10 Surprising Facts about Alexander Graham Bell

Getty Images
Getty Images

Alexander Graham Bell may have been born in Scotland and become an American citizen, but he called Nova Scotia, Canada home for the last few decades of his life. By the time Bell was 38, he was living in Washington, D.C. and involved in endless draining lawsuits concerning patents over the telephone. He came across a book by Charles Dudley Warner called Baddeck and That Sort of Thing, which described the small fishing village of Baddeck in Nova Scotia as “the most beautiful saltwater lake I have even seen … its embracing hills, casting a shadow from its wooded islands … here was an enchanting vision.” After reading that description, Bell moved there with his wife and two children. He made the idyllic Canadian village his home for nearly 40 years, until his death.

1. BELL’S FIRST PASSION WAS HELPING THE DEAF.

Alexander Graham Bell and his family
Alexander Graham Bell and his wife, Mabel Gardiner Hubbard, and two of their children
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Alexander Graham Bell’s primary focus was on helping deaf students communicate. His grandfather had been an elocutionist, and his father, Melville, developed a system called Visible Speech, a collection of written symbols designed to help the deaf while speaking. (Melville was name-checked in George Bernard Shaw’s preface to Pygmalion, and is thought to be a possible basis for Professor Higgins.) Both Alexander Graham Bell’s mother and wife were deaf, and became the inspiration for his work. In 1872, when he was 25, he opened a “School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech” in Boston.

2. THE TELEPHONE WAS INVENTED FOR LOVE


Luke Spencer

One of Bell’s pupils was Mabel Hubbard, the daughter of a wealthy Massachusetts family, with whom he fell in love. Her father, lawyer Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the first president of the National Geographic Society, opposed the marriage due to Bell’s poor finances. But only a few days after establishing the Bell Telephone Company and securing his fortune, Bell married Mabel. For a wedding present, he gave her all but ten of his 1507 shares in the company. On his desk in his study at Baddeck, Bell kept a photograph of his beloved Mabel; written on the back, in his own hand, it says: “the girl for whom the telephone was invented.”

3. THE FIRST TELEPHONE MESSAGE MAY HAVE BEEN A CALL FOR HELP.

It was while experimenting with acoustic telegraphy alongside his assistant Thomas Watson, a machinist, that Bell invented the telephone. On the evening of March 10, 1876, with a receiver set up in Watson’s room and the prototype transmitter in his own room down the hallway, Bell uttered the first words sent down a telephone wire: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” As Watson recalled, “I rushed down the hall … and found he had upset the acid of a battery over his clothes … his shout for help that night … doesn’t make as pretty a story as did the first sentence ‘What Hath God Wrought’ which Morse sent over his new telegraph ... 30 years before, but it was an emergency call.”

However, according to Watson’s great-granddaughter Susan Cheever, the acid was an invention of Watson’s 50 years after the fact. To make her case, she quotes a letter from Watson soon after the momentous call, in which he said, “[T]here was little of dramatic interest in the occasion.”

Bell's patent 174,465 was filed with the U.S. Patent Office at almost the same time as another engineer, Elisha Gray, filed a caveat (a document saying he was going to file for a patent in three months) for a similar invention. That sparked one of more than 500 various lawsuits over the telephone—all of which were unsuccessful.

4. BELL PIONEERED WHAT WOULD BECOME CASSETTE TAPES, FLOPPY DISCS, AND FIBER OPTICS.

In 1880, the French government awarded Bell 50,000 francs for the invention of the telephone. With the prize money he founded the Volta Laboratory, dedicated to the “increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the deaf.”

Of the 18 patents held by Bell alone, and the 12 he shared with collaborators, many related to improving the lives of deaf people. Bell considered once such patent, the photophone, the “greatest invention I have ever made, greater than the telephone.” The photophone was designed for optical wireless communication, which was quite a feat for 1880. Bell and an assistant, Charles Summer Tainter, transmitted a wireless voice message by light beam over a distance of 200 meters from a school roof to their laboratory—a precursor to fiber-optics one hundred years later

They are also said to have attempted to impress magnetic fields as a way of reproducing sound. Although they abandoned the idea after failing to produce a workable prototype, Bell had in fact been pioneering the principle that would one day become the tape recorder and the computer floppy disc. One of their improvements to the gramophone was patented under the Volta Graphophone Company, which would one day evolve into Columbia Records and Dictaphone.

