Alexander Graham Bell


Alexander Graham Bell : biography

March 3, 1847 – August 2, 1922

His family was long associated with the teaching of elocution: his grandfather, Alexander Bell, in London, his uncle in Dublin, and his father, in Edinburgh, were all elocutionists. His father published a variety of works on the subject, several of which are still well known, especially his The Standard Elocutionist (1860), which appeared in Edinburgh in 1868. The Standard Elocutionist appeared in 168 British editions and sold over a quarter of a million copies in the United States alone. In this treatise, his father explains his methods of how to instruct deaf-mutes (as they were then known) to articulate words and read other people’s lip movements to decipher meaning. Aleck’s father taught him and his brothers not only to write Visible Speech but to identify any symbol and its accompanying sound.Petrie 1975, p. 7. Aleck became so proficient that he became a part of his father’s public demonstrations and astounded audiences with his abilities. He could decipher Visible Speech representing virtually every language, including Latin, Scottish Gaelic and even Sanskrit, accurately reciting written tracts without any prior knowledge of their pronunciation.


As a young child, Bell, like his brothers, received his early schooling at home from his father. At an early age, however, he was enrolled at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, Scotland, which he left at age 15, completing only the first four forms.Mackay 1997, p. 31. His school record was undistinguished, marked by absenteeism and lacklustre grades. His main interest remained in the sciences, especially biology, while he treated other school subjects with indifference, to the dismay of his demanding father.Gray 2006, p. 11. Upon leaving school, Bell travelled to London to live with his grandfather, Alexander Bell. During the year he spent with his grandfather, a love of learning was born, with long hours spent in serious discussion and study. The elder Bell took great efforts to have his young pupil learn to speak clearly and with conviction, the attributes that his pupil would need to become a teacher himself.Town 1988, p. 7. At age 16, Bell secured a position as a "pupil-teacher" of elocution and music, in Weston House Academy, at Elgin, Moray, Scotland. Although he was enrolled as a student in Latin and Greek, he instructed classes himself in return for board and £10 per session.Bruce 1990, p. 37. The following year, he attended the University of Edinburgh; joining his older brother Melville who had enrolled there the previous year. In 1868, not long before he departed for Canada with his family, Aleck completed his matriculation exams and was accepted for admission to the University of London.Shulman 2008, p. 49.

First experiments with sound

Bell’s father encouraged Aleck’s interest in speech and, in 1863, took his sons to see a unique automaton, developed by Sir Charles Wheatstone based on the earlier work of Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen.Groundwater 2005, p. 25. The rudimentary "mechanical man" simulated a human voice. Aleck was fascinated by the machine and after he obtained a copy of von Kempelen’s book, published in German, and had laboriously translated it, he and his older brother Melville built their own automaton head. Their father, highly interested in their project, offered to pay for any supplies and spurred the boys on with the enticement of a "big prize" if they were successful. While his brother constructed the throat and larynx, Aleck tackled the more difficult task of recreating a realistic skull. His efforts resulted in a remarkably lifelike head that could "speak", albeit only a few words. The boys would carefully adjust the "lips" and when a bellows forced air through the windpipe, a very recognizable "Mama" ensued, to the delight of neighbors who came to see the Bell invention.Petrie 1975, pp. 7–9.

Intrigued by the results of the automaton, Bell continued to experiment with a live subject, the family’s Skye Terrier, "Trouve".Petrie 1975, p. 9. After he taught it to growl continuously, Aleck would reach into its mouth and manipulate the dog’s lips and vocal cords to produce a crude-sounding "Ow ah oo ga ma ma". With little convincing, visitors believed his dog could articulate "How are you grandma?" More indicative of his playful nature, his experiments convinced onlookers that they saw a "talking dog".Groundwater 2005, p. 30. However, these initial forays into experimentation with sound led Bell to undertake his first serious work on the transmission of sound, using tuning forks to explore resonance.