The popular image of Alexander Graham Bell is that of an elderly American patriarch, memorable only for his paunch, his Santa Claus beard, and the invention of the telephone. In this reassessment based on thorough new research, biographer Charlotte Gray reveals Bell’s wide-ranging passion for invention and delves into the private life that supported his genius.
The child of a speech therapist and a deaf mother, and possessed of superbly acute hearing, Bell developed an early interest in sound. His understanding of how sound waves might relate to electrical waves enabled him to invent the “talking telegraph” before his rivals—even as he undertook a tempestuous courtship of the woman who would become his wife and mainstay.
In an intensely competitive age, Bell seemed to shun fame and fortune. Yet many of his innovations—electric heating, using light to transmit sound, electronic mail, composting toilets, the artificial lung—were far ahead of their time. His pioneering ideas about sound, flight, genetics, and even the engineering of complex structures such as stadium roofs still resonate today. This is an essential portrait of an American giant whose innovations revolutionized the modern world.
“Deaf teenager Mabel met Bell when he taught the hearing-impaired, and Gray’s story of their courtship is intertwined with the story of how Mabel’s father became involved in Bell’s side project of transmitting sound by wire . . . Combining the household history of the Bells with that of Alexander’s successive enthusiasms (Helen Keller, kites, airplanes, hydrocraft), Gray fairly portrays the attractions and exasperations of Bell’s life.” —Booklist
“[A] splendid new biography . . . A winner.” —The Washington Times
“Required reading.” —The New York Post
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The Great White Plague 1847-1870
The plaintive wail echoed through the stone stairwell of the tall, stately Edinburgh house: "Mama, Mama." There was a pause, then the childish voice started up again, in a monotonous rhythm: "Mama, Mama, Mama." Finally, a door opened on the floor below and a woman emerged, asking petulantly, "Good gracious, what can be the matter with that baby?" The wail stopped abruptly, and a door slammed above. Perplexed, the woman leaned over the stair rail, looking up for an infant in distress.
There was no infant. Instead, there were two dark-haired, mischievous teenage boys and an intriguing invention. The boys were Melville (Melly) and Alexander (Alec) Bell, sons of the woman's landlord, Professor Melville Bell. Melville Bell was a bombastic character with a leonine head, an untrimmed black beard, and a shock of untidy hair who lived with his family on the upper floors of 13 South Charlotte Street. A former actor, he was fascinated by the production of sound. He had challenged his two older sons to build a "speaking machine," and the boys had thrown themselves into the project with gusto. They had pored over their father's anatomy books. They had begged the local butcher to let them watch him carve up a lamb's head. They had scoured the garbage behind their neighbors' stables for bits of wood, metal, and wire that they could use in their construction. Alec took impressions of the upper and lower jaws of the human skull that sat on a shelf in his father's study. Then, in the secrecy of their shared bedroom, the brothers set to work. Alec laboriously shaped a jaw, upper gum, hard palate, teeth, tongue, and pair of lips out of gutta-percha (a primitive form of rubber), wood, and wire. Meanwhile, Melville, who was more nimble-fingered, created a larynx of tin and rubber and experimented with providing "breath" by blowing into a tin tube "throat." It was difficult to manipulate all the working parts, but after a few rehearsals Alec and Melly's machine could wail "Mama." Eager to escape their mother's notice, the boys tiptoed out of their bedroom and carried their contraption into the shared stone stairwell of the house to test it. Years later, Alec recalled with glee the moment when their neighbor came out to rescue the bawling baby: "We quietly slipped into our house, and closed the door, leaving our neighbour to pursue [her] fruitless quest for the baby. Our triumph and happiness were complete." The speaking machine then became a family toy — an entertainment for social gatherings, the subject of further experimentation for Alec and Melly, and a trophy for Melville, who bragged about having given his clever sons the challenge in the first place. Alec's cousin Mary Symonds never forgot the contraption, later recalling, "I think I was somewhat afraid of it, it gave such uncanny sounds."
