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Telephones Were Silenced for One Minute After Alexander Graham Bell Died

By the time Bell died, he had moved on to other inventions. But the telephone made a huge mark on American society

Alexander Graham Bell used the money from his telephone patent to fund Volta Laboratories, which later became Bell Laboratories. (Aaron Williamson/Flickr)
smithsonian.com

There were more than 14 million telephones in the United States by the time Alexander Graham Bell died. For one minute on August 4, 1922, they were all silent.

The reason: Bell's funeral. The American inventor was the first to patent telephone technology in the United States and who founded the Bell Telephone System in 1877. Though Bell wasn’t the only person to invent “the transmission of speech by electrical wires,” writes Randy Alfred for Wired, achieving patent primacy in the United States allowed him to spend his life inventing. Even though the telephone changed the world, Bell didn’t stop there.

Bell died on August 2, 1922, just a few days after his 75th birthday. “As a mark of respect every telephone exchange in the United States and Canada closed for a minute when his funeral began around 6:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time,” Alfred writes.

On the day of the funeral, The New York Times reported that Bell was also honored by advocates for deaf people. “Entirely apart from the monumental achievement of Professor Bell as the inventor of the telephone, his conspicuous work in [sic] behalf of the deaf of this country would alone entitle him to everlasting fame,” said Felix H. Levey, president of the Institution for the Improved Instruction of Deaf Mutes.

In fact, Bell spent much of his income from the telephone on helping deaf people. The same year he founded the Bell Telephone System, 1880, Bell founded the Volta Laboratory. The laboratory, originally called Volta Associates, capitalized on Bell’s work and the work of other sound pioneers. It made money by patenting new innovations for the gramophone and other recorded sound technologies. In 1887, Bell took his share of the money from the sale of gramophone patents and founded the Volta Bureau "as an instrument for the increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the Deaf,’” writes the National Park Service. Bell and Volta continued to work for deaf rights throughout his life.

Volta Laboratory eventually became Bell Laboratories, which was home to many of the twentieth century’s communication innovations.

But by the end of his life, his obituary in The New York Times records, “the telephone, in fact had [paled] on him.” Although he was still active advocating for the deaf and inventing (his most recent interest was airplanes,) the communications device that made him independently wealth at age 32 didn’t hold his interest anymore. “It was on his seventy-fifth birthday that he disclosed that he would not have a telephone in his own study,” the Times wrote, “and that there was no telephone in the Cocoanut Grove home of his daughter-in-law, Mrs. Fairchild, in the Miami suburb where he was spending the Winter working toward fresh inventions.”

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