5. HE ALSO INVENTED THE WORLD’S FASTEST SPEEDBOAT …

After becoming interested in hydroplanes, Bell sketched out an early model of what would become known as a hydrofoil boat. Along with aviation pioneer Frederick “Casey” Baldwin, Bell began building and testing what they called the HD-4 in the laboratory at Baddeck. On the Bras d’Or lake outside Bell’s home, the boat set the world speed record of 70.86 mph on September 9, 1919. The remnants of the world’s fastest boat can still be seen at the Alexander Graham Bell Historic site and museum in Baddeck.

6. … AND HELPED OUT WITH CANADA’S FIRST CONTROLLED PLANE.

The Bras d’Or lake also saw another milestone in Canadian history, when the AEA Silver Dart, one of the earliest aircraft, made the first powered flight in Canada in February 1909. As early as 1892, Bell had been developing motor-powered aircraft, and had done extensive experiments with tetrahedron kites. Under Bell’s guidance, co-designer John McCurdy managed to fly the Silver Dart a half-mile over Nova Scotia. A few weeks later, after more tinkering in Bell’s workshops, the flight managed more than 22 miles. By the summer of 1909, the Silver Dart carried the first-ever passenger in Canadian airspace.

7. HE WAS HELPFUL TO NEIGHBORS.

Alexander Graham Bell with family and friends
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There is a local story told in Baddeck of how, one day soon after moving to the town, Bell was walking along the main street and saw the editor of the local newspaper having problems with his wall-mounted telephone. Bell walked in and promptly unscrewed the earpiece, revealing a trapped fly, which he blew out of it. The astonished newspaper editor asked how the stranger had known how to fix the newfangled invention, to which Bell replied, “because I am the inventor of that instrument.”

8. HE INVENTED A METAL DETECTOR TO SAVE A PRESIDENT’S LIFE.


A metal detector like the one Bell invented, on display at the Bell Historic Site in Baddeck.
Luke Spencer

The first known use of the metal detector was not for beachcombing or gold prospecting, but rather as an attempt to save the life of a U.S. President. James Garfield had been shot at the Baltimore & Potomac Railway station in July 1881 by Charles J. Guiteau. The bullet was lodged somewhere in the president’s back and couldn’t be located by the attending doctors. Alexander Graham Bell, a visitor to the stricken Garfield, quickly developed a metal detector with the purpose of finding the bullet. Inspired by French inventor Gustave Trouvé’s earlier handheld device, Bell built a device based on electromagnetics. Unfortunately, the metal springs in the mattress Garfield was lying on confused the detector—or so Bell would later claim—and the 20th president of the United States died of an infection in the wound that September.

9. YOU CAN ALSO THANK HIM FOR NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE.

The National Geographic magazine as we know it today was largely the brainchild of Alexander Graham Bell. Under his father-in-law, the exclusive society’s first president, the prestigious club house in Washington D.C. was struggling. Membership was dwindling to just under a thousand people when Bell was elected its second president. He immediately set to work to revitalize the society, and in particular its journal, which, according to Bell, “everyone put on his library shelf and few people read.”

Bell relaunched the journal with a new slogan, “The World And All That Is In It.” He promoted illustrations and good photography, introducing “pictures of life and action … pictures that tell a story.”

10. AFTER HIS DEATH, THE PHONE COMPANIES PAID TRIBUTE.

Alexander Graham Bell died in his adopted home of Nova Scotia on August 2, 1922, with his beloved Mabel by his side. It’s a common custom to hold a minute’s silence when someone of note has passed away, but for Alexander Graham Bell, a remarkable tribute took place after his funeral. Every phone in North America was silenced for a minute in “honor of the man who had given to mankind the means for direct communication at a distance.”

