Sometimes described as the most valuable patent ever filed, for years following the award, Bell had to defend his patent in expensive and protracted litigation battles brought by a whole range of inventors. In 2002, the US Congress formally recognised Italian Antonio Meucci as the true inventor of the telephone, based on prototypes he demonstrated in 1860. Bell and the Italian had shared a workshop in the 1870s. Meucci was pursuing his claim in the Supreme Court when he died in 1889. France and Germany cite their own contenders for the title.
In many respects, Bell’s telephone was flawed, his receiver and transmitter designs being considerably improved by others within a couple of years. Among those were Thomas Edison and Professor David Hughes, who both produced improvements to Bell’s early instrument, transforming the telephone into a truly successful communication device.
Thomas Edison patented a more efficient transmitter, making longer distance calls a realistic prospect. After several court cases accusing each other of patent infringements, Bell and Edison joined forces forming the United Telephone Company in Britain in 1880.
Above: Edison loud speaking telephone, on display in the Communicate gallery. The round transparent disc is a loud speaking receiver which meant everyone could listen in to the conversation. Edison Telephone, USA, 1879.
Welsh engineer and Professor of music David Hughes was a pioneer in microphone technology, which hugely improved Bell’s first devices from 1878. Rather than patent his improvement, he published the details, making them available to all. His later work on radio waves enabled early experiments with wireless communication in the 1880s.
Above: Experimental microphone with carbon pencil, on display in the Communicate gallery. Made by Prof David E Hughes, London, c.1879.
Still widely known as ‘the inventor of the telephone’, Bell had given up his interest in this invention by his early thirties. He spent the rest of his life with Mabel and their family in Canada, working on a series of varied projects including flight, sheep breeding, developing a ‘vacuum jacket’ to aid artificial breathing and the founding of the National Geographic magazine.
The project which Bell himself called his greatest achievement in 1880 he named the ‘photophone’. This was a method of transmitting sound in a beam of light using a light-sensitive selenium cell to translate the light density into electric signals. He succeeded in sending sounds via light over a few hundred metres. The photophone concept was trialled during World War I much closer to home when engineers from University College London and the Admiralty tested the idea across the Firth of Forth as a way of communicating between ships. Today the vast majority of all our telecommunication travels the globe at the speed of light along fibre optic cables. Perhaps closer to Bell's original idea is the work of Professor Harald Haas at the University of Edinburgh, the city of Bell's birth. Haas’ development of ‘LiFi’ – a method of sending huge amounts of data via light – might revolutionise the way we all communicate in the future.
Above: Illustration of the photophone's transmitter, originally from: El mundo físico : gravedad, gravitación, luz, calor, electricidad, magnetismo, etc. / A. Guillemin by: Guillemin, Amédée, published by: Barcelona Montane. Image from Flickr.
For Bell, however, his foremost passion remained enabling deaf people to lip read and speak, therefore blending into a hearing world. This was in itself controversial to sections of the deaf community, disenfranchising those who preferred to communicate using sign language, which they viewed as the primary language of the deaf.
Bell’s last visit to Edinburgh was in November 1920. At a speech given to pupils at the city’s Royal High School, where he had been a student 60 years before, he imagined that this young generation might live to see a time when someone “in any part of the world would be able to telephone to any other part of the world without any wires at all.”
Above: Alexander Graham Bell. Moffett Studio / Library and Archives Canada / C-017335
He died on 2 August 1922 aged 75. On the day of his funeral, the telephone systems in the US and Canada were silenced for one minute.