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.