Alexander Graham Bell
A New Perspective
By Daniel Ors
Dr. Alexander Graham Bell is best known for his most lasting contribution to modern technology, the telephone. However, in his heart he felt that it distracted from the work he was most proud of, his work with the deaf.
Dr. Bell was born to a family famous for their elocutionary skills. His grandfather, Melville Bell, published The Standard Elocutionist to great success. It sold nearly 250,000 copies in the United States alone, a tremendous printing run for the time. His father, also named Melville, was also a well-regarded elocutionist, working in London with actors as well as those with speech disorders. Melville also invented what is known as Visible Speech, a visual way of interpreting the way the speech organs of the mouth form the sounds of spoken languages. Melville taught his son the Visible Speech alphabet, and the younger Bell spent his early years assisting his father in public demonstrations of the system. Alexander would later adapt the alphabet into visual cues to help children who were deaf learn to speak.
Dr. Bell was perhaps most influenced by the life of his mother, Eliza Symonds Bell. Eliza had lost much of her hearing by the time of his childhood, which stimulated a curiosity in her young son. He devised ways for his mother to experience sound closer to how she remembered previously hearing, by having her press her ear against the piano as he played. The young Bell would also speak directly to the crown of her forehead, creating a sort of echo chamber in her skull.
Although he had already picked up his father’s Visible Speech, his work in deaf education would not begin until he moved to North America in 1870. As Melville Bell and Eliza Symonds Bell purchased a homestead in Canada, Dr. Bell, or “Aleck,” as his family knew him, was sent to Boston by his father to spread the Visible Speech system. Dr. Bell would obtain a teaching position at the Boston School for the Deaf, using Visible Speech to help students gain spoken language skills. Sarah Fuller, then the principal of the School, immediately recognized him as a talented educator. She assigned Dr. Bell to a class of adults who were deaf and unable to speak. He would teach two three-month terms in Boston. While he found that the Visible Speech method was enormously successful with his younger pupils, it was not as effective with his older students.
He also taught briefly at the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he found young students struggling to develop speech due to their reliance on speechreading rather than an understanding of speech as spoken language. Their lack of understanding of audible speech itself compelled him towards Visible Speech as a method of teaching spoken language to people who were deaf and hard of hearing.
The intellectual atmosphere and activity of Boston excited the young Dr. Bell, and the fuss over the developments of the first Transatlantic telegraph line inspired his work on telegraphy and what would eventually become the first generation of the Bell telephone.
Dr. Bell met Mabel Hubbard when she came under his tutelage at the age of 16. This in turn introduced him to her father Gardiner Hubbard. Dr. Bell would eventually enter into a partnership with Gardiner, a Boston patent lawyer, and establish the Bell Telephone Company.
This partnership would intertwine the Bells with the Hubbards irreversibly. While working on the telephone and the patent application, he found himself in love with his student. Mabel had been vocally supportive of both his work on telegraphy much as her father had been, as well as of his educational work. When Dr. Bell announced his intentions of marriage to her father, the elder Hubbard presented Dr. Bell with an ultimatum. He was to work solely on telegraphy in exchange for Hubbard’s blessing in his courtship of Mabel. Hubbard received strong objections to this proposal from both Mabel and her suitor. It was Mabel's insistence that would force her father to step back and approve their union. Throughout his career, Mabel would remain steadfast in her support of Dr. Bell’s endeavors.
After obtaining the crucial patent in the 1876 for his work on the telephone, Mabel and Dr. Bell were married in the following year. Upon their engagement, she had requested that he remove the “k” from “Aleck.” From 1876, he would then sign all of his letters “Alec Bell.” The couple then agreed to move to Washington, D.C. in the interest of a more agreeable climate, as well as a more convenient venue for Bell's endless patent battles related to the telephone. Bell would soon resume his education of the deaf by opening his own school to promote the teaching of his father's method of Visible Speech.
