If Alexander Bell was alive today, he would be hearing that the company he started 130 years ago, AT&T, had become the largest telecom company in the world. He would also be hearing that this week it agreed to buy one of the world’s largest media companies, Time Warner, for $85.4 billion.
The irony? Alexander invented the telephone as an accident and started AT&T as an afterthought…
Born and brought up in Scotland, Alexander watched as his mother lost her hearing when he was 12. As a young teenager who wanted to keep communicating with his mum, he worked out a technique to speak directly on her forehead, in such a way that she could ‘hear’ through the vibrations of his voice.
He kept working on helping the deaf, taking on private students including Helen Keller, and by the time he was in his early 20’s he was teaching classes of 30 deaf students at a time.
He then married Mabel Hubbard – who was also deaf – and with both a mother and wife who were deaf he dedicated himself to a life mission to research hearing and speech – accidentally inventing the telephone in the process.
As a side project to his tutoring, he began working on an “acoustic telegraph” to try and transmit sounds electrically and in 1876 – 140 years ago – Alexander made the first telephone call to his assistant, Thomas Watson across 2 miles from Boston to Cambridge.
Having no idea about business, Alexander tried to sell the patent he had on his new invention to Western Union for $100,000.
But the president of Western Union said the telephone was “nothing but a toy.”
So Alexander tried to promote his invention himself, holding talks and road shows to demo his product. 10 years later, he launched AT&T and 30 years after that a 68-year-old Alexander made the first long distance phone call from the AT&T head office in New York to Thomas Watson in San Francisco.
Slowly, people took to the idea of using a phone. One thing led to another, and today there are more phones (over 9 billion) than there are people in the world.
Today, AT&T is the largest telecoms company in the world with over $150 billion in annual sales. By agreeing to buy Time Warner, it also becomes one of the leading media companies, owning HBO, CNN, Warner Bros film, a stake in Hulu and a rack of well-known titles including Game of Thrones.
Imagine if Alexander had not pursued his life mission? Imagine if he had sold out early?
When asked why he persevered, Alexander said “God has strewn our paths with wonders, and we shall certainly not go through life with our eyes shut.”
“Self-education is a lifelong affair. There cannot be mental atrophy in any person who continues to observe, to remember what he observes, and to seek answers for his unceasing hows and whys about things.”
Alexander followed his calling.
Make sure you follow yours too.