10 Surprising Facts about Alexander Graham Bell

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Getty Images

Alexander Graham Bell may have been born in Scotland and become an American citizen, but he called Nova Scotia, Canada home for the last few decades of his life. By the time Bell was 38, he was living in Washington, D.C. and involved in endless draining lawsuits concerning patents over the telephone. He came across a book by Charles Dudley Warner called Baddeck and That Sort of Thing, which described the small fishing village of Baddeck in Nova Scotia as “the most beautiful saltwater lake I have even seen … its embracing hills, casting a shadow from its wooded islands … here was an enchanting vision.” After reading that description, Bell moved there with his wife and two children. He made the idyllic Canadian village his home for nearly 40 years, until his death.

1. BELL’S FIRST PASSION WAS HELPING THE DEAF.

Alexander Graham Bell and his family
Alexander Graham Bell and his wife, Mabel Gardiner Hubbard, and two of their children
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Alexander Graham Bell’s primary focus was on helping deaf students communicate. His grandfather had been an elocutionist, and his father, Melville, developed a system called Visible Speech, a collection of written symbols designed to help the deaf while speaking. (Melville was name-checked in George Bernard Shaw’s preface to Pygmalion, and is thought to be a possible basis for Professor Higgins.) Both Alexander Graham Bell’s mother and wife were deaf, and became the inspiration for his work. In 1872, when he was 25, he opened a “School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech” in Boston.

2. THE TELEPHONE WAS INVENTED FOR LOVE


Luke Spencer

One of Bell’s pupils was Mabel Hubbard, the daughter of a wealthy Massachusetts family, with whom he fell in love. Her father, lawyer Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the first president of the National Geographic Society, opposed the marriage due to Bell’s poor finances. But only a few days after establishing the Bell Telephone Company and securing his fortune, Bell married Mabel. For a wedding present, he gave her all but ten of his 1507 shares in the company. On his desk in his study at Baddeck, Bell kept a photograph of his beloved Mabel; written on the back, in his own hand, it says: “the girl for whom the telephone was invented.”

3. THE FIRST TELEPHONE MESSAGE MAY HAVE BEEN A CALL FOR HELP.

It was while experimenting with acoustic telegraphy alongside his assistant Thomas Watson, a machinist, that Bell invented the telephone. On the evening of March 10, 1876, with a receiver set up in Watson’s room and the prototype transmitter in his own room down the hallway, Bell uttered the first words sent down a telephone wire: “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” As Watson recalled, “I rushed down the hall … and found he had upset the acid of a battery over his clothes … his shout for help that night … doesn’t make as pretty a story as did the first sentence ‘What Hath God Wrought’ which Morse sent over his new telegraph ... 30 years before, but it was an emergency call.”

However, according to Watson’s great-granddaughter Susan Cheever, the acid was an invention of Watson’s 50 years after the fact. To make her case, she quotes a letter from Watson soon after the momentous call, in which he said, “[T]here was little of dramatic interest in the occasion.”

Bell's patent 174,465 was filed with the U.S. Patent Office at almost the same time as another engineer, Elisha Gray, filed a caveat (a document saying he was going to file for a patent in three months) for a similar invention. That sparked one of more than 500 various lawsuits over the telephone—all of which were unsuccessful.

4. BELL PIONEERED WHAT WOULD BECOME CASSETTE TAPES, FLOPPY DISCS, AND FIBER OPTICS.

In 1880, the French government awarded Bell 50,000 francs for the invention of the telephone. With the prize money he founded the Volta Laboratory, dedicated to the “increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the deaf.”

Of the 18 patents held by Bell alone, and the 12 he shared with collaborators, many related to improving the lives of deaf people. Bell considered once such patent, the photophone, the “greatest invention I have ever made, greater than the telephone.” The photophone was designed for optical wireless communication, which was quite a feat for 1880. Bell and an assistant, Charles Summer Tainter, transmitted a wireless voice message by light beam over a distance of 200 meters from a school roof to their laboratory—a precursor to fiber-optics one hundred years later

They are also said to have attempted to impress magnetic fields as a way of reproducing sound. Although they abandoned the idea after failing to produce a workable prototype, Bell had in fact been pioneering the principle that would one day become the tape recorder and the computer floppy disc. One of their improvements to the gramophone was patented under the Volta Graphophone Company, which would one day evolve into Columbia Records and Dictaphone.