Sounds. Alec Bell's childhood was full of sounds. Many were typical of a middle-class household in the mid-nineteenth century. There was the bossy boom of the paterfamilias — Melville Bell — whose powerful, well-modulated voice echoed through the house on Charlotte Street. There were the Scottish airs and Presbyterian hymns sung at Bell family get-togethers around the piano in the parlor. Beyond the house's elegant sash windows, there was the hubbub of parades and pipers, dogs and drunks in the streets of the Scottish capital. Horses' hooves clattered on the cobbles; knife sharpeners and meat-pie peddlers shouted out their wares; ragged street boys jeered at passing carriages. Once a week, there would be the rumble and roar of coal being delivered down a chute to the house's basement; coal fires were the only source of heating during Edinburgh's long, chilly winters, and sooty smoke spewed from the city's forest of brick chimneys. But there were also sounds peculiar to the Bell household — sounds designed to improve human communication. During the daytime, Alec would hear the rhythmic chants of his father's pupils, who had come to get help from the professor with their lisps, stutters, and enunciation. "Da, da, da ..." would echo through the house, followed by "Pa, pa, pa ..." In the evenings, strange grunts and whistles often emanated from his father's study. Alec himself would communicate in an unconventional way with his mother, Eliza Bell, who was deaf. Alone among her three sons, Alec had found a way to talk with her, by speaking in a deep voice close to her forehead so that she could pick up the vibrations.
Alec absorbed all of these distinctive sounds, and developed an unusually discriminating ear. At night he would lie in bed and identify each church bell that rang out over the ancient city and which neighbor's dog was barking at a stranger. When he sat down at the grand piano in the high-ceilinged second-floor parlor, he could play anything he had heard by ear, and he would improvise by the hour. His extraordinary ability to distinguish minute variations of pitch and tone would shape his entire career.
Born in Edinburgh on March 3, 1847, Alexander Bell came from a family that had been preoccupied with sound for at least two generations. These days, we would label both his father and his grandfather "speech pathologists." Such a title did not exist then, but since these were men untroubled by modesty, they each cheerfully adopted an even fancier title: "professor of elocution." They took care to speak "proper English" and insisted that their families follow suit, so that there was never any hint of Scottish brogue in Alec's speech. There was plenty of demand for Professor Melville Bell's services, and not simply from those who had speech impediments. In an era when a person's accent reflected his or her position within a rigid social hierarchy, speaking "proper English" was a sign of both education and class.
Alec's grandfather, who was also called Alexander, had started life as a shoemaker in St. Andrews, a few miles from the capital. But he had ambition, and he climbed the social ladder to become first an actor, then a teacher, and finally a "corrector of defective utterance." His son Alexander Melville, Alec's father, was born in Edinburgh, where as a young man he began to cough and gasp in the city's grimy, damp, soot-filled streets — sure signs of the respiratory infections that were the bane of nineteenth-century life. So, in 1838, young Melville took passage across the Atlantic to the British colony of Newfoundland, famous for its bracing winds and clean air. Working as a clerk for the shipping firm Thomas McMurdo and Company, he quickly recovered his health, made many friends, and become quite a figure in St. John's, the colonial capital, as an organizer of amateur dramatics. After four years, he returned to Edinburgh in fine fettle, with an unshakable belief in the New World's healthy climate. Emboldened by his social and dramatic successes in faraway Newfoundland, as well as by his father's example, he hung out his shingle as an elocution teacher. (George Bernard Shaw probably based Professor Henry Higgins, in his play Pygmalion, on either Alec's father or his grandfather.) A friend then introduced him to Eliza Grace Symonds, the sweet-tempered daughter of a Royal Navy surgeon who lived with her widowed mother and scraped a living as a painter of miniatures. Eliza was a handsome woman, with a long, solemn face and dark eyes, but she struggled to hear any remarks addressed to her since a childhood infection had damaged her hearing. Within months, Melville Bell had proposed to, and been accepted by, Miss Symonds.
