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.

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.

Black History Month

Black history month always seems to focus on the same few people: Mary Seacole, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela…. or else people from the worlds of sport or entertainment are chosen. I’m not saying that these people are not important, I’m just saying that the fields of scientists and inventors always seem to be neglected. Why not change that this year and find out about some of these people instead?

The Black Inventor Online Museum

BBC news – The black history you might not learn at school

Emmeline Pankhurst

Emmeline Pankhurst is probably most famous for being one of the suffragettes.

She was born Emmeline Goulden on 15th July 1858, and as her parents were both political activists who supported votes for women, she was taken to rallies from a young age and from there she developed her own interest in the women’s movement.

In 1879 she married Richard Pankhurst, who was 24 years her senior. He was a lawyer who shared her views on women’s rights, and together they founded the Women’s Franchise League in 1889. Sadly Richard died only a few years later in 1898, aged just 62.

In 1903 Emmeline, together with her eldest daughter Christabel, set up a new group the Women’s Social and Political Union. This was much more militant than her first group, and its members were often imprisoned for violence, including smashing windows and setting fires. None of this for them any closer to achieving their aims of voting rights for women.

In 1914 wall broke out and Emmeline turned her attention to supporting in the war effort. At the end of the war, women over the age of 30 were given the right to vote. Many people put this down to their work during the war, although this was never given as the official reason.

Emmeline Pankhurst died in June 1928, just a few weeks before the government granted the vote to all women aged 21 and over, to match the voting rights of men.

Summer Solstice

In the Northern hemisphere, the summer solstice is the name given to the longest day of the year – i.e. the day when the sun appears highest in the sky and there is more sunlight than on any other day (16 hours and 38 minutes in the UK this year).  It falls on 21st June, but celebrations relating to the solstice are held on the day itself and the days either side, depending on local traditions.

Celebrations to mark the solstice date back to ancient times, when the sun was revered as a deity in many cultures, and its movements were the subject of great interest and had many legends and stories attached to them.  The name “solstice” comes from the Latin words for sun and standing still, as it is the day the sun can be seen to reverse its course in the sky.  These days, when we think of the summer solstice we tend to think primarily of the pagan festivities that take place, as these can still be found in modern society.  As was also the case in the distant past, they are most prevalent in Scandinavian countries, where people actually experience a full 24 hours of sunlight at this time of year.  In the UK, the summer solstice is marked by a 4-day festival at Stonehenge, our most famous Neolithic site, where the alignment of the stones highlights the sunrise on midsummer day.  In past times, the most widespread practice was to light bonfires to symbolise the triumph of the sun over darkness.  Because it was seen as a time of warmth and light, when crops are in their main growing season, there were also fertility rituals at this time and it was considered an auspicious time for marriages.

Litha is the name that the Anglo Saxons gave to this much earlier festival, and that is the name by which most modern-day Pagans and Wiccans refer to the celebrations.  As well as watching the sunrise, it is a day for reflecting on “dark” and “light” aspects of your own life, looking ahead and planning for the harvest time and winter on the horizon, and also for spending time enjoying the sunshine in the outdoors with family, culminating with communal meals cooked outdoors and the lighting of traditional fires, accompanied by singing, drama and storytelling.  Generally speaking, it is one of the most light-hearted and festive of the major dates on the calendar.

As with many earlier traditions, the medieval Christian church co-opted existing festivals as days of religious observance.  In the case of the summer solstice, the midsummer celebrations became the feast days of St John the Baptist (24th June), with the bonfires lit to ward off evil spirits being a direct adoption of existing practices.

No matter what your religious beliefs, the summer solstice symbolises the arrival of summer (not that this is always apparent in the UK!).  As such, it heralds the time of year when we tend to spend more time outdoors – perhaps enjoying the sunshine on picnics or walks, or just experiencing the natural world – and when we take most of our family holidays.  And it’s interesting to think that if you are in the garden enjoying a barbecue or sitting around your fire pit with friends and family in the next few days, you will be doing the same as people the world over have been doing at this time of year for millennia.

Thank you again to my lovely husband, Ian Braisby (Blue Badge Guide), for writing this piece for me.

Related posts: Autumn Equinox, Yule