CBC Digital Archives

Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Watson

"Mr. Watson, come here! I want you!" The first words ever uttered over the telephone were a call for help after inventor Alexander Graham Bell spilled battery acid on his pants. For over a year, Bell and his assistant Thomas Watson had been developing a prototype for the concept Bell first described in 1874. This CBC Radio history of the telephone features a segment in which Watson remembers the project the pair had been contracted to develop - and it wasn't the telephone.

• Born in 1854 in Salem, Mass., Thomas Watson tried bookkeeping and carpentry before finding work in a Boston machine shop. There he met Alexander Graham Bell who needed a machinist to build the harmonic telegraph.

• After the successful launch of the telephone, Watson withdrew from the business altogether. He went on to own and operate a shipyard, study geology and form a theatre troupe.

• Alexander Graham Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1847, and emigrated to Canada with his parents in 1870.

• Bell began his career as a teacher of the deaf in Boston in 1871. Using a method called visible speech, developed by his father, Bell successfully taught his students how to speak.

• Through his work, Bell met his two primary financiers: Thomas Sanders, a student's father; and Gardiner Greene Hubbard, president of the Clarke School for the Deaf.

• Bell was fascinated by sound and how it travelled, and often tinkered with new ways to teach his students. In the summer of 1874 he constructed a device he called the "phonautograph": a dead man's ear attached to a lever. Speaking into the ear caused its membrane to vibrate, moving the lever, which then drew a wavelike pattern on a piece of smoked glass. Bell noted how the miniscule vibrations of the membrane moved the heavy lever.

• Bell speculated that a similar system could work with a wire attached to a membrane on either end. Speaking into one membrane would vary the intensity of the electrical current, which would vibrate the membrane at the other end of the wire.

• This was the theory of variable resistance, which makes electrically transmitted speech -- and thus the telephone -- possible.

• Bell was good with blueprints and theory, but he was not mechanically inclined. Hubbard and Sanders backed his idea for the harmonic telegraph, and Bell enlisted Watson's help.

• One evening as they worked on the harmonic telegraph, Bell described his concept of variable resistance to Thomas Watson. Watson was enthusiastic and the pair began experimenting with metal diaphragms, magnetized reeds, currents and springs to produce a working telephone.

• A telegraph works by interrupting an electrical current with a series of short and long taps ("dots" and "dashes") known as Morse code.

• By comparison, the telephone works with a continuous electrical current that varies in intensity according to the sounds of the voice.

• Bell and Watson discovered this by accident one day when a contact screw was attached too tightly, allowing a constant current that transmitted a "twang" as Watson tweaked a spring.

• On Feb. 14, 1876, Bell filed a patent on his invention, just hours before that of his nearest competitor, Elisha Gray. The theory of variable resistance was scribbled in the margins of Bell's application. This led to speculation that Bell had later been allowed to amend his application.

• In the following years Bell's patent was challenged in court over 600 times but he always won.

• The Bell Telephone Company was founded by Bell, Hubbard and Sanders on July 9, 1877. Watson was granted ten per cent of the company.

• Years later, Bell remarked on his discovery: "I now realize that I should never have invented the telephone if I had been an electrician. What electrician would have been so foolish as to try any such thing? The advantage I had was that sound had been the study of my life -- the study of vibrations."

• In 1915 Bell and Watson re-enacted their famous telephone call to usher in the first cross-continent telephone line. Bell, in New York, called Watson in San Francisco. "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!" he said. Watson replied that it would take him a week to get there.

• All his life, Bell answered the telephone with "Ahoy!" -- a greeting he advocated for everyone. Thomas Edison, a fellow inventor, is thought to be the first to introduce and popularize "Hello" as a telephone greeting.

Medium: Radio
Program: Between Ourselves
Broadcast Date: July 25, 1975
Guest(s): Betty Garretty, Bob Spencer
Reporter: Ken Haslam
Duration: 26:57
Photo: National Archives of Canada

Last updated: January 27, 2012

Page consulted on August 21, 2012

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