The Complete Biography Of Alexander Graham Bell
If I asked you to tell me one thing about Alexander Graham Bell, what would you say?
I bet I’ve guessed it.
“Oh, isn’t he the creator of the telephone?”
But there’s so much more to his story than that.
From a family plagued by death, to numerous court cases..
(No, this isn’t an episode of Eastenders).
His life was anything but boring.
But was he a hero or a villain?
Well, it depends on who you ask.
So, let’s start where it all began and let me tell you everything there is to know about the notorious inventor.
On a chilly Wednesday afternoon, a baby boy is born.
His parents, Alexander Melville Bell and Eliza Grace Symonds Bell, had little idea of just how important their son would become to the world.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
First, you must understand just what encouraged his love of sound.
Bell’s middle name was his 11th birthday present.
The name “Graham” was only added after pleading with his father to give him one like his brothers.
Here’s something I bet you didn’t know about Bell.
He was a massive mummy’s boy.
Her gradual deafness had a serious impact on his life.
Even as a child, he devised unique techniques to ensure he could keep conversing with his mother.
Was the love for his mum the thing that inspired him to spend such an extensive time-period teaching those with hearing impairments?
Or maybe it was his father's career as a Professor of Speech Elocution.
Not only did his father teach the hearing impaired to speak...
He even taught a deaf woman to play the piano.
Who wouldn’t be inspired by that?
With his entire family connected by an obsession with sound, it’s clear to see he was destined to follow in their footsteps.
Bell was a clever boy.
But he just couldn’t apply himself to his studies.
His grades were standard and he was consistently absent.
He left high school at 15 as he could not stand compulsory education.
Yep, one of the smartest men in the world didn’t even finish school.
But, a good education is defined by more than just childhood grades.
At just 16, he secured a ‘job’ as a student teacher (of elocution and music).
He taught classes at the Weston House Academy in exchange for £10 and board.
He also passed the entrance exams for University College London, but didn’t attend following the death of his brother and emmigration to Canada.
But, as you know, his lack of formal education didn’t stop him from becoming one of the most well-respected men in the world.
The First Invention
I really believe Bell was born to change the world.
Even as a child, he showed the same passion for inventing that would later make him famous.
At the age of 12, he visited his best friend’s family’s wheat mill.
Curious as ever, he asked his friend what exactly needed to be done at the mill.
After discovering the long, difficult process the boy’s family had to go through to dehusk the wheat, he had an idea.
He went home and built a device that used a combination of rotating paddles and nail brushes to dehusk the wheat.
The device was so well made, the mill used it for years.
His friend's dad was so thankful, he gifted Bell a small workshop to use as his ‘invention room’.
That's when Alexander Graham Bell was really born.
Bell has been routinely praised throughout the years for his work with the hearing impaired.
And rightly so.
The work he did to help them was amazing.
But there was also a disturbing side to it.
He actually led a campaign against inter-deaf marriage as he believed it would create a deaf human race.
He went as far as trying to ban sign language in order to separate deaf people from one another.
Doesn’t seem like such a nice guy now, does he?
But before we get into what he did wrong, let’s start with what he did right.
In the 1870s, Bell began teaching speech to deaf students.
He used a universal alphabet invented by by father, called “visible speech.”
Later, in 1872, he opened his own school in Boston.
Here he trained teachers how to teach deaf children.
It seemed like he really did want to help these children, just as he helped his mother.
But, he also strongly believed in eugenics.
You won’t believe what happened in 1884.
He published a paper called “Upon The Formation Of A Deaf Variety Of The Human Race.”
And boy did it stir up trouble.
“Those who believe as I do, that the production of a defective race of human beings would be a great calamity to the world, will examine carefully the causes that lead to the intermarriages of the deaf with the object of applying a remedy.”
Yep, that’s a direct quote from his paper.
Not a good stance for a person whose job was to help the hearing impaired, right?
