Using Primary Sources in the Classroom: Bell and the Telephone

"Alexander Graham Telephone in Newyork" by Gilbert H. Grosvenor Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

Alexander Graham Telephone in New York Calling Chicago in 1892 via Library of Congress


Alexander Graham Bell gets credit for inventing the telephone in 1876. Like most stories about inventions and discoveries, the story about the invention of the telephone is rifle with drama and intrigue. Bell was not the only inventor working on a way to make the human voice travel long distances much like the beeps of the telegraph. A lot of inventors were. In fact, Bell beat another inventor, Elisha Gray, to the patent office by only a few hours, and the drama didn’t begin or end with the race to the patent. As a rule of thumb. whoever is granted the patent first gets credit. Well, most of the time. Well, some of the time.

To add to the drama, Antonio Meucci filed for a patent caveat in 1871. A patent caveat “was not a formal patent. It was a description of an invention, intended to be patented, lodged in the patent office before the patent was applied for, and operated as a bar to the issue of any patent to any other person regarding the same invention was a legal document filed with the United States Patent Office. Caveats had to be renewed every year since they were not actual patents. Caveats were instituted by the U.S.Patent Act of 1836, but were discontinued in 1909.” Meucci did not renew his patent caveat after 1874 because he couldn’t afford it. Since there was no caveat, Meucci had no legal right to patent the prototype he had been working on for years. Meucci accused Bell of stealing his ideas.

Talk about drama!

Primary Sources

  • Here is a recording from April 15, 1885 of Bell.


Hear my voice, Alexander Graham Bell.


Bell 1875

Drawing by Alexander Graham Bell, 1875

Bell 1876

Drawing by Alexander Graham Bell, 1876

Description of Bell's first successful experiment in 1876.

Description of Bell’s first successful experiment in 1876.

In the Classroom

It is pretty cool to hear Alexander Graham Bell’s voice. Students love to hear and see famous people they’ve learned about. The older, the better. Below are five ways these resources could be used in the elementary classroom:

  • Collect some of Bell’s notes and sketches from the 1860’s-1870’s. Have students identify ways Bell used engineering design. Examples: He communicated his findings in letters. He documented his results in his notebook through text and drawings. He identified a problem (improve long distance communication) and created a prototype to solve that problem. 
  • Have students describe how life was before the invention of the telephone. They would also need to identify the ways people communicated long distances.
  • Create a timeline of inventions that improved communication.
  • Have students brainstorm ways besides improved communication that telephones changed society.
  • Have students design and write a patent of their own invention. The invention must improve communication, transportation, or the way goods are made. That eliminates the dreaded homework machine invention. I always accepted “improvement inventions” (cell phone was an improvement on the telephone).


I love learning and teaching about invention & inventors. So many great and engaging stories from the complex/creative thinking men and women who completely changed society. And a lot of the stories are great examples of inspiration and fearlessness! Elementary students love it.


How could you use these primary sources in your classroom? Do you think Bell deserves the credit?


Check out all my posts on primary sources and documents. You can also learn about my complicated love affair with Wikipedia.

4 thoughts on “Using Primary Sources in the Classroom: Bell and the Telephone

  1. Well that is very interesting! I love seeing the old drawings! Great finds!
    Thanks for linking up at the Shine Blog Hop!

    • Bwahahahahaha! Doesn’t it?! That is exactly what my 4th grade students have said. Toilet paper or paper towel. The megaphone type structure gets them too because it seems like a simple idea. Then of course they all become convinced that they could have totally invented the telephone.

      Maybe Bell was inspired since the toilet paper roll was invented around that time period. Why did it take toilet paper so long to be invented I’ll never know!

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