The greatest Briton: Alexander Graham Bell

If the BBC can do it, so can Personnel Today. We want to know which Briton
you rate as the greatest people manager and leader of all time. Personnel Today
has invited 10 leading figures in the field of management to nominate
individuals they believe are the best, and then convince you they are right. To
vote, visit the voting form where you will also find summaries of all 10
The voting closes on Tuesday 4th March 2003.

. This week’s nominee is:

Alexander Graham Bell

By Paul Pagliari, HR director of Scottish Water

There was a Scot who was responsible for transforming the world in ways
inconceivable before his radical invention.

Who was that man? Alexander Graham Bell, of course, inventor of the telephone,
and the man who truly deserves the title of the Greatest Briton.

Bell was born in Edinburgh on 3 March 1847. He was the son of Melville – a
speech and elocution teacher who developed the first international phonetic
alphabet – and Eliza, who was deaf from the age of five.

Bell was the only child to survive into adulthood, with his younger and
elder brothers, Ted and Melly, dying of tuberculosis.

These biographical facts foretell the strong values, personality and
determination of the man destined to radically change the preferred mode of
long distance communications to voice, and thus transform virtually all aspects
of modern life.

Bell developed a passion for communication from a young age. He was to
become an extraordinary man with a visionary understanding of its power and

Educated at the universities of Edinburgh and London, Bell emigrated to the
US in 1870. In his twenties, he set about developing a multiple telegraph that
could send several morse code messages.

Like many great people, Bell appeared to benefit from luck and skill in
equal measure, and it was while he was trying to develop multiple morse code
that he stumbled on the concept that speech could be reproduced through sound
waves in a continuous undulating current. This truly brilliant discovery is the
principle behind the telephone.

On 7 March 1876, Bell patented the telephone (Patent 174,465) at the tender
age of 29.

But unlike so many great pioneers and inventors, Bell followed through,
visualising the future and realising the potential of his remarkable invention.

Shortly after the invention of the telephone, Bell had told his father:
"The day is coming when telegraph wires will be laid on to houses, just
like water or gasÉ and friends will converse with each other without leaving

How right he was. Remember this prediction was at a time when the telephone
was in its infancy and its full potential was far from recognised.

Bell’s invention changed for good the way people live their lives. Telehones
and telephone lines have enabled us to network global companies via computers,
make transactions electronically, or simply talk to our loved ones to let them
know all is well, wherever in the world we might be at the time.

The telephone is not only capable of transmitting voice, but also of
transmitting emotion and, therefore, allows us to communicate not only what we
are thinking but how we feel.

In a stroke of genius, Bell shrank the world and transformed the lives of
the citizens of his country of birth and education, Great Britain, and, indeed,
the lives of people around the world.

But Bell was more than a ‘one event wonder’. Like Leonardo da Vinci, he
foresaw the future and continued to be a prolific inventor, developing the
forerunners to mobile telephones, tape recorders and air conditioning.

He dared to lead the way and in 1877, helped establish the Bell Telephone
Company, which proved enormously successful and a great many have continued to
accrue the benefits.

Bell, though, was able to translate his exceptional values into his private
life. He lobbied the cause of deaf people and to establish day schools for them
throughout the US. When he set out on this challenge, only 40 per cent of deaf
children were taught to speak. At the time of his death in 1922 the figure was
80 per cent – testimony enough in itself to his leadership qualities.

Like all exceptional leaders, Bell made himself accessible to all. He
encouraged one family – the Kellers – to educate their little girl Helen, who
was deaf. She later attended the Boston Museum of fine arts and became a highly
successful commercial artist.

Employers today can learn much from Bell’s great achievements – nurture
ideas, encourage innovation and pursue developments, however radical they might
seem at the time.

Likewise, there remains a need today for companies to accept and foster
their links and social responsibilities within the communities in which they
operate and beyond. Bell proved that leaders and business can create the
circumstances to improve our quality of life.

In researching this article, I have grown to respect the great depth and
leadership qualities of Alexander Graham Bell, a hugely successful entrepreneur
and a great humanitarian.

While telephones, fax, mobiles, text messaging, and the like may sometimes
drive you mad, they have undoubtedly revolutionised the world for the better,
and it can all be traced back to the leadership and vision of one man. Bell is
the greatest creator ever of shareholder value and an inspirational figure for
the to the cause of the "children of a lesser God" – it must earn him
the title of Greatest Briton in Management and Leadership.

Bell’s CV

3 March 1847 – Born in Edinburgh

1865 – Educated at Edinburgh and London universities

1870 – Bell family emigrated to the US   

7 March 1876 – Patented the telephone

1877 – Created the Bell Telephone Company

2 August 1922 – Died in Nova Scotia

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