Use file > print in the menu bar to print this page.

This artefact belongs to: © Bell Canada
Alexander Graham Bell explaining the electric telephone to his father in 1874, at Brantford, ON
J.C.H. Forster
1962, 20th century
Bell Canada Historical Collection
This artefact belongs to: © Bell Canada

Keys to History:

An Invention Sees the Light of Day

Who invented the telephone? For what purpose? In the second half of the 19th century, the idea of the telephone was germinating in the minds of several inventors. Until quite recently, the invention was attributed to Alexander Graham Bell (Edinburgh, Scotland, 1847 - Baddeck, NS, 1922). Since 2002, however, this claim has been contested by the U.S. House of Representatives, which now credits Antonio Meucci, based on a patent application filed in 1871. Meucci, an Italian-American inventor, was born April 13, 1808, in San Frediano, near Florence, Italy, and died October 18, 1896, in the United States.

In any case, the challenge was the same for all the inventors: transmitting the human voice electrically over a distance. Alexander Graham Bell was studying communication with the deaf -- a subject he had taken an interest in because his mother had lost her hearing. In 1873 Bell was living in Boston, where he was a university professor of vocal physiology. He was studying ways of reproducing sounds and transmitting them electrically. His invention differed from the telegraph in that the message transmitted did not need to be decoded by an operator. In July 1874, he explained the theory of the telephone to his father, phoneticist Alexander Melville Bell.

Continuing his research, Bell developed a new device with his assistant, Thomas Watson. On February 14, 1876, Bell filed an application with the U.S. Patent Office. On March 10, he spoke the now famous words over the telephone: "Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you." On August 24, 1877, the Canadian Patent Office granted him an inventor's patent for the telephone. The now-disputed inventor assigned 75 percent of his Canadian royalties to his father. With the help of Thomas Henderson, Melville Bell set up a company to lease equipment for use on private lines built by customers and to grant telegraph companies the right to use the telephone.


This watercolour by Canadian artist John C. H. Forster illustrates a landmark in the history of the telephone in Canada: the younger Bell explaining the theory of the telephone to his father.


The scene took place on Melville Bell's property in Brantford, Ontario.


The theory behind the telephone dates back to 1874 and the invention was patented in 1876. The telephone was officially launched in June 1876 at the Centennial Exposition of the founding of the United States in Philadelphia.


Alexander Melville Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1819. He died in 1905. His son, Alexander Graham Bell, was born in Edinburgh in 1847 and died at his summer house in Baddeck, NS, in 1922.

© Musée McCord Museum