Saturday, August 8, 2009

Bell's Telephone - For The Love of His Mabel

The Love

Innovators are rarely motivated merely by the thought of their final product. Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone transformed the world. Yet in the Boston, Massachusetts of the 1870s, he was just a young Scottish immigrant, whose mother had been deaf, and who now worked as a tutor of the deaf, keen to help them succeed in life.

His favourite student was older than the rest, already close to 20. This was Mabel Hubbard. He’d regularly taught his students to touch their own throats lightly, and then his, to feel different sounds being produced. With Mabel that formal contact was different. Each of them - though embarrassed to say anything – later described in letters what they had felt. He had complimented her on her voice (“Nobody had told me that before,” she wrote overwhelmed), and as the weeks went by they communicated more and more – racing happily through the snow to and from the carriage bringing her to his classes.

But she was wealthy and he was not. He was one of the immigrants who had arrived on one of the new-style steam ships. Her family, by contrast, owned a good deal of downtown Boston, and her father seems to have made an even greater fortune through judicious investments during and after the civil war. When Bell had gone to their summer home on Nantucket to declare his hand, her mother had not let him in. Her daughter was uninterested in his affections, she insisted, and the family would appreciate it if he accepted their wishes and stayed away.

In time he discovered that the mother had been lying. Young Mabel was desperate to spend more time with this kind man, who treated her so gently. But how could he convince the family to let him try again?

That was when he resolved to come up with a great invention. It would make him rich and famous, and, most importantly, allow him to get through the front doors of the Hubbard family’s grand Nantucket home, finally giving him the chance to court young Mabel. For a young male on his own in a new country, that’s one of the most powerful motivations there can be.

The Invention

For Bell, it was clear what the hot new thing of the mid 1870s was. Telegraphs had been around for decades, transforming the world – in the words of the estimable Tom Standage – acting like a Victorian internet. With telegraphs, centralised headquarters could run hugely be synchronised across time zones; grain could be traded across oceans.

But building telegraphs lines was expensive, which is where the hot new thing came in. what if someone could find a way to improve the telegraph, so that several distinct signals could be jammed down a single line at once? Instantly the world’s communication infrastructure would be doubled, or perhaps even tripled? In all the years until Bell fell in love with Mabel, that largely had remained just a dream.

That is what Bell resolved to solve.

The Success

In 1876, at the age of 29, Alexander Graham Bell invented his telephone, and in 1877, he formed the Bell Telephone Company being the same year he married Mabel Hubbard and embarked on a yearlong honeymoon in Europe.


Bodanis D., Sparks Flew, FT Magazine, 27 May 2007

Bellis M., Alexander Graham Bell –Biography,

Unknown, Alexander Graham Bell, Garden of

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