Alexander Graham Bell


Alexander Graham Bell : biography

March 3, 1847 – August 2, 1922

At the age of 19, he wrote a report on his work and sent it to philologist Alexander Ellis, a colleague of his father (who would later be portrayed as Professor Henry Higgins in Pygmalion).Groundwater 2005, p. 30. Ellis immediately wrote back indicating that the experiments were similar to existing work in Germany, and also lent Aleck a copy of Hermann von Helmholtz’s work, The Sensations of Tone as a Physiological Basis for the Theory of Music.Shulman 2008, p. 46.

Dismayed to find that groundbreaking work had already been undertaken by Helmholtz who had conveyed vowel sounds by means of a similar tuning fork "contraption", he pored over the German scientist’s book. Working from his own errant mistranslation of a French edition, Aleck fortuitously then made a deduction that would be the underpinning of all his future work on transmitting sound, reporting: "Without knowing much about the subject, it seemed to me that if vowel sounds could be produced by electrical means, so could consonants, so could articulate speech." He also later remarked: "I thought that Helmhotz had done it … and that my failure was due only to my ignorance of electricity. It was a valuable blunder … If I had been able to read German in those days, I might never have commenced my experiments!"MacKenzie 2003, p. 41.Groundwater 2005, p. 31.Shulman 2008, pp. 46–48.

Family tragedy

In 1865, when the Bell family moved to London,Micklos 2006, p. 8. Bell returned to Weston House as an assistant master and, in his spare hours, continued experiments on sound using a minimum of laboratory equipment. Bell concentrated on experimenting with electricity to convey sound and later installed a telegraph wire from his room in Somerset College to that of a friend.Bruce 1990, p. 45. Throughout late 1867, his health faltered mainly through exhaustion. His younger brother, Edward "Ted," was similarly bed-ridden, suffering from tuberculosis. While Bell recovered (by then referring to himself in correspondence as "A.G. Bell") and served the next year as an instructor at Somerset College, Bath, England, his brother’s condition deteriorated. Edward would never recover. Upon his brother’s death, Bell returned home in 1867. His older brother Melville had married and moved out. With aspirations to obtain a degree at the University College London, Bell considered his next years as preparation for the degree examinations, devoting his spare time at his family’s residence to studying.

Helping his father in Visible Speech demonstrations and lectures brought Bell to Susanna E. Hull’s private school for the deaf in South Kensington, London. His first two pupils were "deaf mute" girls who made remarkable progress under his tutelage. While his older brother seemed to achieve success on many fronts including opening his own elocution school, applying for a patent on an invention, and starting a family, Bell continued as a teacher. However, in May 1870, Melville died from complications due to tuberculosis, causing a family crisis. His father had also suffered a debilitating illness earlier in life and had been restored to health by a convalescence in Newfoundland. Bell’s parents embarked upon a long-planned move when they realized that their remaining son was also sickly. Acting decisively, Alexander Melville Bell asked Bell to arrange for the sale of all the family property,Bruce 1990, pp. 67–68. conclude all of his brother’s affairs (Bell took over his last student, curing a pronounced lisp),Bruce 1990, p. 68. and join his father and mother in setting out for the "New World".Groundwater 2005, p. 33. Reluctantly, Bell also had to conclude a relationship with Marie Eccleston, who, he had surmised, was not prepared to leave England with him.