Alexander Graham Bell – the man behind the inventor

Of course I’ve heard of Alexander Graham Bell. I know that he is credited with inventing the telephone. I know that there is some controversy surrounding this claim and that some people believe that he stole the idea from another inventor called Elisha Gray. I know that despite this, he was the first to patent the telephone and his patent held up in a court case. I know that the first words he is supposed to have spoken over the telephone were, “Mr Watson, come here. I want to see you.”

What I didn’t know until recently, was that he was known as more than an inventor. On a trip to the Science Museum in London I was curious to see that the display about Alexander Graham Bell was BSL interpreted – the only exhibit in the whole museum that was as far as I had seen. Intrigued, I approached the display and read that Alexander Graham Bell had supposedly said that of all the things he had done, the achievement he was most proud of was his work with deaf people.

As I have an interest in education for deaf people, using my BSL to work as a supply teacher in a school for deaf children, my curiosity was sparked and I decided to find out more about him.

He was born in Edinburgh in 1847 to Eliza and Alexander Bell, and as his father and grandfather were both elocution teachers, it was probably inevitable that he would become involved in communication.

His interest in deafness began at the age of 12 when his mother started to go deaf. He used to sit by her and spell the conversations into her hand so that she didn’t miss out on what was happening around her. He also realised that if he spoke quite closely to her forehead she could hear him. He worked out that she was actually feeling the vibrations of his voice, and this became useful in his later research.

In 1870 he moved to Canada with his family, and the following year they moved again to the USA, where Bell began teaching deaf people to speak, using a system called “visible speech” which his father had invented.

In 1872 he founded the school in Boston where he taught deaf children and also trained Teachers of the Deaf. His most famous pupil was Helen Keller. His interest in speech led to an interest in transmitting speech, and after much experimentation and a neck-and-neck race with Elisha Gray, he was granted a patent for the telephone in 1876.

In 1880 he was awarded the Volta Prize for his invention and he used the money to continue researching communication and ways to teach the deaf. By this time he had also married Mabel Gardiner Hubbard, one of his former pupils, who was profoundly deaf.

With all this work with and for deaf people, at first it seems strange that he isn’t better known for this, and regarded as an important historical figure in the Deaf community. However, attitudes were less enlightened back then. Deafness was seen as something that needed to be cured, and if possible, eradicated. Bell taught deaf people to speak clearly so that they could be understood by hearing people and integrated into the hearing world and he believed that sign language was wrong. Although I have not heard anything that suggests he did as some other teachers did, and tie pupils’ hands behind their backs to prevent them from signing, there is little doubt that he tried to suppress sign language. He had also noticed that there seemed to be a link between deaf parents and deaf children, and even went so far as to suggest that deaf people should not be allowed to marry or to have children, so that deafness could be erased from the population! It is for these reasons that he is understandably not respected by the Deaf community.

It can only be hoped that were he alive today he would have very different views. As it is, perhaps it is for the best that he is only remembered as the inventor of the telephone.

The Golden Apple

King Peleus and the goddess Thetis were getting married, and everybody was invited. Everybody that is except Eris, the goddess of discord. In true storybook-villain fashion, she had a hissy fit and got her revenge by throwing a golden apple amongst the guests announcing that it was a gift for the most beautiful amongst them.

Of course all the goddesses started squabbling about who should have it, and the wedding celebrations were quickly forgotten. The “competition” was soon whittled down to three finalists: Hera (wife of Zeus and queen of the gods), Athena (goddess of wisdom), and Aphrodite (goddess of love).

Unable to decide amongst themselves they agreed to ask Paris, a Trojan prince, to be the judge. Desperate to win, each of the three goddesses offer gifts to Paris to tempt him to choose her. Hera said she would make him the king of the whole of Europe; Athena offered to make in the most skilful warrior the world had ever seen; and Aphrodite promised him the hand of her sister Helen – the most beautiful woman in the world – in marriage.

Not stopping to consider that by naming one goddess the winner he would be making enemies for life of the other two, Paris immediately proclaimed Aphrodite the most beautiful goddess, and he claimed Helen as his own prize.

Unfortunately Helen was already married to Menelaus, King of Sparta, who vowed to get his wife back, and thus the Trojan War was begun.

Batty about Bats

Bats often have a bad reputation, with people fearing that they will get bitten or have them fly into their hair – neither of which will happen.

These much maligned creatures are absolutely fascinating. The old English word for a bat – flittermouse, and the German word Fledermaus – suggest that bats are mice with wings and yet they are actually more closely related to humans than they are to mice.

