From the time of Ben Franklin - who flew his kite and key in a storm to discover the secrets of electricity - America has been a pioneer in electronics. The book A Patriot’s A to Z of America features several of the inventors in this field, like John Mauchly, the devisor of the digital computer, and Samuel Morse, the creator of the telegraph.
Perhaps our favorite American in the arena that’s come to so characterize today’s world of tablets and cell phones came to America from Canada by way of Scotland. He gave us the phone, and even the first attempt at a wireless device.
It was tragedy that placed this innovator in the news in 1881. Back then, Presidents had no Secret Service and often no bodyguards. So when an assassin with a loaded pistol stepped up to President James Garfield at a downtown Washington train depot that July, the Chief Executive had no defense. Shot twice at point-blank range, Garfield was soon fighting for his life.
Yankee ingenuity emerged as some of the country’s best thinkers fought to save the President’s life. In trying to locate and remove a bullet buried in Garfield’s abdomen, doctors turned to a 34-year-old scientist, named Aleck, who quickly devised the first metal detector.
Due to the metal in the President’s bed frame, the detector failed in its task. But Americans, although saddened by the Garfield tragedy, thought back with pride to the scientist’s great triumph in Boston five years before.
Adept in many fields, Aleck was a noted instructor of sign language to deaf-mute students. After regaining his health, he traveled to Boston, and in 1872 set up the School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech.
Communication skills ran deep in his family. His grandfather was an actor. His father was the author of a well-known book on teaching the deaf to lip-read and to speak. His mother, though herself deaf, was a skilled pianist.
As a youth, Aleck and a friend constructed, from scraps of rubber and wood, a toy robot that could enunciate words like “mama.” Playing with the family terrier, Aleck got it to make English-like sounds by manipulating its vocal chords and lips. In Boston, one of his handicapped students was the blind-and-deaf child turned author, Helen Keller. He spent much of his free time tinkering with telegraphs and other electrical devices.
Aleck fashioned a device where material stretched across a mouthpiece vibrates from the speaker’s voice, causing fluctuations in a magnet’s current, which a faraway receiver translates back into sound. Helping him make test models was 22-year-old electrician Thomas Watson.
On March 12, 1876, while toiling in his lab, Aleck called out to Watson, who was working down the hall next to the receiver of their experimental “telephone.” Watson clearly heard Aleck’s words coming out of the receiver: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you!”
For the first time, the human voice had been sent over a wire.
He accomplished much more before his death in 1922. In 1915, a hydrofoil he designed set the world marine speed record at 70.9 mph. Decades prior, he dreamed up the “photophone,” which transmitted voice by vibrating beams of light. Though little used at the time, it was the first wireless phone, and anticipated optical-fiber transmission and the Droid by a century.
“Leave the beaten track behind occasionally,” Aleck, or Alexander Graham Bell, once noted, “and dive into the woods. Every time you do you will be certain to find something that you have never seen before.”
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