5. HE ALSO INVENTED THE WORLD’S FASTEST SPEEDBOAT …

After becoming interested in hydroplanes, Bell sketched out an early model of what would become known as a hydrofoil boat. Along with aviation pioneer Frederick “Casey” Baldwin, Bell began building and testing what they called the HD-4 in the laboratory at Baddeck. On the Bras d’Or lake outside Bell’s home, the boat set the world speed record of 70.86 mph on September 9, 1919. The remnants of the world’s fastest boat can still be seen at the Alexander Graham Bell Historic site and museum in Baddeck.

6. … AND HELPED OUT WITH CANADA’S FIRST CONTROLLED PLANE.

The Bras d’Or lake also saw another milestone in Canadian history, when the AEA Silver Dart, one of the earliest aircraft, made the first powered flight in Canada in February 1909. As early as 1892, Bell had been developing motor-powered aircraft, and had done extensive experiments with tetrahedron kites. Under Bell’s guidance, co-designer John McCurdy managed to fly the Silver Dart a half-mile over Nova Scotia. A few weeks later, after more tinkering in Bell’s workshops, the flight managed more than 22 miles. By the summer of 1909, the Silver Dart carried the first-ever passenger in Canadian airspace.

7. HE WAS HELPFUL TO NEIGHBORS.

Alexander Graham Bell with family and friends
Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There is a local story told in Baddeck of how, one day soon after moving to the town, Bell was walking along the main street and saw the editor of the local newspaper having problems with his wall-mounted telephone. Bell walked in and promptly unscrewed the earpiece, revealing a trapped fly, which he blew out of it. The astonished newspaper editor asked how the stranger had known how to fix the newfangled invention, to which Bell replied, “because I am the inventor of that instrument.”

8. HE INVENTED A METAL DETECTOR TO SAVE A PRESIDENT’S LIFE.


A metal detector like the one Bell invented, on display at the Bell Historic Site in Baddeck.
Luke Spencer

The first known use of the metal detector was not for beachcombing or gold prospecting, but rather as an attempt to save the life of a U.S. President. James Garfield had been shot at the Baltimore & Potomac Railway station in July 1881 by Charles J. Guiteau. The bullet was lodged somewhere in the president’s back and couldn’t be located by the attending doctors. Alexander Graham Bell, a visitor to the stricken Garfield, quickly developed a metal detector with the purpose of finding the bullet. Inspired by French inventor Gustave Trouvé’s earlier handheld device, Bell built a device based on electromagnetics. Unfortunately, the metal springs in the mattress Garfield was lying on confused the detector—or so Bell would later claim—and the 20th president of the United States died of an infection in the wound that September.

9. YOU CAN ALSO THANK HIM FOR NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE.

The National Geographic magazine as we know it today was largely the brainchild of Alexander Graham Bell. Under his father-in-law, the exclusive society’s first president, the prestigious club house in Washington D.C. was struggling. Membership was dwindling to just under a thousand people when Bell was elected its second president. He immediately set to work to revitalize the society, and in particular its journal, which, according to Bell, “everyone put on his library shelf and few people read.”

Bell relaunched the journal with a new slogan, “The World And All That Is In It.” He promoted illustrations and good photography, introducing “pictures of life and action … pictures that tell a story.”

10. AFTER HIS DEATH, THE PHONE COMPANIES PAID TRIBUTE.

Alexander Graham Bell died in his adopted home of Nova Scotia on August 2, 1922, with his beloved Mabel by his side. It’s a common custom to hold a minute’s silence when someone of note has passed away, but for Alexander Graham Bell, a remarkable tribute took place after his funeral. Every phone in North America was silenced for a minute in “honor of the man who had given to mankind the means for direct communication at a distance.”

A Cartoonist and Physicist Team Up to Explain the Universe in New Science Podcast

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iStock

Have you ever wondered how galaxies formed, what constitutes dark matter, or what exactly lies inside a black hole? You’re not the only one. A new podcast called Daniel and Jorge Explain the Universe is condensing these complex topics into 35-minute lessons that everyone can understand.

The podcasters who lent their namesake to the show are cartoonist Jorge Cham and physicist Daniel Whiteson. They previously teamed up to pen the 2017 book We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe, which explored some of the many unanswered questions about the world and how it works. Their new venture will tackle similar themes.

So far, they’ve produced two episodes, both of which launch today, and which address the questions “Is the Higgs Boson useful?” and “Are we living in a simulation?” The tone of the show is laid-back and conversational, so it’s easy for the uninitiated to follow.

“Think of it as your chance to sit at a bar with some cool scientists and getting to ask them all the things you always wanted to know about space, stars, particles, and the cosmos,” Whiteson, who conducts research using the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), says in a promotional video.

