The telephone was invented more than 150 years ago. The history of its invention reads like a detective novel, replete with painstaking work, serendipitous discoveries, moments of enlightenment, and legal battles. Even more intriguing are the events that led to the worldwide adoption of this technology. In this series of columns on IQ.HSE, Anton Basov, HSE Faculty of Computer Science editor, discusses how telephones have become an integral part of our everyday life. The first episode in the series recounts the story of Emperor Pedro II of Brazil demonstrating Bell's telephone at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
On February 14, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell filed his patent application entitled ‘Improvement in Telegraphy’ with the US Patent Office. It contained a description of a method for transmitting sound over wires using electricity. On March 7, 1876, Bell received Patent No. 174465, often described as the most valuable single patent in history. Subsequently, Bell's patent was challenged about six hundred times, including twice in the Supreme Court and in the US Congress, but none of the challenges were successful.
Dozens of books and hundreds of articles have been dedicated to the debate regarding the priority of Bell's patent, yet it is improbable that a definitive resolution will ever be reached. Indeed, the telephone, much like other significant inventions such as the radio, the incandescent lamp, and more, can be considered a child of many parents.
But it was Alexander Graham Bell who elevated the telephone from a scientific gimmick to a functional instrument, thereby turning it into an indispensable part of our daily lives.
Bell's fascination with sound began in childhood; his father was a renowned elocution teacher (and one of the models for Prof. Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion). While still young, Alexander constructed talking machines and experimented with electricity. However, his primary vocation was teaching elocution and lip-reading to the deaf.
The young inventor took quite some time before coming up with the idea of the telephone. His early endeavours included working to create a speech synthesiser and a harmonic telegraph capable of transmitting multiple telegrams over a single wire. Eventually, Bell realised that voice transmission over wires could be far more significant than his other ideas.
Three years of experiments paid off on March 10, 1876, when Bell, having accidentally spilled acid on his clothes, called his assistant Thomas Watson, who heard his voice over the telephone. In May of that same year, Bell demonstrated the telephone at both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
While the first language transmitted over the telephone was English, the second one happened to be... Japanese! During the winter of 1876–1877, when Alexander Graham Bell served as a phonetics professor at Boston University, one of his students was Shuji Isawa from Japan. After learning about his teacher's invention, Isawa asked, 'Mr Bell, will this thing talk Japanese?' Bell replied that it would speak any language. Isawa invited two of his friends over: Harvard students Jutaro Komura and Kentaro Kaneko. Together, they found out that indeed, the telephone could speak Japanese.
Many years later, Bell happened to meet with the three of them again. In 1898, Alexander Graham Bell, by then a renowned inventor, travelled to Japan. During his visit, he was granted an audience by the emperor and reconnected with Isawa, who had become a prominent educator, and with Komura, who had pursued a diplomatic career.
Later, in 1905, Bell was present at the signing of the peace treaty between Russia and Japan in Portsmouth. On the Japanese side, the treaty was signed by none other than Jutaro Komura, who was then Japan's Foreign Minister.
On May 10, 1876, the Centennial International Exhibition opened in Philadelphia. Gardiner Greene Hubbard, Bell's investor and the father of one of Bell's students, was in charge of organising a section of the exposition, so he made sure that the telephone was exhibited there. He even persuaded a committee of judges to visit Bell's stand during their tour of the exposition on June 25, 1876.
Bell was too occupied with teaching and had not planned to attend. Neither Hubbard nor his daughter Mabel were able to change the inventor’s mind. However, when he accompanied Mabel to the train station for her departure to Philadelphia, she began crying as a last resort. Bell couldn't hold out and boarded the train without a ticket.
It was only on the hot evening of June 25 that a committee of judges led by the British physicist Sir William Thomson (the future Lord Kelvin) finally reached Bell's stand. By that time, they were already exhausted and about to quit without giving the telephone much attention, when suddenly someone exclaimed, 'Professor Bell, I am delighted to see you again!'
Turning around, the judges saw Bell being greeted by none other than the Emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro de Alcantara. A few years earlier, he had visited Bell's class at Boston University and was so impressed that he had since founded the first Brazilian school for the deaf.
The judges were far more interested now. Bell provided a brief explanation about the functioning of the telephone, after which Dom Pedro took up the receiver and held it to his ear while Bell moved to the transmitter positioned at the opposite end of the room and started speaking. Hearing the voice in the receiver, Dom Pedro was stunned: 'My God, it talks!'
Naturally, following such a demonstration, everyone was excited to learn what could be heard through the telephone. Something considered a gimmick just the day before became what Sir William Thomson described as 'the most wonderful thing I have seen in America'. The phone was also praised by the chairman of the jury, the respected American scientist Professor Joseph Henry.