Eliza and Melville's marriage was a happy and long-lasting union, although Eliza was ten years older than her husband and too deaf to hear much of his stirring renditions of passages from great authors. (Melville was said to read Charles Dickens better than Dickens himself. When the elders of his church rebuked him for promoting the "ungodly Mr. Dickens," Melville stalked out of their presence, vowing that he would never darken the church's door again. He kept to his word.) A year after their 1844 wedding, their eldest child, Melville, or "Melly," arrived. Alexander was born two years later, and Edward, the youngest, the following year. Eliza Bell depicted her three sons as curly-haired angels in a watercolor she painted when the boys were still small: Melly is a scholarly young man, Edward is a delightful little boy in skirts, and Alexander is a lively youngster taking aim with an arrow at an invisible target. The boys may have been angelic to their mother, but to their neighbors they were rambunctious, noisy lads, always shouting and banging doors as they rushed in and out of the house. Alec asserted his independence early. Exasperated by being the third Alexander Bell in a row, he decided to add Graham to his own name, becoming "Alexander Graham Bell," after he met a Canadian student of his father called Alexander Graham.
Alec was born in a flat in 16 South Charlotte Street, but soon after his birth his family moved first to a larger apartment, around the corner at 13 Hope Street, and then, when he was six, to 13 South Charlotte Street. This was a spacious four-story house that the Bells were able to purchase thanks to Melville's success as a lecturer and teacher. Melville, Eliza, and their three sons occupied the ten rooms on the top two floors, and the lower two floors were rented to tenants. The house was just off Charlotte Square — an elegant Georgian square in the city's New Town. By 1847, New Town was hardly new (its pale yellow-gray sandstone terraces had been planned nearly a century earlier and largely completed around 1820), but it was far more modern than the dark, cramped medieval buildings of the Old Town, clustered at the foot of Edinburgh Castle. When young Alec threaded his way through the Old Town's twisting alleys and closes, he would see on each side decaying stone tenement buildings, often ten or twelve stories high, crammed with people from every walk of life — from supreme court judges to street vendors. Pigs and dogs ran freely, and sanitation was nonexistent. He had to sidestep the great clots of tubercular spittle flecked with blood that passersby casually spat onto the cobbles, and he had to keep a watchful eye on the windows above him. Edinburgh pedestrians all knew that the cry of "Gardy loo!" (a Scots approximation of the French "Prenez garde à l'eau") meant that a chamber pot was about to be emptied on their heads from an overhead window. The odors of garbage, sewage, and coal fires had earned for the Scottish capital the nickname "Auld Reekie."
In the more salubrious streets of New Town, half a mile from the castle, the Bell household was cheerful and busy, with regular visits from an extended network of relatives and friends. Eliza Bell supervised her children's education, and when her sons were small, she played the piano for family sing-alongs, aided by a special ear trumpet attached to the instrument's sounding board. By the time he was ten, Alec had taken over as the family's pianist. He and his two brothers also excelled at entertaining guests, often with voice tricks. They crowed like cocks, clucked like hens, or performed as ventriloquists, making puppets recite nursery rhymes. Their cousin Mary Symonds recalled how Alec "used to chase an imaginary bee around the room, imitating the buzzing of the bee, and then the muffled sound when it seemed to be caught in the hand."
But Alec was also a typical middle child, sandwiched between a brainy elder brother, who carried off several school prizes and on whom his father doted, and a sickly younger brother whose health dominated his mother's attention. Despite his ready laugh, his face wore a quizzical expression in repose, and his deep-set black eyes were serious and intense. He could ham it up at parties, but he was not by nature gregarious: he often retreated into solitude, particularly when he was preoccupied with a project. "He was a thoughtful boy," in the words of Mary Symonds, "always courteous and polite." He was particularly sensitive to his mother's hearing problems, which threatened to cut her off from everyday communication. In addition to communicating with her by speaking close to her forehead, he had mastered the English double-hand manual alphabet, so that he could silently spell out conversations to her. When relatives and friends gathered at the Bells' dining-room table, all chattering at once and clattering their plates and forks, Alec would sit attentively at Eliza's side, spelling out to her with his fingers what various people were saying so that she never felt left out. Thanks to his close relationship to his mother, Alec was untouched by the assumption, common at the time, that somehow deafness involved intellectual disability.