As his career gained momentum (we’ll get onto his inventions in a bit), so did his power.
He became a travelling spokesperson for his cause, giving speeches all around the country.
He preyed on the desperate parents of deaf children, convincing them that Oralism was the only way they’d ever be able to hear their children speak.
His power of conviction inspired other high-ups (doctors, politicians etc.) to formally campaign against ASL
Bell’s campaign was (unfortunately) a success.
ASL was banned for almost 100 years.
Yep, you heard me right.
It was still banned in your parent's life time.
Bell’s family was plagued by death.
Not only did both of his brothers die of TB, two of his sons died as infants.
Invention Of The Telephone
The bit you’re familiar with.
Or are you?
Did you know that Bell’s invention of the telephone was a complete accident?
After a linguistics expert informed Bell that his work was similar to that of Hermann von Helmholtz, he began studying the man relentlessly.
Unfortunately for him, Helmholtz was German - a language Bell didn’t speak.
He attempted to study his words but mostly relied on his diagrams.
After misinterpreting his drawings, Bell believed that Helmholtz had successfully converted speech into electricity.
He was wrong, of course.
But he didn’t know that.
He now believed that it could be done.
At just 23, he began experimenting with the conversion of music to an electrical signal.
3 years later, in 1874, Bell finally started receiving financial backing.
The money he received from Gardiner Hubberd, Thomas Sanders and Anthony Pollock allowed Bell to hire an assistant.
Two years later, Watson was the recipient of the first ever telephone call.
The audience who were viewing the exchange were amazed.
But Western Union wasn’t.
They turned down the offer to buy the patent for the telephone, thinking it was a shoddy one-hit wonder.
Well, I bet they regret that.
Just look at what that simplistic invention has become.
Was Bell the first person to invent the telephone?
Who can say?
He certainly wasn’t the only one working on the invention at the time.
But luckily for him, he won the patent.
He actually filed for one in the UK first as, at the time, the UK wouldn’t grant a patent for any invention that had already received one in another country.
While he was doing this, Elisha Gray was working on his own version of the telephone.
And he was ready to patent it in the US.
The race was on and they both filed on the same day.
Bell actually filed an hour or two before Gray.
But was it first come, first served?
I highly doubt it as US laws at the time stated that the first to invent, not the first to file would receive the patent.
There’s so much speculation regarding why Bell was granted the patent over Gray.
Did he bribe examiners?
Did he steal Gray’s designs?
Did he manipulate court documents?
I don’t think we’ll ever find out the truth.
But, in the courts eyes, not only did Bell have the first working invention...
He also operated the machine in the exact same way as in his original application, not in Gray’s.
This wasn’t the end of his legal battles though.
He actually received over 600 lawsuits in his lifetime.
Bell was the one who referred Helen Keller to the teacher that taught her to communicate.
The telephone wasn’t Bell’s only invention.
He spent the remainder of his life creating new things.
Ever heard of a photo-phone?
Well, neither had I.
But it was actually the first ever wireless phone.
Wireless phones in 1880?
A year later, he also designed a version of the metal detector.
He actually created it in order to locate the bullet that President James Garfield was shot with.
The metal detector worked, but Bell was unaware that the spring bed the President was laying on would confuse the machine.
Unfortunately, he never found the bullet.
Despite this setback, it didn’t put him off inventing.
He later went on to develop an early form of speed boat and became one of the founders of the National Geographic Society.
I told you his life wasn’t boring.
Bell lived to the ripe old age of 75, leaving behind his wife and two children.
He died in 1922 after various complications with diabetes.
While his wife tended to him in his final moments, she pleadingly whispered “don’t leave me.”
Bell signed (ironic, considering he wanted to ban ASL) “no” then died, almost immediately.
Upon his funeral, every phone in North America was silenced.
All 13 million of them.
Bell is still credited, long after his death, as one of the greatest inventors of all time.
And, as I take a second to glance at my iPhone…
Contributor & Telephones Expert
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