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"Improvements on Electric Telephony." Patent no. 7789, filed by Alexander G. Bell, 1877


Patent no. 7789. Filing year 1877.

"Improvements on Electric Telephony," Alexander G. Bell.

Alexander Graham Bell has become a household name as the man who invented the telephone, but he is also one of the rare inventors who successfully capitalized on his idea. It wasn't easy: Bell and his backers had to fend off a multitude of patent disputes and infringements while building a telephone network from scratch across the continent, in one of the most competitive environments of the day.

The idea for the telephone sprung partly from Bell's fascination with the mechanics of speech and hearing, inherited from his father, Alexander Melville Bell, an expert in speech and vocal physiology. The elder Bell developed a system for teaching speech to the deaf, a system his son used and developed throughout his own life. However, the younger Bell was also interested in the burgeoning field of electrical communication, best represented at the time by the telegraph. His first major patent, filed in 1875 in the United States, was for a method of transmitting multiple messages over a single telegraph line. Bell's invention, which he called the "harmonic telegraph," sent a number of Morse code messages at several different frequencies over the wire; at the other end, a series of tuning forks decoded only the messages of their particular frequencies.

At the time, many would-be inventors were working on different approaches to the idea of transmitting voice over wire. Some attempted a telegraph-like idea, whereby the electric current would switch on or off with speech. Bell's concept, which he developed at his home in Brantford, Ontario, in 1875, required a continuous current running through the wire. A metal reed, caused to vibrate by the sound of a voice, moved an electromagnet that caused variations in the electric current. This "undulatory" current, as Bell termed it, could be converted to sound at the other end of the wire using electromagnets and a diaphragm. By early 1876, a working model of the telephone had been built by Bell's assistant, Thomas Watson.

Bell filed his patent for "Improvements to Telegraphy" in the United States on February 14, 1876, just two hours before an American inventor, Elisha Gray, filed a caveat (a legal notification of the intention to file a patent for an idea) for his own telephone. Over the next several years, Gray went back and forth between acknowledging Bell's primacy and contesting the patent in court. Meanwhile, Gray and Thomas Edison had formed their own telephone company with telegraph giant Western Union, which had a ready-made network of wires in place. Theirs became the largest of several companies infringing on Bell's patents and stringing up telephone wires across America.

The courts eventually decided in Bell's favour. The American Bell Telephone Company, an enterprise he had formed with American backers Gardiner Hubbard and Thomas Sanders, retained the rights to sell telephones and put up lines, which they did at a feverish pace until Bell's patent expired in the 1890s. Amazingly, since filing his Canadian patent for the telephone in 1877, Bell had been unable to find interested investors to purchase Canadian rights. He therefore set up the Bell Telephone Company of Canada, an offshoot of the American operation, to build the country's network.

Although Bell filed subsequent patents in Canada for improvements on the telephone in 1880 (no. 10705) and 1881 (no. 13809 and no. 13810), the money he made from his telephone company also gave him the freedom to follow up on other inspirations, including the phonograph, in 1887 (no. 26710). From 1885 on, Bell divided his time between Washington, where he had set up a medical research laboratory and co-founded the National Geographic Society, and his retreat in Baddeck in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. At Baddeck, Bell eventually left telecommunications behind, immersing himself in elaborate experiments with flying machines and hydrofoils until his death in 1922. The products of these later years can be visited at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site of Canada, in Baddeck.


Brown, J.J. Ideas in Exile: A History of Canadian Invention. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967.

Grosvenor, Edwin S., and Morgan Wesson. Alexander Graham Bell: The Life and Times of the Man Who Invented the Telephone. New York: Harry S. Abrams, 1997.

Levy, Joel. Really Useful: The Origins of Everyday Things. Willowdale, Ont.: Firefly Books, 2002.

Nostbakken, Janis, and Jack Humphrey. The Canadian Inventions Book: Innovations, Discoveries and Firsts. Toronto: Greey de Pencier Books, 1976.

Surtees, Lawrence. "Bell, Alexander Graham." Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
(accessed November 10, 2005)


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