[August 2nd marks the 100th anniversary of inventor Alexander Graham Bell’s death. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied some famous phones in American culture, leading up to this special post on AGB’s life and legacies!]
On three layers and legacies to Bell’s impressive and inspiring life beyond the telephone.
1) The Deaf Community: If there was one main through-line in Bell’s life of scientific experimentation and invention, it was his desire to better the lives of deaf and hard of hearing people (and children in particular). His mother Eliza Grace Bell was deaf, and he would go on to marry a deaf woman, Mabel Hubbard. Some of his earliest professional experiences involved training instructors at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes (later the Horace Mann School for the Deaf), the Hartford American Asylum for Deaf-mutes, and the Northampton Clarke School for the Deaf. He went on to open his own School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech in Boston, where none other than Helen Keller was one of his pupils. To put it simply, there’s no way to understand how and why Bell developed the telephone without the contexts of this lifelong work seeking to, as Keller herself put it, lessen the “inhuman silence which separates and estranges.”
2) Heredity: At times Bell was far too strident in his opposition to sign language (seeing it as a separation of the deaf from the rest of society), leading to understandable critiques of him from the hearing-impaired community. But in an era when far, far too many of even the most progressive scientists and thinkers were influenced by the racist narratives of eugenics, Bell, who had a lifelong interest in genetics and heredity, seems to have engaged with but ultimately resisted the frustrating pull of those hierarchical and bigoted ideas. His 1883 paper to the National Academy of Sciences, “Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race,” noted a hereditary tendency toward deafness and expressed concerns about the creation of a segregated deaf community, but also strongly opposed policies (far too prevalent in the era) like sterilization or opposition to intermarriage. Bell’s thoughts on genetics were far from perfect, but I’d argue that they were also more nuanced than far too many of his peers.
3) National Geographic: As that article notes, Bell was one of the founders of the National Geographic Society, and would go on to serve as its second president from 1898 to 1903. That role reflects not only his prominence within the American and global scientific communities at the turn of the century, but also his commitment to bringing those scientific discoveries and conversations to broader public audiences. I’ve written before about Bell in the context of my problem with narratives of the iconoclastic individual inventor and genius—there are lots of reasons why that image is a false and destructive one, but as Bell proves in all these ways, it also just fundamentally misrepresents many of these figures and their interconnected lives, careers, and communities.
Annual birthday posts start Monday,
PS. What do you think? Famous historical or cultural phones you’d highlight?