American schoolchildren know Alexander Graham Bell as the inventor of the telephone. By the time they've reached adulthood, they might've also learned that Bell was a teacher of the deaf and a very close friend of Helen Keller. That’s about the extent of most people’s education on the famous American inventor, which is enough to paint him as a mostly silent and wholly admirable American hero. But, was Bell really an all-around good guy?
In reality, the man lived a long, controversial life that casts more than a little doubt on his legitimacy. Bell would say he was an “idea man,” a term that functionally translates to “person who dreams up impossible ideas, then hires people who can make it happen before taking credit for their innovation because he signed the employment paperwork.”
History has produced several dark Alexander Graham Bell stories that make him look less like the American titan briefly featured in history books and more like a pompous thief and genocidal theorist. If the thought of besmirching Bell's reputation makes you shake your first at the liberal agenda, or, if you're just curious about more balanced pictures of historical figures, you best keep on reading.
Let’s start with Bell’s most famous invention, the telephone, the patent for which the inventor spent most of his life defending. In his day, he was actually sued 550 times by fellow inventors who claimed he - at least in part - stole their technology. Of course, the most compelling case comes from rival Elisha Gray.
In 2007, a book titled The Telephone Gambit: Chasing Alexander Graham Bell's Secret presented proof that Bell’s patent design for the telephone changed drastically after a 12-day trip to Washington in which Bell hoped to resolve some patent questions about his work. Before the trip, Bell was headed down the wrong path. After the trip, he came up with the right idea, a design “hastily written in the margin of his patent.”
What’s more, Bell was famously reluctant to test out his phone in front of Gray.
But how did Bell get away with it, you ask? Because AG Bell was focused on transmitting voices with his contraption. Gray wanted to be able to send multiple telegraph messages at once. Supposedly, Bell saw the aural value in Gray’s design and lifted it for his voice transmitter.
Bell's parents influenced his devotion to the education of deaf people. His mother, Eliza Grace, was almost completely deaf, though that didn’t stop her from becoming an accomplished concert pianist. Bell’s father, Alexander Melville Bell, was known as a phonetician who studied sound and written speech. Both Bell’s father and grandfather were accomplished teachers of voice and elocution.
So, when Bell was old enough, he set out to help the deaf. His passion was so notable that Helen Keller, whom he met as a child, would later write that she “loved him at once.” It was Bell who set Keller up with her most famous companion, Annie Sullivan.
So, that’s all well and good; his heart was in the right place and all. Unfortunately, Bell’s method of preparing the deaf for the world at large was super, duper stupid. He wanted to outlaw the use of sign language, instead requiring deaf children to learn to read lips and speak. Bell’s belief was that "oralism," as it was known, was the only way for a deaf person to fully integrate into proper society.
One of Mr. Bell’s sticking points was the increasing number of marriages among deaf people. So, Bell set to work eliminating what he called, “the formation of a deaf variety of the human race.” Yep, that's right: Bell was your garden variety eugenicist.
It seemed Bell’s goal was to force deaf people to mingle with the common (read "hearing") man. He began to actively campaign against deaf isolation, proposing that residential schools dedicated to the instruction of the deaf be shut down (so they’d stop meeting each other so easily), that deaf teachers should stop being hired (in order to force deaf students out of their shell), and that sign language be actively discouraged in the instruction of the deaf.
Though his family history might have impacted his method and fueled his fervor, his logic about how to best "help" stemmed from a much darker place.
First off, a quick explanation of eugenics for those who like to steer clear of philosophies that favor social engineering. Eugenics is the study of good breeding; it was developed around 1883 in the hope of guiding the human race through selective breeding of only the best and brightest (and tossing everyone else in the trash can). One famous example of people who came to rather enjoy eugenics: the Nazis.
Okay, so back to Bell. No, he wasn’t a fascist - he died in 1922, a full decade before Hitler was even a headline in the papers. That being said, he was part of something called the American Breeder’s Association, which was founded in 1903. In 1914, the organization made an arguably tactful name change to the American Genetics Association. Bell was no passive member, either. He contributed to an article titled “How to Improve the Race.” In 1921, he was the honorary president for the 2nd International Eugenics Congress.