Alexander Graham Bell


Alexander Graham Bell : biography

March 3, 1847 – August 2, 1922

Returning home to Brantford after six months abroad, Bell continued his experiments with his "harmonic telegraph".Alexander Graham Bell 1979, p. 8. The basic concept behind his device was that messages could be sent through a single wire if each message was transmitted at a different pitch, but work on both the transmitter and receiver was needed. Unsure of his future, he first contemplated returning to London to complete his studies, but decided to return to Boston as a teacher.Petrina 1975, p. 14. His father helped him set up his private practice by contacting Gardiner Greene Hubbard, the president of the Clarke School for the Deaf for a recommendation. Teaching his father’s system, in October 1872 Alexander Bell opened his "School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech" in Boston, which attracted a large number of deaf pupils with his first class numbering 30 students.Petrel 1975, p. 15.Town 1988, pp. 12–13. While he was working as a private tutor, one of his most famous pupils was Helen Keller, who came to him as a young child unable to see, hear, or speak. She was later to say that Bell dedicated his life to the penetration of that "inhuman silence which separates and estranges."Petrie 1975, p. 17.

Several influential people of the time, including Bell, viewed deafness as something that ought to be eradicated, and also believed that with resources and effort they could teach the deaf to speak and avoid the use of sign language, thus enabling their integration within the wider society from which many were often being excluded.Miller and Branson 2002, pp. 30–31, 152–153. However in several schools children were mistreated, for example by having their hands tied behind their backs so they could not communicate by signing—the only language they knew—in order to force them to attempt oral communication. Due to his efforts to suppress the teaching of sign language, Bell is often viewed negatively by those embracing deaf culture.Ayers et al. 2009, pp. 194–195.

Early life

Alexander Bell was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on March 3, 1847.Petrie 1975, p. 4. The family home was at 16 South Charlotte Street, and has a stone inscription, marking it as Alexander Graham Bell’s birthplace. He had two brothers: Melville James Bell (1845–70) and Edward Charles Bell (1848–67). Both of his brothers died of tuberculosis. memory.loc.goiv. Retrieved: July 28, 2010. His father was Professor Alexander Melville Bell, and his mother was Eliza Grace (née Symonds). Although he was born "Alexander", at age 10, he made a plea to his father to have a middle name like his two brothers. Retrieved: July 28, 2010. For his 11th birthday, his father acquiesced and allowed him to adopt the middle name "Graham", chosen out of admiration for Alexander Graham, a Canadian being treated by his father and boarder who had become a family friend.Groundwater 2005, p. 23. To close relatives and friends he remained "Aleck" which his father continued to call him into later life.Bruce 1990, pp. 17–19.

First invention

As a child, young Alexander displayed a natural curiosity about his world, resulting in gathering botanical specimens as well as experimenting even at an early age. His best friend was Ben Herdman, a neighbor whose family operated a flour mill, the scene of many forays. Young Aleck asked what needed to be done at the mill. He was told wheat had to be dehusked through a laborious process and at the age of 12, Bell built a homemade device that combined rotating paddles with sets of nail brushes, creating a simple dehusking machine that was put into operation and used steadily for a number of years.Bruce 1990, p. 16. In return, John Herdman gave both boys the run of a small workshop in which to "invent".

From his early years, Bell showed a sensitive nature and a talent for art, poetry and music that was encouraged by his mother. With no formal training, he mastered the piano and became the family’s pianist.Gray 2006, p. 8. Despite being normally quiet and introspective, he reveled in mimicry and "voice tricks" akin to ventriloquism that continually entertained family guests during their occasional visits. Bell was also deeply affected by his mother’s gradual deafness, (she began to lose her hearing when he was 12) and learned a manual finger language so he could sit at her side and tap out silently the conversations swirling around the family parlour.Gray 2006, p. 9. He also developed a technique of speaking in clear, modulated tones directly into his mother’s forehead wherein she would hear him with reasonable clarity.Mackay 1997, p. 25. Bell’s preoccupation with his mother’s deafness led him to study acoustics.