March 1876: in the attic of a Boston boarding house, two young scientists were working at top speed. One was a Scottish-born teacher of the deaf, Alexander Graham Bell; the other was an American, Thomas A. Watson. Following Bell’s instructions Watson had constructed the first crude telephone, but the results were disappointing. Sounds came over the wire, but no intelligible words.
The men were constructing a new transmitter, in which a diaphragm of thin cow’s membrane was attached to a wire carrying an electric current, which in turn was dipped in diluted sulfuric acid. To test the device, they installed a line connecting the front and back rooms. Watson went to the front room, took up his post at the receiver. In his excitement, Bell in the back room drenched his clothes with acid spilled from a battery. He called into the transmitter, “Mr. Watson, come here; I want you.” Trembling with jubilation, Watson rushed to the back room crying, “I heard you! I heard you!” At that point Bell forgot all about his ruined clothing.
(VIDEO: Best Inventions of 2010)
That scene is one of science’s great eureka moments. Yet its very fame, and the impact and ubiquity of the telephone, has overshadowed the breadth and depth of the career of Bell, one of science’s great modern Renaissance men. Only 29 when he uttered his famous plea to Watson, Bell went on to explore a host of new frontiers and perfect a dazzling array of new devices, including the first metal detector and an improved phonograph, the graphophone. (Both Bell’s mother and his wife were deaf, and he was a lifelong student of hearing and acoustics.)
Bell was a pioneer of magnetic recording, hydrofoil watercraft and airplane design. He helped fund the start-up of Science magazine and helped found the National Geographic Society, becoming its second president. He even explored genetics at his estate in Nova Scotia, working for 30 years to breed female sheep with more nipples than the standard two, thus increasing their fecundity. He was, after all, well versed in the power of fecundity.
This entry is excerpted from the new TIME book The 100 Most Influential People of All Time, which profiles spiritual icons, leaders, explorers, visionaries and cultural titans throughout human history. Available wherever books are sold and at time.com/100peoplebook
Next Thomas Edison