Teaching With Documents, Volume 2


Alexander Graham Bell’s Telephone Patent

On his 29th birthday, Alexander Graham Bell’s patent application for the telephone was formally received and approved by the United States Patent Office. Four days later, on March 7, 1876, U.S. Patent No. 174,465 for the telephone, one of the most valuable patents ever issued, was granted to Bell. Both the drawing, which is included in this article, and the written application are located in the Records of the Patent and Trademark Office, Record Group 241.

Bell’s family history is a part of the story of his invention of the telephone. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on March 3, 1847, he was a third-generation elocutionist and speech therapist. Aleck (as he was called by his family) was influenced by both his grandfather Alexander Bell, an expert on elocution and drama, and his father Alexander Melville Bell, the inventor of a renowned system of writing down speech symbols called Visible Speech (the model for the method used by Professor Higgins to improve Eliza’s speech in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion. Following graduation from the Royal High School in Edinburgh at the age of 14, Aleck lived in London for a year with his grandfather. Under his grandfather’s influence, he abandoned his dream of becoming a pianist in favor of a career in speech, "the turning point in my whole life," according to Bell. A working association with his father led him to use Visible Speech techniques to teach speech to the deaf, the occupation Bell most closely identified himself with throughout his lifetime. Bell outpaced both father and grandfather with his own accomplishments, however, and earned the distinction he longed for from age 11 when he added Graham to his name in an effort to distinguish himself from his namesakes.

Bell and his parents sailed to America in 1870 after tuberculosis claimed the lives of his two brothers and illness was threatening his own health. They settled in Ontario, Canada, for a two-year trial but never returned to live in Great Britain. Interest in teaching Visible Speech to the deaf brought Bell to Boston in 1871 to teach at the School of the Deaf (later the Horace Mann School). The development of the telephone was a direct result of his deep personal interest in helping deaf students. This work was recognized by his friend and student Helen Keller when she dedicated her autobiography, The Story of My Life , "to Alexander Graham Bell who taught the deaf to speak." No doubt the deafness of both his mother and his wife, Mabel, increased his commitment to alleviating communication problems faced by the deaf.

Although Bell’s talents and skills with musical and vocal sounds were necessary for developing the telephone, he lacked the knowledge of electricity essential for translating his theory of the electric-speaking telephone into a working model. He solved this problem in 1874 when he discovered Thomas A. Watson in a Boston electrical workshop. Watson, a bright young electrician, became Bell’s dedicated assistant and is immortalized in the now famous, though disputed, first words spoken over the telephone, "Mr. Watson, come here; I want to see you!"


The art of inventing requires a special set of talents, interest, temperament, and environment. According to the biographer Robert V Bruce, Bell was born with the talents and temperament,his upbringing gave him the interest, and chance brought him to Boston where he encountered the intellectual, technical, and economic environment that made the invention of the telephone possible. It was the Federal Government, however, that provided the legal environment to protect Bell’s invention and ensure that the invention was understood by all parties concerned, such as manufacturers, patent agents, and other inventors. Through power granted by the Constitution, Congress set up the patent process that resulted in the issuance of 30 patents associated with Bell and protected his most lucrative and contested invention, the telephone.


Article I, section 8, of the Constitution grants Congress the power "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries"—that is, to issue copyrights and patents. To establish a process for such activity, Congress passed the first patent legislation in 1790, which guaranteed certain rights to inventors and granted the authority to issue patents to the executive branch. As a result, the U.S. Patent Office was established to review, approve, and register applications for patents. Applications consist of a written description called a specification, a drawing, and until 1880, a model of the invention. During the years between the Civil War and the end of the 19th century, the U.S. Patent Office granted more than half a million patents, including those for Bell’s telephone, George Eastman’s camera, and Thomas Edison’s electric lightbulb. In the words of writer Alistair Cooke, it was "the heyday of the Ingenious American."