The podcast is a product of HowStuffWorks, which also produces Stuff You Should Know, Stuff You Missed in History Class, The Daily Zeitgeist, and of course Part-Time Genius, from the pair who founded Mental Floss.

12 Facts About Belly Buttons

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iStock

Belly buttons are many things bundled up into one tiny knot: Collectors of lint. Harborers of bacteria. Objects of desire. Symbols of creation and birth. From the gross to the sexy to the spiritual, there’s a lot to unpack about the belly button’s place in history, culture, science, and religion. Let's get started.

1. THEY'RE REALLY JUST SCARS.

That little spot in the center of your belly marks the place where your umbilical cord once connected you to your mom’s placenta. When that cord is cut, a little, shriveled piece of it gets left behind. It eventually falls off—usually within the first week of a baby’s life—and what remains is a scar. Of course, “belly button” sounds a lot cuter than “belly scar.”

2. DOCTORS CAN’T CHOOSE A BABY'S BELLY BUTTON SHAPE …

Whether your belly button caves in or sticks out has nothing to do with how your doctor cut or clamped your umbilical cord. It all comes down to the amount of space between the skin and the abdominal wall, which determines how much skin—and scar tissue—is left behind. "You can't do anything to make sure babies have an innie or outie," Dr. Dan Polk, a neonatologist at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, told the Chicago Tribune. "It has to do with how much baby skin leads onto the umbilical cord from the baby's body. Less skin makes an innie; more skin makes an outie." About 90 percent of people have innies, and the rest are outies. In some cases, an outie orientation is the result of an umbilical hernia, which occurs when part of the intestine pokes through the umbilical opening in the abdominal wall. It usually seals up naturally by the time a child reaches the age of 2, but more persistent cases may require surgery.

3. … BUT A COSMETIC SURGEON CAN TURN AN OUTIE INTO AN INNIE.

For those who don't like their outie, cosmetic surgery is an option—albeit a drastic one. Umbilicoplasty is a surgery that alters the size or shape of the belly button, often by removing excess skin or tightening abdominal skin. A 1971 article in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin called belly button beautification the “newest gimmick in the cosmetic surgery game.” The article cited a Japanese physician who had performed more than 3000 navel operations in the ‘60s and early ‘70s for about $80 to $150 a pop. (Now, the surgery costs about $2000 in the U.S.)

An article in The Ottawa Citizen suggested that the surgical technique dates back to the early 1900s, when it was usually done as a corrective measure in conjunction with tummy tuck surgeries, which often displace the belly button. Even if there’s no medical need, a patient can now opt for umbilicoplasty to get the “ideal” shape. “What was favored through the Greek, Roman, and Western civilization to our time is an oval belly button that is more or less vertically oriented,” New York City cosmetic surgeon Bruce Nadler told the paper in 2002, when these surgeries were starting to become more popular. By contrast, Nadler said, horizontal belly buttons are considered more desirable in Asian cultures because they’re associated with good fortune.

4. MOST MAMMALS HAVE ONE.

Dogs, chimpanzees, lions, and armadillos have one, but their navels aren’t always easy to spot. For one, most mammalian mothers chew off the umbilical cord attached to their newborns, leaving a flat scar that’s harder to detect than a human belly button. Gorillas and chimpanzees are an interesting case for navel-gazers because they have what some scientists call an “in-betweeny”—a navel that looks like a human’s but is neither an innie nor an outie.

However, there are a few notable exceptions to the mammal belly button rule. Platypuses, which lay eggs, have no umbilical cord and therefore no belly button. As for marsupials like kangaroos and koalas, their umbilical cords generally fall off while they’re still inside mom's pouch, so a scar never forms.

5. THE FEAR OF BELLY BUTTONS IS CALLED OMPHALOPHOBIA.

Some people feel anxious, afraid, or disgusted when their belly button is touched or when someone else's bare midriff is on display. This is called omphalophobia, which stems from the Greek word omphalo for navel. This fear is believed to be linked to the navel's association with umbilical cords and wombs, or perhaps the irrational childhood fear that a belly button will come undone, letting one’s guts spill out. The phobia has gained more national exposure ever since TV personality Khloé Kardashian admitted she has a fear of belly buttons.

6. IF YOU POKE IT, YOU MIGHT SUDDENLY GET THE URGE TO PEE.

Speaking of touching your belly button (and all the grossness that comes with it), you may feel a tingly sensation when you stick your finger in it. That’s because you're stimulating fibers lining the inside of your abdomen, which then send a message to your spinal cord. As Dr. Christopher Hollingsworth of NYC Surgical Associates explained to BuzzFeed, “Because your spinal cord at that level is also relaying signals from your bladder and urethra, it feels almost the same. You interpret this as discomfort in your bladder."