We humans could learn a lot from this cousin of ours. Unlike many animals, some bats have been known to be altruistic. If one of their colony has not eaten well on a feeding excursion, others will feed it by regurgitating a little of their own food into its mouth, even though they have nothing to gain from doing this.

Bats account for a quarter of all mammals in the UK and 20% of mammals worldwide. They are the only mammals which aretruly able to fly – flying squirrels only glide. They are split into two types: megabats, which eat fruit and microbats, which eat insects. There are 18 different species in the UK, all of which are micro bats.

Despite the saying “as blind as a bat”, bats are not blind – they just have limited vision. They mostly navigate by echolocation – emitting sounds and judging the position of things by the way the sound bounces back to them. Imagine bouncing a ball against a wall and catching it. The further from the wall you stand, the longer it takes for the ball to bounce back to you. This system is so sophisticated that bats can detect insects in flight, and catch them to eat. And if it can detect something as small as an insect, there is no way it’s not going to notice you, so it won’t ever get close enough to tangle itself in your hair.

Each species of bat emits their sounds at slightly different frequencies, and bat detectors can be used to pick this up and convert them into a lower frequency sounds that the human ear can hear. By taking the frequency and flight pattern into consideration it is possible to work out what sort of bat you can see.

Why not take a walk along a river, or around a lake after the sun has gone down, and take a few moments to appreciate these not-too-distant relatives of ours?

Thirty (one) days wild

I started 30 days wild a day early.

I was filling in the garden watch survey for Springwatch and one of the questions asked how much of your garden is paved over. I thought about it and decided the answer was rather more than needed to be…so I decided to give our patio area back to nature.

Luckily Ian is used to my impulsive decisions by now so he was happy to go along.

Phase one has been digging up half the area (which included digging up a whole pile of concrete that we didn’t know was under there), replacing the hole where the concrete used to be with a mix of soil and compost, and scattering grass seed to turn it into a lawn area.

When the grass has established itself, phase 2 will be to move the picnic table across to the grassy side, and then to take up the other half of the slabs and to turn that into a wildflower area.

Hopefully the birds will enjoy having this extra area of grass to look for food in and other wildlife will find a welcoming environment below the grass to thrive in.

Patio area with some slabs lifted. Lumps of concrete showing through at the front.
Starting to take the slabs up….
Patio area with all slabs taken up on the rightt hand side. No soil and big lumps of concrete.
All the slabs are up so now to tackle the concrete. Aaaagh – it goes down a long way!
Patio area with table and a pile of slabs on the left and grass-seeded area on the right.
Area filled with a soil/compost mix, levelled off and scattered with grass seed.
Patio area with picnic table on slabs on the left hand side and grass-seeded area on the right.
Paving slabs gone (thank you nice couple who took them off our hands!) and Phase One is complete. Now we just need to keep it well watered.
small patio area with table on left and new lawn on right
This is what we had at the end of our 30 days. It took a while for the grass to get going, and then it shot up all of a sudden!

UPDATE 24-07-19
We’ve been rewarded this evening with the sight of 4 young blackbirds hopping around in this new area of grass. They must have found plenty to eat because they stayed for about 20 minutes.

Of Valkyries and Slaves

As you probably all know by now, I love learning new things. I love reading, I love adult education classes and I love online courses. What I especially enjoy is the fact that sometimes on these courses or in these books, links are made for me that I should have made myself but just somehow never did. A couple of such moments happened during a course about Vikings that I had downloaded from the Great Courses.

I know quite a bit about Greek and Roman mythology. Somewhat less about Egyptian mythology and embarrassingly little about Norse mythology. However one thing I do know is that the myths all “explain” natural phenomena in some way – for a civilisation that didn’t understand the orbit of the earth around the sun, a sun god makes perfect sense, for example. So when I learnt on this course that the Valkyries of Norse mythology were meant as a way of explain the northern lights, I thought, “Oh yes, of course!” I should have realised that, and yet it had never occurred to me before that the reason there is no equivalent to the Valkyries in the other mythologies I’ve learnt about is that the they are too far south to have needed to explain the aurora borealis,

In the same course I learnt about the “slav” in words such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and slavic. I had noticed in passing that the words all contained “slav” which sounds very much like the English word “slave” and yet I hadn’t made the next link. In fact it seems the Vikings weren’t averse to trading in slaves, and the countries we now describe as “Slavic” are the ones that they captured their slaves from.

I’m sure there are many more lightbulb moments to be had as I progress through the course, and I’m looking forward to coming across them.