aleck's mother, who had a hearing problem.

Aleck grew up during a time of great experimentation and invention. It was the end of the 19th century when big ``dreams'' about transportation such as airplanes, trains, and cars were starting to come true. Also experiments in communication were going on such as in the telegraph, the phonograph, radio, and moving pictures. These were the beginnings of many of the advanced technologies we have now.

Aleck's father explored and experimented in speech, too. He developed a system called ``visible'' speech which showed how vocal sounds are made in a new way. His system was an alphabet that would help people with trouble speaking understand better how sounds are made. He taught Aleck and his brothers all about it. And he encouraged his sons to have their own experiments also.

However, there's more to inventing than just dreaming up an idea - you have to stick to it and make it work. Aleck and his brother Melly (short for Melville) found this out when as boys they were fascinated by what they called ``the Little Man.'' It was a talking machine that Aleck had seen when he and his father visited one of England's leading scientists, Sir Charles Wheatstone. He demonstrated a ``speaking machine'' that could make a few mechanical-sounding words and sentences.

Aleck's father challenged Aleck and his brother Melly to see if they could make their own talking man. After many, many days of carefully applied experiments the two boys became discouraged because they could only make the little man say something that sounded like a baby crying ``mama.'' But their father pointed out that they really hadn't failed because they had learned so much about how people speak.

These early exercises in original thinking gave Aleck some of the ideas that later would produce his invention of the ``talking wire'' or the telephone.

Along with his knack for invention, Aleck found he had a talent for teaching and at 16 was a teacher of music and speech. Later he was asked to teach pupils who could not hear or speak using father's ``Visible Speech'' methods.

As his pupils began to speak and communicate with Aleck and their families for the first time in their lives, Aleck saw this work to be of great value and would continue throughout his life to develop ways to help the hearing impaired communicate.

The Bell family moved to Ontario, Canada. On this new continent, in the exciting ``New World,'' his parents established a home and Aleck a place to continue to experiment with his dreams about the electrical transmission of sound.

While his father continued to lecture and teach about ``Visible Speech'' in the United States and Canada, Alexander was asked to teach at a school for deaf children in Boston.

While teaching in Boston he continued his experiments in sound. Here he got to know a worker in a machine shop by the name of Thomas Watson. Aleck met Tom when he took some work there that he was experimenting with. He explained his experiments and soon found a friend to share in his goal of making these dreams a reality.

The two spent many long nights after work in the shop exploring sound. At first they worked on the invention of what was called the ``multiple telegraph'' (a contraption that would send several messages at the same time over one telegraph wire).

However this work became less important to Aleck and Tom as the dream about the telephone seemed more and more real. As with so many experiments, it was while working unsuccessfully on the ``multiple telegraph'' that Aleck and Tom ``stumbled'' upon the ideas that led to the telephone.

One evening while experimenting with the thin steel reeds that were in the telegraph, one of the reeds stuck and Watson plucked it with his finger. Bell heard this vibration as if he had plucked it himself in a second reed. The electric current in the second reed had repeated the vibrations of the first.

Bell felt sure that the vibrations caused by the human voice could also be reproduced in this way and this dream took over. He and his friend Watson kept at it until at last they had an instrument that would send words clearly.

Graham Bell's invention of the telephone was a great success, and it happened when he was still young. His inventions did not stop with the telephone. He continued to dream all through his life.

For example, he was sure that humans could invent a way to fly. He experimented in flight with kites and later with some of the first airplanes. In connection with kites he also explored the hydrofoil. The hydrofoil is a small wing-shaped blade which works like an airplane wing. As his kites grew larger and heavier they needed to be lifted from the water. Hydrofoils were attached to floats which were under the kites to help send the kites aloft. Later the designing of a hydrofoil boat became a separate project.

His research in sound led to his research in light - he developed the photophone which could transmit sound by light and the spectraphone which measured light. And his natural curiosity for the world around him led him to help establish the National Geographic Society organization and Science magazine.

But Bell felt his work with the hearing impaired was even more important than his invention of the telephone. He established the Volta Bureau, a special place for research and information about those with hearing difficulties.

Aleck's dreams about communication came true in a big way and they continue to touch the lives of us all. Who says dreams can't be practical? Do you have a dream or two? Perhaps if you stick to it like Alexander Graham Bell did, we'll hear from you someday, too.

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