Alec's relationship with his father was more complicated: throughout his life, he would be torn between a gnawing hunger for Melville's approval and resentment of his domineering manner. Melville Bell was an authoritarian parent, convinced that he knew what was best for his children. When the boys were young, they tiptoed around the house while their father was present. Elocution lessons provided Melville's bread and butter; a steady stream of stutterers and mumblers arrived at his door, looking for help. Professor Bell corrected their speech problems and prepared students for public recitals. In 1860, he outlined his theories in The Standard Elocutionist, which also included several literary passages arranged for public performance. The book is said to have run to 168 printings in Britain and to have sold a quarter of a million copies in the United States by 1892. The author frequently boasted of his success, before grumbling that he had never received from his publishers the royalties he was owed. However, The Standard Elocutionist did give him the credibility to become a regular lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.
Elocution lessons, however, were not Melville Bell's abiding interest. He was particularly fascinated by phonetics — the way the human voice actually produces sounds. When young Alec stood outside his father's study, he often heard the oddest grunts and hisses emanating from it. When he opened the door, he would find bushy-bearded Melville, his stern brow knit in concentration, staring at his reflection in the mirror as he contorted his tongue, jaw, and lips into strange expressions, uttered a sound, then made a rapid sketch of his mouth. Melville's pride and joy was "Visible Speech," a series of symbols he had developed to denote different sounds. The basic symbol for each consonant was a horseshoe curve, and that of a vowel a vertical line. How Melville wrote these symbols depended in each case on the particular action of the tongue, the breath, and the lips — so as he wrote, he would constantly emit different sounds and check his reflection. There were modifying symbols, such as hooks and crossbars, to signify particular vocal positions, and additional symbols for actions like suction and trilling. Melville Bell spent years cataloging every sound a human mouth could make and devising a way to put them on paper. The culmination of his work would be Visible Speech: The Science of Universal Alphabetics, which he would publish in 1867. Anyone who mastered his Visible Speech symbols, he claimed, could reproduce any sound exactly, even if he or she had never heard it before and had no clue what it meant.
Melville Bell's efforts to systemize speech, while seemingly abstruse, were typical of the intellectual fervor of the mid-nineteenth century — a time when human knowledge seemed to be expanding exponentially as the world was shrinking. Steam power, which had launched the Industrial Revolution, had speeded up travel within and between continents. Trains traveled five times faster than the fastest stagecoach, and steamships had cut the average duration of a transatlantic crossing from forty to twelve days. Melville Bell was not the only Victorian eager to chart the unknown. Intrepid missionaries and explorers spread out to every corner of the globe, intent on mapping the vast areas still left blank in their atlases and on making contact with the heathens (always heathens, in the Victorian view) who inhabited them.
In southern Africa, David Livingstone slogged north from Cape Town, preaching the Gospel despite being maimed by a lion and felled by swamp fever. In northern Africa, Richard Burton rode off into the desert, determined to find the source of the Nile. These explorers met a bewildering array of hitherto unknown peoples and tribes, speaking different languages. But they could rarely communicate with them, as these languages were unknown and in some cases lacked their own alphabets. For nearly a century, voice experts had tried to construct a written phonetic system that could be used to transcribe any language from anywhere in the world. Now, Melville Bell announced proudly, he had achieved a workable system. He was convinced that his book would bring him both fame and fortune.