Lost Your Wallet? You Might Be More Likely to Get It Back If There's Cash Inside

iStock/tzahiV
iStock/tzahiV

Few things can incite more panic than discovering you’ve lost a wallet or purse containing money, identification, credit cards, and/or keys. You wonder if anyone will find it—and if they do, whether they’ll decide to retain your cash using the playground ethics of the "finders keepers" rule.

An ambitious new study in the journal Science has provided at least a partial answer. If your wallet has cash inside, it’s actually more likely for people to return it than if it didn’t have any.

Researchers at the University of Michigan conducted an exercise in civic honesty, dispatching 13 assistants to 355 cities in 40 countries across the globe. At each destination, the assistants were armed with clear wallets that held things like grocery lists and business cards along with an email address. Some wallets had no money inside. Others contained about $13.45 in the local currency. The assistants gave the wallets to employees at banks, hotels, post offices, museums, and police stations, explaining they had “found” the wallet and were in too big of a hurry to contact the owner themselves. They passed the responsibility to the person receiving the wallet. All told, 17,303 wallets were left as proverbial bait to see what the employees might do.

Of the wallets without cash inside, researchers received an email seeking to return roughly 40 percent of them. About 51 percent of the employees attempted to return the wallets containing $13.45 in cash.

These percentages fluctuated by country. In Denmark, 82 percent of wallets with cash were returned. In the United States, the figure was 57 percent. When researchers upped the stakes by including $94.15 in wallets for areas in the U.S., Britain, and Poland, the return rate went up to 72 percent.

It’s difficult to infer motivations for why people returned wallets with more money than less, or none. In a survey, researchers found that people in general described wanting to avoid feeling like a thief by keeping the money. (Respondents were different than the employees who were left with the wallet.) That would explain why returns increased as the dollar amount went up.

The study was limited by the fact that the wallets were left with people who could have presumably been held accountable for not returning them. The research assistant could have returned to inquire about the wallet’s status, while no such concern exists for people finding a wallet in the street. Still, it does indicate that people feel a measure of sympathy for—and moral obligation to—lost money and will make an effort to see it returned.

[h/t Science News]

Some Fish Eggs Can Hatch After Being Pooped Out by Swans

iStock/olaser
iStock/olaser

A question that’s often baffled scientists is how certain species of fish can sometimes appear—and even proliferate—in isolated bodies of water not previously known to harbor them. A new study has demonstrated that the most unlikely explanation might actually be correct: It’s possible they fell from the sky.

Specifically, from the rear end of a swan.

A study in the journal Ecology by researchers at the Unisinos University in Brazil found that killifish eggs can, in rare cases, survive being swallowed by swans, enduring a journey through their digestive tracts before being excreted out. This kind of fecal public transportation system explains how killifish can pop up in ponds, flood waters, and other water bodies that would seem an unlikely place for species to suddenly appear.

After discovering that some plants could survive being ingested and then flourish in swan poop, researchers took notice of a killifish egg present in a frozen fecal sample. They set about mixing two species of killifish eggs into the food supply of coscoroba swans living in a zoo. After waiting a day, they collected the poop and dug in looking for the eggs.

Of the 650 eggs they estimated to have been ingested by the swans, about five were left intact. Of those, three continued to develop. Two died of a fungal infection, but one survived, enduring 30 hours in the gut and hatching 49 days after being excreted.

Because killifish eggs have a thick outer membrane, or chorion, they stand a chance of coming through the digestive tract of an animal intact. Not all of what a swan ingests will be absorbed; their stomachs are built to extract nutrients quickly and get rid of the whatever's left so the birds can eat again. In rare cases, that can mean an egg that can go on to prosper.

Not all fish eggs are so durable, and not all fish are quite like the killifish. Dubbed the "most extreme" fish on Earth by the BBC, killifish have adapted to popping up in strange environments where water may eventually dry up. They typically live for a year and deposit eggs that can survive in soil, delaying their development until conditions—say, not being inside a swan—are optimal. One species, the mangrove killifish, can even breathe through its skin. When water recedes, they can survive on land for over two months, waddling on their bellies or using their tails to "jump" and eat insects. A fish that can survive on dry land probably doesn't sweat having to live in poop.

The researchers plan to study carp eggs next to see if they, too, can go through a lot of crap to get to where they’re going.

[h/t The New York Times]

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