Back to the Future: World’s first photophone and other telephone historia

During trip earlier this month to Nova Scotia, I visited Baddeck, Alexander Graham Bell’s summer refuge from the heat and humidity of Washington, DC for the last 37 years of his life. Interestingly the estate is still (privately) occupied by descendants, including his 101-year old granddaughter. However, the highlight was to visit the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site, a Parks Canada museum of his trials and experimentation.

From the era of the Voice 0.1 Manifesto and pre-Skype Certification: Just send me the voice — not exactly your average Nokia N91! Oh, and definitely not suitable for SkypeIn or SkypeOut.

Definitely worth a visit for anyone keen on the history of the telephone; Alexander Graham Bell was the original technogeek often working late into the night, applying his curiosity and energy to not only telephony but also avionics, air conditioning, marine engineering and structural design. Some interesting notes that we can relate to in this era of telephony’s evolution into the VoIP age:

  • He was effectively trained as a speech therapist following in his father’s and grandfather’s profession of teaching the deaf; his father’s work with a phonetic alphabet, where each sound is represented by a character, triggered his interest in developing the telephone. But what are codecs and Internet packets but ad hoc “phonetic” codes for the coding/decoding and transmission of sound?
  • While applying for his original telephone concept patent in 1875, a year prior to the first actual telephone call, he spent a good part of the next 18 years in the courts defending his patents — successfully.
  • In all his homes he had a separate office/laboratory room where he could be a night owl geek writing, experimenting and thinking. But he never had a telephone installed in any of his offices/labs.
  • He was a meticulous note taker and recorder of all his activities and observations, no doubt contributing to his night owl behavior. His (deaf) wife even painted a “surprise gift” picture of an owl with his visage worked into the owl’s body to express her frustration; the painting is in the museum. But he most wanted to be reputed for his efforts in teaching the deaf.
  • While his wedding gift to his wife were all but 10 of his shares in Bell Telephone Company; several of the museum exhibits leave the overall impression that she financed many of his subsequent activities. While there were three other original BTC shareholders, including “Watson” and his father-in-law, no mention is made of the actual share size of the original company. One has to assume these were the days before the concept of market capitalization appeared.
  • The original photophone was developed in the 1880’s but did not take pictures; in fact it was a communications experiment that had nothing to do with photography. However, the methodology was effectively a laser short of today’s fibre optic technology. Aided by mirrors and a selenium substrate he demonstrated that voice could be transmitted very short distances over sunlight. It would simply require a laser;’s monochromatic, coherent light source to transmit over the long distances characteristic of today’s fibre optic lines.
  • He was a founder of the publisher of that coffee table magazine that became a cable channel: the National Geographic Society.

The AGB timline and some more pictures:

About Jim Courtney

Bringing over thirty years' experience in the sales, marketing and management of cutting edge technology businesses.


  1. Privacy and Prejudice: An Interruption 2.0 Manifesto for the AlwaysOn Lifestyle | Voice on the Web - April 13, 2011

    […] When reporting on my visit last summer to an Alexander Graham Bell museum near his summer home, I discovered an interesting facet to his lifestyle: In all his homes he had a separate office/laboratory room where he could be a night owl geek writing, experimenting and thinking. But he never had a telephone installed in any of his offices/labs. […]

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