Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922) - American EducationInventor and pioneer educator of the deaf. Bell’s inventions of the telephone and other apparatuses were incidental and avocational outgrowths of his work in education.
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, Bell was the product of a brilliant family whose multiple talents served as a foundation for his life’s work. He was taught at home for the first 10 years of his life by his mother, a talented musician and artist and daughter of a Royal Navy surgeon. Bell’s grandfather, Alexander Bell, was a professor of elocution in London. His father, Alexander Melville Bell, was a scientist, an author on elocution and the physiology of the voice, and the inventor of “Visible Speech,” an important system that used symbols to indicate graphically the position of the vocal organs for each speech sound.
At the age of 10, young Bell went to an academy in Edinburgh and then high school. A brilliant scholar, he graduated at 13. By the time he was 20, he had spent a year at the University of Edinburgh, studied anatomy and physiology for three years at University College, London, had taught elocution and music for three years at an academy and for one year at Somersetshire College in Bath. He had also done substantial original research in his father’s laboratory on resonance pitches of the mouth cavities and the electrical transmission of speech.
In 1868, Bell’s father sent him to a school for deaf children in Kensington to adapt Visible Speech into a system for teaching the deaf. The elder Bell described his son’s remarkable results in a lecture in Boston, and the following year the Boston School Board appointed Miss Sarah Fuller to start the first day school for the deaf in the United States.
In 1870, the Bell family moved to Canada, and in 1871 the Boston School Board asked Bell to come to Boston to train teachers for the deaf. Now dedicated to a career of educating the deaf, he adapted his father’s Visible System by adding a system of notation that is still the basic method of teaching the deaf to talk. After three months at Miss Fuller’s school, he went on to train teachers at other institutions in Massachusetts and Connecticut. Demand for his services grew so great that he opened a teacher’s training class in Boston, to which institutions from across the United States, Canada and even Europe sent teachers to learn Bell’s use of Visible Speech. In 1873, he started a teacher training school at Boston University, which appointed him professor of vocal physiology and speech mechanics.
Bell also worked directly with private deaf pupils in his home, all the while inventing and developing acoustical devices to augment hearing and help teach his pupils. In 1873, he agreed to accept in his home a five-year-old boy who had been born deaf and became, at the time, the youngest deaf pupil ever to attempt formal education. Bell had complete charge of his education for three years and lived with him at the boy’s grandmother’s. Combining, for the first time, kindergarten play with formal instruction, Bell achieved such remarkable results that the boy’s grateful father, Thomas Sanders, agreed to finance all of Bell’s experimental work, including the costs of materials and securing patents. The results were three inventions: a phonautograph to convert sounds into graphic representations that allowed deaf pupils to “see” the sounds they made; a multiple telegraph that permitted more than one telegraph message to travel over the same line; and an electric speaking telegraph— the telephone. On March 10, 1876, while he was still working with the Sanders boy, Bell transmitted the first complete intelligible sentence over the telephone to his assistant Thomas Watson in the next room: “Mr. Watson, come here: I want you.”
Alexander Graham Bell (top of stairs on right) at the Pemberton Avenue School for the Deaf, in Boston, where he trained teachers of the deaf (Library of Congress)
With the help of Sanders and another wealthy benefactor, Gardiner G. Hubbard, whose daughter had been deaf from early childhood, Bell obtained patents for his devices and successfully defended himself in some 600 lawsuits by claimants to his rights. After the U.S. Supreme Court declared him the sole inventor of the telephone, Bell formed the Bell Telephone Company, with Hubbard as trustee and Thomas Sanders as treasurer. In 1877, Bell married Hubbard’s deaf daughter, Mabel, who bore him two sons, both of whom became speech teachers. Bell went on to invent the audiometer, an instrument to measure hearing, and a number of other devices which he declined to patent and simply gave to the world for treatment of the deaf.
In 1878, he founded the Volta Laboratory to study the causes and conditions of congenital deafness. In 1883, a year after he had become a U.S. citizen, he founded the periodical Science, and from 1896 to 1904 he served as president and helped expand the National Geographic Society and its magazine. In 1891, his gift to the Smithsonian Institution paid for the building of its Astrophysical Observatory. In 1915, he opened the first transcontinental telephone line from New York to San Francisco. Beloved by educators and students, he received innumerable honorary degrees from Harvard, Oxford and other universities. He died at his summer home on Cape Breton Island, Canada, where, as he was being buried, every telephone on the North American continent remained silent.