Your garage holds more than just your cars and rarely-used power tools. It holds the potential for greatness. The wide-open floorplan and separation from the rest of the house mean that the garage is the perfect room for making noise, as countless hobbyist handymen or teenage bands have discovered. It should come as no surprise, then, that many of the greatest companies in the world got their starts in garages.
Join us as we explore these achievements through a running blog series, updated every Monday. We’re interested in learning all there is to know about the creativity produced in the most pivotal garages in history, and we’ll bring all of our findings straight to you.
Welcome to Garage Greatness.
Alexander Graham Bell lived from 1847 until 1922, and in those years he had a remarkable life of innovation and advocacy. He is best known for being the first person to patent a practical telephone, one of the greatest innovations to human communication of all time, but in his life Bell also addressed many other areas of interest to him, mostly regarding deafness and elocution. Bell’s legacy shaped human history and his inventions were critical to the continuing progress of technology, but what is commonly forgotten about his work is that he got his start in the garage – or, to be more accurate, the carriage house!
For the first eighteen years of his life, Alexander Graham Bell lived in Scotland. He created his first invention when he was only twelve, working inside the flour mill owned by his friend’s father. He was asked to dehusk the wheat, a difficult and labor-intensive process. Instead of doing the work himself, he invented a machine built from rotating panels and nail brushes which was capable of husking the wheat for him. His family friend, in return for usage of the machine, allowed Bell and his friend to use a workshop connected to the mill for their inventions.
It was during this early phase of his life that Bell also developed a keen interest in acoustics. He was a quiet and sensitive boy, and his mother encouraged his musical and artistic side. From an early age, Bell enjoyed ventriloquism and mimicry tricks, and when his mother began to lose her hearing after his twelfth birthday, Bell immediately took an interest in learning how to communicate with her. He learned a form of finger speaking that allowed him to translate the family conversations to her while they were happening, then discovered that if he spoke clearly and directly into her forehead, she could still hear him. This fascination with acoustics and deafness defined the rest of his life.
Of course, Bell also came from a great background of elocution experts. His grandfather, uncle, and father were all elocutionists. When his father observed Bell’s interest in his field and the boy’s sharp intellect, he taught his son Visual Speech, which was a way to phonetically represent spoken language on a page, designed (in part by Bell’s father himself) to teach the deaf how to speak. Through practice and careful tutelage, Visual Speech could be used to teach even a profoundly deaf person how to manipulate their voice and speak clearly enough to be understood.
Bell learned Visual Speech quickly, and could read aloud multiple languages aloud without any prior experience speaking them, including Latin, Gaelic, Scottish, and Sanskrit. Even with no frame of reference to their pronunciation, Bell used Visual Speech to perfectly imitate the sound of a native speaker. This exercise would eventually lead him to teach elocution himself. Among his many pupils were several notable deaf figures (usually called “Deaf-mutes” at the time), the most famous among them Helen Keller.
In 1863, when he was 16, Bell went to see an automaton developed by Sir Charles Wheatstone, which was a human-like machine capable of speaking a few simple words in a simulation of the human voice. Bell acquired the inventor’s book, translated it from German, and constructed his own speaking throat and larynx, which was capable of speaking “mama” when a bellows were operated. His experimentation continued as he learned to make the family dog “speak” by manually manipulating its vocal chords while the dog growled.
The most intriguing part of this story is perhaps the one blunder that led Bell to research transmitting sound by electrical means. In correspondence with a philologist, Bell acquired another German’s book about sound, but this time he acquired a copy of the French translation. This version had been translated incorrectly, and made it sound as if the German had already succeeded in producing speech through electricity, while in fact all he had done was produce vowel sounds.
Bell was dismayed to read (erroneously) that this marvel had already been accomplished, but decided that the reason he could not accomplish it stemmed only from his lack of electrical knowledge. In reality, his efforts to “follow in the footsteps” of the German author were actually blazing a ground-breaking trail into the future of telecommunication.
By 1870, Bell had moved across the pond to Canada, and moved onto a 10.5 acre farm near Brantford, Ontario. This home would be pivotal in human history because the carriage house bordering on the Grand River would go on to be Bell’s workshop for the next year, and the place where he made many of the innovations responsible for the phone’s development. It was here, inside the separate garage, that Bell transmitted the sound of a melodeon pump organ through wires, over a distance. During this time, he also learned Mohawk and became an Honorary Chief in the Six Nations Reserve.
The next years were spent working with the deaf and researching his electrical ideas. Bell opened a private school for deaf students and also did individual tutoring. Modern Deaf culture is designed around support and acceptance, but at the time the experts (Bell included) were trying to eradicate deafness as though it was a disease, and trying to disallow sign language in favor of lip-reading and speech programs, to integrate deaf people into hearing society. Bell is not remembered fondly by modern Deaf culture activists, but at the time he was a champion for the deaf and devoted much of his to trying to help them.
For several years, Bell worked in academia as a teacher or mentor, while continuing his research on the side. He lacked the electrical experience to make all of his ideas a reality, but he learned as he went and partnered with many of the great minds of the time and a few of his patient’s wealthy parents. It was 1875 when his assistant Thomas A. Watson, an electrical designer, plucked one of the metal reeds that Bell was working with and transmitted sound to the receiving end of the wire. The two men had created a machine that could transmit indistinct sounds, but the clarity required for voices still eluded them.
The actual moment of developing the telephone is subject to some controversy. On the same day that Bell’s lawyer filed his patent, Elisha Gray, another scientist working with acoustic telegraphy, filed a caveat with the Patent Office for using a water transmitter. Multiple court decisions have ruled that Bell is the rightful inventor, but regardless of original claim, it was Bell who first transmitted sound – in March 10th, 1876, Bell spoke “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” into the receiver, and was understood in an adjoining room.
Early tests continued, and soon onlookers were gathering to see Bell communicate with his family, four miles away from his workshop. The core principal at the heart of the telephone continued to sit at the core of modern telecommunication for many years, although it has now been replaced by cellular and satellite technologies. The Bell Telephone company, created in 1877, is still in operation today after many name changes, currently under the name AT&T. The first transcontinental phone call, in 1915, was also a conversation between Bell and Watson, although this time they were speaking from New York to San Francisco, not into the next room.
The telephone was not Bell’s only invention, but it is certainly the most remembered and significant. All of his life, Bell campaign for deaf advocacy and devoted himself to the pursuit of better treatment and understanding of deafness, so to him, his innovations in acoustics were secondary to the achievements he made in improving the social welfare of the deaf. Indeed, Bell ended up marrying one of his students, a profoundly deaf woman named Mabel Hubbard. All of these accomplishment can be traced back to his first successful transmission of sound via electricity, which was accomplished in his carriage house. How’s that for a great garage!
For right now, Garage greatness is out of inventions and companies! If you know of any companies or notable inventions that we didn’t cover in our series, we’d love to hear about it in the comments section below. Our coverage was not meant to be exhaustive, since there are countless companies around the world that don’t list their starting origins as clearly as the ones we have covered, but we hope that you have enjoyed this series and that you have learned a little bit more about the creativity that can originate from the garage, and the greatness that can spring from humble beginnings.