7. THEY CAN LEAK URINE.

In a similar vein, a rare abnormality can cause urine to leak out of the belly button. In the early stages of pregnancy, a tube called the urachus connects a fetus’s bladder and belly button and allows urine to drain. It usually atrophies and turns into a scar on the bladder at birth or soon after, but not always. Some people may never know they still have all or part of their urachus attached because it only becomes a problem if the tube doesn’t close up. In those cases, urine can travel up through the urachus and leak out of the umbilicus (navel). Surgery is generally needed to fix this issue.

8. THEY GROW SPECIAL FLUFF-CATCHING HAIRS.

Have you ever wondered why bits of lint keep collecting in your belly button, despite your best efforts to keep clean? Blame it on a special type of hair that grows in navels. These hairs have tiny barbs that protrude and rub against your clothing, causing small fibers to scrape off. The hairs are arranged in concentric circles, which act as a funnel and suck fluff into your navel. Those who shave their stomachs or don't grow a lot of body hair to begin with likely don't have many problems with lint.

9. THEY CONTAIN THOUSANDS OF KINDS OF BACTERIA.

Beyond lint, a lot of dead skin, discarded fat molecules, and thousands of bacteria also live in your navel. One 2012 study led by the aptly named Belly Button Biodiversity project documented 2368 types of bacteria in the navels of 66 study participants. Fret not, though: They help to protect you against harmful pathogens. “We know that without these microbes our immune systems won’t function properly,” the head of the project, Dr. Rob Dunn, said in a statement. “In fact, this collection of microbes must have a certain composition—must form a certain microbial ecosystem—in order for our immune system to function properly."

10. THEY USED TO BE BANNED ON TV.

In Western culture, belly buttons have been regarded as "a feminine sexual center since ancient times," according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. As such, they were deemed too lewd to show on television, according to the Code of Practices for Television Broadcasters, established by the National Association of Broadcasters in 1951. Barbara Eden, who played the titular role in I Dream of Jeannie, said network executives at NBC held meetings over whether to let her flash her navel during the show’s run in the ‘60s. Her producer, George Schlatter, “said he had never seen so many suits sitting around a table in his life discussing someone's anatomy,” Eden told the TODAY show. Although Eden’s genie get-up never ended up revealing her belly button, other shows started to push the envelope around the same time. The belly-button ban technically remained in effect until 1983, but it wasn’t exactly enforced. Yvette Mimieux of Dr. Kildare became the first actress to bare her navel on television in 1964, and others followed suit soon after.

11. THEY ARE THE SOURCE OF A LONGSTANDING THEOLOGICAL DEBATE.

Among Christians, the debate over whether Adam and Eve had belly buttons is a little like the age-old “chicken or egg” question. One popular argument holds that Adam and Eve weren’t born naturally from a mother, and thus they wouldn’t have had umbilical cords or belly buttons. Others disagree for various reasons and insist that navels have been around since the dawn of time. Both Raphael and Michelangelo depicted Adam and Eve with navels in their artwork (including the Sistine Chapel's ceiling painting), leading one 17th-century doctor and philosopher to decry these “vulgar errors,” according to the book Umbilicus and Umbilical Cord by Mohamed Fahmy. Other artists tried to avoid the issue altogether by concealing the couple’s abdomens with foliage, forearms, or long hair.

A few centuries later, a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee refused to distribute a booklet called Races of Man to World War II soldiers because it contained pictures of Adam and Eve with navels. Members of the committee ruled that this image “would be misleading to gullible American soldiers.”

12. THEY ARE CELEBRATED IN SOME CULTURES.

Think of Middle Eastern belly dancing and midriff-baring Indian attire. In some places around the world, the navel holds cultural and even spiritual significance. Some Hindus believe that a lotus emerged from the god Vishnu’s navel, and at the center of the flower was Brahma—the creator of the universe. Likewise, in Japan, the belly button may represent the point where life begins. In the Middle Jōmon period (2500-1500 BCE), Japanese artists emphasized the appearance of navels on their human-like figurines. Today, a belly button festival is held annually in the town of Shibukawa in central Japan. “The belly button is traditionally believed to be located in the middle of the body and the most important part,” festival organizer Kazuo Yamada told Reuters. “Our town, Shibukawa, is also called the belly button of Japan, and that is how this festival began.”

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