While his father was perfecting his elaborate system of curves and hooks, Alec attended Edinburgh's Royal High School, the most important school in Scotland. When it was built in 1829, everything Greek was in fashion, and the school was modeled on the Temple of Theseus in Athens. The city could boast as graduates several stars of the Scottish Enlightenment, including philosopher David Hume, political economist Adam Smith, and writers Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. This intellectual explosion prompted Edinburgh to style itself "the Athens of the North." But Alec wasn't particularly interested in Athens, and despite Scotland's impressive record of inventors and engineers (the Glaswegian instrument-maker James Watt commercialized the steam engine in the 1770s), the Royal High School neglected the sciences, Alec's favorite subjects. So, to his father's dismay, Alec's school record was unimpressive. Chronically untidy and late for class, Alec often skipped school altogether to go bird-watching on Arthur's Seat, the rise of land just beyond Edinburgh Castle. Instead of learning Greek, he preferred to collect plants, shells, small skeletons, and birds' eggs. For Alec, as for many boys, high school was just a distraction from more exciting pursuits. Years later he wrote rather apologetically, "I passed through the whole curriculum of the Royal High School, from the lowest to the highest class, and graduated, but by no means with honours, when I was about fourteen years of age."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Reluctant genius"
Copyright © 2011 Charlotte Gray.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part I Circuits and Connections 1847-1876
Chapter 1 The Great White Plague 1847-1870 1
Chapter 2 The Backwoods of Canada 1870 21
Chapter 3 Boston Bound 1871-1874 30
Chapter 4 A Brahmin Childhood 1857-1873 51
Chapter 5 Good Vibrations 1873-1875 68
Chapter 6 The Fateful "Twang" 1875 82
Chapter 7 Nantucket Passion 1875 97
Chapter 8 Patent No. 174,465 1875-1876 117
Part 2 The Struggle for Balance 1876-1889
Chapter 9 Ring for the Future 1876-1877 143
Chapter 10 London Life 1877-1878 167
Chapter 11 Litigation Battles 1878-1880 188
Chapter 12 Sad Losses, Failed Hopes 1880-1885 211
Chapter 13 Atlantic Adventures 1885-1887 235
Chapter 14 A Shifting Balance 1887-1889 248
Chapter 15 Helen Keller and the Politics of Deafness 1886-1896 266
Part 3 Monster Kites and Flying Machines 1889-1923
Chapter 16 Escape to Cape Breton 1889-1895 293
Chapter 17 Monster Kites 1895-1900 321
Chapter 18 Family Remains 1900-1906 344
Chapter 19 Bell's Boys 1906-1909 364
Chapter 20 The Auld Chief 1909-1915 381
Chapter 21 The Last Hurrah 1915-1923 402
Epilogue The Legacies of Alexander Graham Bell 427
Appendix Patents Issued by the U.S. Patent Office to Alexander Graham Bell and His Associates 433
Photo Sources 446
Bell's Boston 50
The Atlantic Coast of North America 116
Beinn Bhreagh 316
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This a pretty mushy account of Bells life. One paragraph on the invention of the telephone, perhaps the greatest invention of all time in terms of impact. But page after page of family affairs, dinners, trips, weddings etc. Nothing about the formation of Bell Telephone or ATT. Incorrect assignment of invention of radio to Marconi, when patent actually went to Tesla. Bruce's book may be bettrt on technical and business details.
I thoroughly enjoyed this account of the life of a man who changed the world, and the contribution of his devoted wife. Mabel Hubbard Bell, to his success and joy in life. Unlike many dry biographies, this volume brings Bell, his family and associates to life. I found it enlightening about the diverse innovations attributed to Bell. Surprising, also, was the wonderful accounts of his devotion to improving the lives of the deaf.
An excellent book. I enjoyed it a great deal and I am completely satisfied. The writing style is pleasing and the story line stays focused. The historical underpinning applies directly to the subject at hand. There is no digression. The author lets the story do the talking. And it is a very interesting story, not only of Mr. Bell but of his family. I am really impressed with this author. Why can't Charlotte Gray write every biography? I would read them all.