The Centennial Exposition, held in Philadelphia in 1876, was organized to celebrate the first 100 years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence and featured examples of the technological progress of the era. Among the scientists demonstrating their inventions at the exposition was A. Graham Bell, who received a centennial award for the telephone. Although his invention received the highest praise from the chairman of the judges, Sir William Thomson, a notable scientist responsible for the first successful transatlantic cable, it was not until later that the scientific community saw the commercial possibilities of Bell’s invention. Until World War I, the telegram continued to be the most widely used means of quick communication. Since then, the telephone has become so essential in our lives that Marshall McLuhan was moved to describe its history in these words: "The telephone began as a novelty, became a necessity and is regarded as an absolute right."


Choose or adapt from the following suggestions activities based on Bell’s patent drawing of the telephone. The activities are arranged by topic or discipline, not by grade level or ability.


1. Make a transparency of the document. Display it for the class, and ask the students the following questions: What do you think this is? Is there anything familiar on this document? What is the date of this document? Whose names appear on this document? Then ask them to find out all they can about the document before the next class day.


2. Discuss with your students the purposes and procedures for securing a patent. Ask them to find the authority for granting patents in a copy of the Constitution.


3. Assign students to find all they can about Alexander Graham Bell and the invention of the telephone, or tell them the story as recorded in the accompanying note to the teacher. Ask the students to tell the story of Bell and his invention using the relay method, whereby you or a student begins the story, then pass it on to the next person, and so on until the story is completed.

Click the image to view a larger version


4. Record on the chalkboard objects that operate by electricity as the students list them orally. With the help of a science teacher or a visiting electrician, ask students to construct a model of an electrical circuit. Display Bell’s patent drawing and ask the students to compare their circuits with the drawing.


5. Ask students to design a new product to benefit industry in the United States and then write an application for a patent keeping in mind that a patent application requires a certified declaration of a new and useful improvement with reasons why the product should be manufactured, a written description of the invention, a drawing of the invention, and until 1880, a model of the invention.


6. Write the two Greek words "tele," meaning afar, and "phone," meaning voice, on the chalkboard. Ask students to write as many words as they can think of that use one or the other of these Greek words. Use the list as a spelling and vocabulary quiz.

Social change

7. Ask students to imagine that they are transported back in time and space to the United States in 1876. Using the jigsaw method of group activity, divide the students into five groups. With each group concentrating on a different category-such as modes of travel, roads and bridges, means of communication, common household items, and types of work-ask them to describe what sort of world they see around them. Reassemble the groups so that the new groups contain at least one person from each of the original five. Ask all the students to report their descriptions in their reorganized group. Then, as a class, discuss how the telephone and its sister inventions have changed the way we live since 1876, revolutionizing communications, industry, and society itself. Remind your students that the late 19th century was an age of letter writing, when the telegraph was the swiftest means of communication, and intrusions such as wire-tapping, telephone solicitations, and crank telephone calls were unforeseen nuisances. Consider also the dramatic changes the invention meant for women, moving thousands from the kitchen stove to the switchboard.


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Chicago: "Alexander Graham Bell’s Telephone Patent," Teaching With Documents, Volume 2 in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. Wynell B. Schamel (Washington, D.C.: National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, 1998), 62–66. Original Sources, accessed May 27, 2020, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=M53W8UKQS4TG7Z1.

MLA: . "Alexander Graham Bell’s Telephone Patent." Teaching With Documents, Volume 2, in Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, edited by Wynell B. Schamel, Vol. 2, Washington, D.C., National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, 1998, pp. 62–66. Original Sources. 27 May. 2020. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=M53W8UKQS4TG7Z1.

Harvard: , 'Alexander Graham Bell’s Telephone Patent' in Teaching With Documents, Volume 2. cited in 1998, Teaching With Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, ed. , National Archives Trust Fund Board for the National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies, Washington, D.C., pp.62–66. Original Sources, retrieved 27 May 2020, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=M53W8UKQS4TG7Z1.