In 1884, he opened a kindergarten-grade school that accepted students with and without hearing loss. The school held classes separately for the students who had typical hearing and those who were deaf, but all students socialized together at recess. Dr. Bell and Mabel’s daughters, Elsie and Marian, would both attend the school. A great part of Dr. Bell’s passion for the school was the ability for those with and without hearing loss to attend, so that students with hearing loss were not excluded from society. He resolutely believed students with hearing loss to be equally capable as their peers with typical hearing. It was at this school that he began to actively promote speech therapy and the concept of hearing and talking for students who were deaf and hard of hearing. However, the school was short-lived, and was forced to close due to Dr. Bell's struggles with litigation over the telephone.
The 1880s proved tumultuous years for Dr. Bell. A newly elected President, James Garfield, was shot by an assassin in Washington. One of Garfield’s last chances at survival laid with Dr. Bell’s induction coils, a critical component of the Bell telephone. He had realized that the induction coils, initially used as magnetic field generators, could also be used in conjunction to detect metal objects. He worked with an assistant to find the bullet near Garfield’s spinal column, but failed after weeks of work.
As Dr. Bell worked in Washington, Mabel lost their latest child, Henry, to premature birth. His breathing had failed as his lungs struggled for air. Upon the news, he left Washington to return to Mabel’s side. The loss of Henry would prompt Dr. Bell to drop his pursuit of the metal detector in favor of work on breathing apparatus that would help patients with weak lungs. It was designed to mimic the breathing rhythm of the torso, forcing the diaphragm to rise and fall so that air could pass into and out of the lungs. The completed device was presented internationally, but would only become commonly used in 1928 when Philip Drinker presented his more modern “iron lung,” which operated on the same principle that Dr. Bell had seized upon with his own invention.
Dr. Bell was additionally embroiled in continuing litigation amongst competing telephone companies attempting to cut into the success of the Bell Telephone. They sought to challenge the Bell patent on the telephone, and thereby compete with the same technology throughout the United States.
It was during the 1890s that Dr. Bell, along with a group of other teachers of the deaf, would form what would later be named the Alexander Graham Bell Association, initially an organization to support deaf teachers who used Bell’s Visible Speech and also believed in the potential for the deaf and hard of hearing to learn to hear and talk.
In 1888, even before the association would become an official entity, Dr. Bell entered into another partnership with his father-in-law, this time to establish the National Geographic Society. Gardiner Hubbard and Dr. Bell both found it crucial to educate a broader audience in the wonder of modern science, research, and the beauty of the wider world. They sought to promote research by introducing a new publication, The National Geographic Magazine, which would live on to become one of the most successful and preeminent newsmagazines of world travel and the sciences. Gardiner Hubbard and Dr. Bell served as the National Geographic Society's first two presidents.
Shortly after being elected president of the National Geographic Society, Dr. Bell would also be named one of four regents responsible for the Smithsonian Institution’s overarching business. He had close ties to the Smithsonian through his friend and colleague Joseph Henry, who had personally encouraged Dr. Bell’s work on the telephone. Regarded as the United States’ foremost theorist on electricity, Henry served as the Smithsonian’s first Secretary. Dr. Bell would serve as a Regent for 18 years, until shortly prior to his death.
Even as he expanded his responsibilities beyond invention to include the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian Institution, Dr. Bell continued to promote education of deaf students. Said Charles Thompson, a close colleague of Dr. Bell, "I never knew him to refuse to lecture for the benefit of the deaf.”
Alexander Graham Bell died due to complications from diabetes in the morning of August 2, 1922. He lay on his favorite sleeping porch at Beinn Breagh, family’s Nova Scotia estate. At the time of his death, he held Mabel’s hand gently in his.
Daniel Ors is the Website Coordinator at AG Bell. For inquiries please contact [email protected].
Primary source: Grosvenor, E. S., & Wesson, M. (1997). Alexander Graham Bell: The life and times of the man who invented the telephone. New York: Harry Abrams.
Secondary source: Mackay, J. A. (1997). Alexander Graham Bell: A life. New York: J. Wiley.