The Telephone Gambit: Did Bell Steal His Legendary Invention?

1/3/08

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more than one message at a time over a wire. Bell didn’t know too much about the relatively new fields of electricity and magnetism but, as a teacher of the deaf, he did know a good deal about sound. Bell’s idea for what he called a “multiple telegraph” was to try to build machines that could send messages at different pitches, or frequencies, so that they wouldn’t interfere with one another. That way, in theory at least, multiple messages, tuned to different musical pitches, could be sent over the same wires at the same time without interfering with one another.

Toward that end, Bell was systematically trying to build a series of telegraphlike devices that would be receptive only to a signal sent at a particular pitch. He tried batteries of different strengths. He tried magnets in different arrangements. He even built a cylinder lined with bar magnets that could be spun at different speeds to adjust the pitch of the vibrating reeds in his circuit.

Of course, in addition to this commercial goal, Bell was interested in many other things, too. He had a sharp, restless mind and a great imagination. He was fascinated by the possibility of transmitting vocal sounds over telegraph wires. And he was so interested in the way people perceived sound that, with the help of Clarence Blake, a local doctor, he even experimented on the ear of a human corpse as part of his work during this period. Bell’s grasp of acoustics and his focus on trying to send differently pitched sounds over the telegraph wires would also soon lead him toward a device that could successfully transmit the human voice.

I lost track of how late it was getting. Somewhere around midnight, I reached Bell’s accounts from March 1876, the period of his momentous breakthrough with the telephone. An entry jumped out at me.

Bell’s research notes on March 8th make an inexplicable shift to some strikingly new ideas after months of slow, incremental work. On that day, for the first time, Bell inexplicably adds to his experiments a dish of water laced with sulfuric acid. He still uses a reed and a magnet at one end of the circuit he is building but, seemingly from nowhere, he introduces a striking contraption: a diaphragm with a needle sticking through it into the acidic water to complete the electrical circuit. From that entry on, some liquid or another becomes a feature in a quick succession of experiments. And, of course, just a day and a half after introducing this new scheme, Bell has his amazing success calling to Watson next door.

After following many months’ worth of Bell’s steady and methodical work, I couldn’t help but be struck by his sudden conceptual leap. What made Bell think of dipping a needle into liquid in his transmitter, I wondered, after a steady diet for more than a year of reeds, magnets, and batteries in widely varied configurations?

I viewed the shift as a sign of Bell’s genius. I made a note to that effect in my own handwritten journal that night.

I was especially struck by this shift in Bell’s thinking because I’ve found that a kind of magic often seems to inhabit the moment of discovery: that instant when something formerly unknowable, beyond reach, becomes forever clear. The element that makes such a shift possible—the fleeting insight or fortuitous accident—is often hard, if not impossible, to explain or capture. I’m as excited by such moments as a prospector might be to unearth a rich vein, or a book collector to stumble upon a vanishingly rare first edition.

Wilbur Wright’s pathbreaking idea for bending the wings of an airplane to give it control in the air purportedly came to him in his bicycle shop while he idly twisted a box that had held an inner tube. Alexander Fleming, excellent scientist that he was, became fascinated by the mold that had crept in from the damp London air to ruin his experiment growing colonies of Staphylococcus bacteria in culture. Thankfully, Fleming studied the mold instead of tossing the tainted samples, and penicillin was the world-changing result.

Musing on the account in Bell’s notebook of his experience at the threshold of his discovery, I had a little “eureka moment” of my own. I noticed that there was a twelve-day gap between Bell’s entries at the end of February and those beginning in March. With consecutive entries on every page, notebooks often make work appear relatively seamless but, in this case, Bell left his experiments on February 24 and didn’t resume them for nearly two weeks. He mentions the fact himself on page 34, the day before he introduces his new transmitter idea, with this cryptic notation:

Returned from Washington March 7th, 1876.

It seemed immediately clear that Bell’s absence from his lab spurred him in a new direction. I wanted to find out more about the trip to Washington and what might have led him to change his work so noticeably upon his return.

This, I imagined, was precisely the kind of challenge my historian colleagues engaged in routinely. For me, though, it was new. A primary source document had suggested a small, historical puzzle. And I was fortunate enough to have the time and resources available to explore such an open-ended lead. I doubted the question had much to do with Bell’s rivalry with Thomas Edison. But I was curious nonetheless. I never for a moment suspected what would happen next…

Reprinted from The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell’s Secret by Seth Shulman
Copyright (c) 2008 by Seth Shulman
With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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