For most of my life, I’ve known the phrase “when one door closes another one opens” but I never knew who to thank for those wise words. Imagine my surprise when I learned through Google that it was Alexander Graham Bell! Over the years Bell’s thoughtful statement has been shortened, eliminating the somber truth of the words “When one door closes another door opens, but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.” I wondered what else had been lost to history about this man and it turned out there was a lot.
While Alexander Graham Bell is often cited for inventing the telephone in 1876, it turns out that he was (and still is) accused of stealing it from electrical engineer Elisha Gray. There was a race to the patent office and controversy over who got there first, but in the end, Bell got the credit.
He was born in Scotland in 1847 and his interest in sound began in childhood due to his mother’s gradual deafness. He learned how to communicate with her using a manual finger language and developed alternate methods of communication. This also led him to study acoustics and follow in the family business of elocution. Not only was Bell’s father an elocution teacher, but so was his grandfather and his uncle. Bell’s father instructed the deaf to articulate words and read lips in order to communicate.
Bell was inventing doing experiments even as a young child. When his brothers died from tuberculosis in their 20s, the rest of the family packed up and moved to Canada in 1870. He continued his research in electricity and sound but was soon in Boston where he began training instructors at the Horace Mann School for the deaf in his father’s Visible Speech system. His trainings were so successful, he did more in Northampton and also in Connecticut before eventually setting up a private practice teaching. In 1872, his “School of Vocal Physiology and Mechanics of Speech” opened and his first class had 30 students. One of Bell’s most famous students was Helen Keller.
According to Wikipedia, the attitude of many at the time was that deafness should be eradicated. Bell and other influential people felt that the deaf should learn to speak and avoid use of sign language in order to integrate more effectively into society. This position led to the mistreatment of students in several schools where hands would be tied behind their backs to force them to communicate orally. His work with the deaf is often viewed negatively because of his efforts to suppress the use of sign language.
Despite the instant success of the telephone in 1876, Bell didn’t see profits from it until after 1897. His interests were varied and he often read the Encyclopedia Britannica to find new ones. He held 18 patents under his own name, shared 12 with collaborators and they spanned a wide range of interests. He is also credited for inventing the metal detector in 1881, developed quickly in order to find the bullet in U.S. President James Garfield’s body. While the device worked, it failed to find the assassin’s bullet likely due to the President lying on a bed with metal springs.
Bell was honored over his lifetime and beyond in all three countries that claimed him as a native son: Scotland, Canada and the United States. While he did not complete university programs in his youth, but received numerous Honorary Degrees from lauded institutions in each country. His other major inventions include: optical communications, hydrofoils and aeronautic.
Alexander Graham Bell died of complications from diabetes in 1922 at the age of 75 with his wife Mabel nearby. It is said that she whispered “Don’t leave me” and he traced the sign for “no” in the air before dying. His coffin was made by his laboratory staff, lined with the same red silk fabric he used in his tetrahedral kite experiments and Mabel asked guests not to wear black while attending his funeral service in order to help celebrate his life. During his funeral, every phone in North America was silenced in his honor.
In his old age, Bell admitted that he found telephones to be very disruptive and would not have one in his study. I wonder what he would think of them now? His career, controversies and accolades are far too extensive to cover in this short post, so I encourage you to read more on Wikipedia which was the primary source used for this piece.